Royal Opera at Covent Garden, July 13
Cendrillon is a delicate bloom needing tender care. Even among paid-up Massenet-istes it is something of a connoisseur’s score, and very difficult to bring off with its combination of melancholy and fairly broad humour. There are no obvious hit numbers—save perhaps for the glittering March of the Princesses and the luscious, by no means ‘obvious’ dream love duet—but there are those phrases that, once heard, stick in the mind for ever: Cendrillon‘s ‘Reste au foyer’ and ‘Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant’. And the tune that heralds the arrival of the Fairy Godmother and is reprised all too seldom (rare in Massenet) is one of his most magical inspirations, which is saying something.
Musically this co-production, originating in Santa Fe (2006) and now shared with Barcelona, Brussels and Lille, was a success. Bertrand de Billy is one of that select band of conductors, along with Plasson and Fournillier, who really understands the composer’s idiom, knows how to breathe with the music and shade it, and the orchestra played very well for him.
The cast was outstanding. Joyce DiDonato’s voice resists categorization—a mezzo with a top? A soprano with a bottom? But that suits the role of Cendrillon: the similarly uncategorizable Ann Murray was unforgettable in the role in Brussels in 1982. At this, the fifth performance of the run, DiDonato was recovering from a cold, and sounded more soprano than mezzo. Her effortless soft singing, however high, was treasurable, and she certainly had the necessary weight for her big solo after the third-act duet with Pandolfe.
We have all seen Alice Coote giving brilliant performances in a wide variety of repertory, but for me her Prince was one of the most brilliant, with unfailingly beautiful sound and penetrating dramatic awareness. And she looked like a boy, unsettlingly so. The Fairy might have been written for Eglise Gutiérrez: she threw off the coloratura with pinpoint accuracy. Her characterization was one of the production’s happier notions. She was a bit bossy as well as benevolent, and sported a revealing split skirt. A generous bust carried a hint of Dolly Parton. Great fun. Ewa Podleœ’s formidable chest notes were heard to advantage as Mme de la Haltière.
Jean-Philippe Lafont was making his belated house debut as Pandolfe, a little too belated, alas, as his tone is now too unsteady to sustain the lyrical lines of this basse chantante role. But in the duet he indicated how well he would have sung it in earlier days. The smaller roles have little to do, and all did it well. One was reminded of one of Massenet’s most feline acts, offering the ailing Sybil Sanderson one of the sisters’ roles, which she understandably turned down (probably with some choice language).
But, an elusive piece, difficult to bring off. The folding-walls set would have been perfect for Santa Fe, with no flying and no back wall, and it worked well enough here. It was essentially monochrome, though with a series of bright red doors—bright red, for Massenet? Bright red was also the colour of the jokily grotesque costumes for the comic characters. Yet how comic does Cendrillon have to be? The director Laurent Pelly went for very obvious comedy, with enough Silly Walks to staff any number of Ministries, and some depressingly camp ballet. The good moments came as a relief—the first meeting of the lovers, alone on a bare, grey stage, and father and daughter similarly left to deliver their duet undistracted. (There was some heavy breathing in the programme notes about a hazardous Oedipal relationship from which Cendrillon needed to escape, something that has never occurred to me in 30 years of Cendrillon-ing—I suppose we will have to wait for one of the Aldens to explore that.) A chimney-scape was substituted for the Magic Oak as setting for the love duet, not a good idea.
Despite the fine individual performances, this Cendrillon didn’t quite come off. Nor did WNO’s (1993), despite a similarly strong cast, or Wexford’s (1987). We live in hope.