Massenet Cendrillon – Metropolitan Opera, New York
***** (5 stars)
Ravishing! Exquisite! Unforgettable….! I would give six stars were that possible…
The basic Cinderella story is given a French twist in this little-known opera by Massenet – this was the first-ever Met production: surely it must become a fixture in their repertoire! I saw the Royal Opera House production [shared with Barcelona, Brussels, Lille, and originating in Santa Fe] seven years ago with the same dream pairing of Alice Coote and Joyce di Donato as the Prince and Lucette/ Cendrillon: in the intervening years these two magnificent mezzos have deepened and enriched their relationship and performance to the point where it is incomparable. Both women have gorgeous voices which are heart-rendingly expressive: when the two combine, it’s pure, breathtaking magic. Both characters are supremely lonely and long for that special someone to love: with the help of an extremely sassy, punk-haired Fairy Godmother With Attitude things work their way towards a happy ending, but not before each has suffered extreme pangs of loss – loss of love, and loss of hope…
We had the added bonus of Laurent Naouri as Lucette’s father, Pandolfe – a native French speaker who perfectly understood the words and the emotions clearly but subtly with his mobile, flexible face: he captured perfectly the conflicted drip who loves his daughter but is unable [and unwilling most of the time] to stand up to his overbearing and status-fixated second wife, Madame de la Haltière, who glories in the twenty generations of nobility from which she is descended. Stephanie Blythe gave a hideously perfect rendition of a woman who is determined nothing shall stand in the way of one of her two fashion-victim airhead daughters becoming the wife of the future king and despises her spineless husband and his loving and kind-hearted daughter [who even manages to rejoice in the lovely time her step-family will have at the balls from which she is excluded]. Kathleen Kim’s fairy godmother navigated the extreme heights of her role with insouciance, and took great delight in making everyone dance to her tune, while the two not unattractive stepsisters – unaccredited in the Met relay’s programme, but probably sung by Ying Fang and Maya Layhani – gave their utmost in the limited parts they were given, and coped magnificently with utterly ridiculous frocks.
The conductor, Bertrand de Billy was interviewed in the interval, and hit the nail on the head when he commented that Cendrillon is, like Verdi’s Falstaff, the product of maturity – that both composers developed their art with tragedy, and that only the mature composer can successfully handle comedy. In Cendrillon Massenet has written something which is perfectly balanced, emotionally, musically, and dramatically: it is very French, with wit and humour never descending into vulgarity – even with the appalling stepmother – while each moment of deep sorrow is followed by soaring ecstasy: all the emotions are deep and true and speak straight to the heart.
The setting was based on director Laurent Pelly’s childhood book of Perrault’s Contes des Fees – the red of the cover, the neutral of the paper and the black of the print are echoed in the production’s colour scheme – the only jarring notes being the ridiculously constricting sugar pink and almond green frocks of the sisters – and the words of Perrault’s tale are printed on the walls of the room, the costumes of the horses drawing the carriage [which is formed of the word ‘Carosse’] and even the chimneys among which Cendrillon tries to escape her despair, wishing to end her life after she believes the stepmother’s lie that the Prince derided and denied her after she’d left the ball… Pelly also designed the costumes, including the red frocks in which a wonderfully diverse procession of princesses try to interest the prince – at once amusing and incredibly stylish.
This is a wonderfully 21st century performance which nonetheless is true to the romance of the story and the reality of the emotions of the two central characters – good can triumph over evil, happiness can be found, and two mezzos will indeed live happily every after. I only wish I could fly over to New York and see it live, tomorrow!
Repeat of live relay Saturday 28 April 2018
Review by Mary Woodward