New York Metropolitan Opera’s first time production of Massenet’s Cendrillon (“Cinderella” for those of us more familiar with the brothers Grimm version than that of French writer Charles Perrault 1697) is no fairy tale.
Producer Laurent Pelly tells us what we all assume – well, I did anyway until last week – is a familiar story about a put upon stepdaughter, evil stepmother, buffoonish ugly sisters, weak father, redemptive fairy godmother and deus ex machina Prince Charming – is really a psychological “whodunnit”, spilling over with uncertainty about who’s doing what to whom and why – is the fairy godmother a mysterious external force or some aspect of our own will, a submerged facet of our personality that we can all call on if we have the resolve?
Pelly’s trick – which he has pulled off to perfection – is that he keeps the whole thing deliciously lighthearted: he want to make a serious point, but does not make a virtue of the“I told you so” manner of so many modern interpretations of familiar stories.
“Cinderella”, “Cerentola”, “Cendrillon”? Come on, whatever you call it we all know it’s about pumpkins that turn into Teslas, mice becoming Duracells and you must get home before midnight before the Tesla’s battery needs recharged.
No, it’s not. We don’t really know what it is at all, especially those of us first introduced to 1950s Glasgow pantomime versions at the Kings Theatre with Jimmy Logan, well cast as one of the ugly sisters. There are ancient Greek and Asian versions, which predate the modern day European interpretations we’re more familiar with. The moral of this tale has got to everyone over millennia.
On the surface, Mr. Pelly’s production has all the essential ingredients – a bling coach archly carved in the shape of the word ‘Carosse’ (in case you were in any doubt), over the top dresses (Mr. Pelly is also costume designer, which turns out to be important) and a caricature stepmother from hell.
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But the seeds of doubt about what you’re watching are sown early in Act 1 when Lucette (Cendrillon) falls asleep with her light beside her and elves appear, who are all doppelgangers, uniformly dressed in Cendrillon’s grim gray, working garb. They fall asleep around her, each with her own light and suddenly the question is, “who is whom”? It’s actually difficult to tell.
Are we in a story, or Cendrillon’s dreaming mind? Is the fairy godmother an external force, or are we watching Cendrillon change her destiny by an act of self-will? “Spooky”, as Dame Edna Everage might have opined.
The ambiguity remains for the rest of the opera. This is a wonderful hook upon which to capture the attention of an audience, which probably turns up thinking it’s there to see just another version of “same old, same old”.
Mr Pelly’s costume design was central to the vivid, stylish appearance of this production. Earlier on in the season the Met featured a well-worn production of Turandot – more properly Turgidot – in which costume design ruined the opera. It was Broadway’s Busby Berkeley meets Quin Shi Huang. Horrible bling.
The joy of Mr Pelly’s costumes is that, although crimson bling a-plenty, they teetered on the cliff of absurdity, but never actually fell off. The procession of likely belles seeking to invigorate the deflated prince emerges in costumes which perfectly matched their characters – vamp, subtle temptress, flapper, even garden topiary expert – the scarlet procession strutted its stuff in a crescendo of over the top outfits – to no avail. When Cendrillon appeared in sparkling but pastel colours she was balm to our eyes – the prince’s too, fortunately for the successful resolution of the plot.
And so, to Cendrillon, aka Lucette, performed by Joyce DiDinato, in my Pantheon, one of the best mezzos on the planet. I’ve scrabbled about in my bag of superlatives, but drawn a blank. She dominated the action with elegance and an economy of movement that had the whole audience riveted. Never triumphalist, even when achieving her ambition of securing her prince, her voyage of self-discovery unfolded bewitchingly. As for her voice, it sings for itself.
She was partnered by Alice Coote as Prince Charming. The pair clearly enjoy a rapport that rendered their desperate seeking for each other sensuous and moving. Can there be such a thing as love at first sight? Yup.
Bertrand de Billy’s conducting made the most of Massenet’s rippling score, up there with his more often performed works, Werther and Manon. Which raises the question, why has the Met – early protagonists of Massenet operas in the gilded age of the late 19th century – never performed Cendrillon until now? Well, Massenet fell out of fashion. I’m a bit of a Massenet fan, so I’m going to bang his drum and argue he should be heard more of.
Partly, he was a victim of his own early success. Dismissed by hoity toity critics as a mouldy old sentimentalist he produced twice as many operas as his contemporaries – Debussy, Ravel, Chabrier, Chausson, Dukas – and three, Werther, Manon and Thaïs, are stalwarts of the repertoire today.
Yet, as recently as 1992, one critic described him as a “first rate composer of the second rank”. There’s damning with faint praise! Mind you, the same critic also thought Richard Strauss to be of “the second rank”, so, draw your own conclusions.
Maybe it’s because, as a companion at the Met performance grumbled, “There aren’t any tunes”. That’s true, in the sense that Massenet never creates a greatest hits “ear worm” that has you dancing down the steps of the Lincoln Center. Massenet does something different. He offers up a river of endless, ever-changing, sparkling music that flows from one end of the opera to the other.
This thought occurs. Just as contemporary Monet and his gang captured moments in plein air using series of paintings – think “Haystacks” – to illustrate the infinite effects of changing light, Massenet is an “Impressionist” composer using twisting melodic form to capture the evolving moods of his characters. No sooner has an ascending phrase caught the imagination than it is gone, replaced by another cadence.
So, bring on more Massenet – except (prejudice warning) perhaps the over-gloomy Werther – in my view good only for promoting the services of Dignitas. You just wish Werther had sought them out in scene 1 and saved you the bother of the rest of it. And good on the Met for righting the wrong of spurning Cendrillon for so long. The full house – on a Thursday – was testament to that piece of sharp judgement. The over fancy Tourandot earlier in the season was half empty.
And it’s likely the Carosse will be trundling back, enchanting audiences who can go home wondering if, just if, they work at it hard enough there is a fairy godmother out there for all of us, as she was for Cendrillon.