Cendrillon, Royal Opera

This is the starting point for Laurent Pelly’s vision
of the Cinderella story — this, and the substantial faithfulness with which
Massenet’s opera adheres to the original Perrault fairytale. The opening
tableau is the opening pages of the Perrault, enlarged to wall-size; a small
room soon grows into a bigger room, and a bigger room still. Soon, words are
everywhere. As Lucette — the eponymous Cendrillon — falls sadly asleep in
the middle of the first act, the stars come out — pin-pricks in the text on
the wall, just where the dot of every ‘i’ should be. Next, ten or so
Lucette-clones appear with lamps in their hands, as if making the stars dance,
and thus the text begins to come literally to life.

CENDRILLON.201107020708.gifAlice Coote as Le Prince Charmant

The clones turn out to be the pet spirits of Lucette’s Fairy Godmother,
who get sent off to prepare Cendrillon’s gown and carriage and horses. Of
course it is handy having ten singers and dancers running round the stage who
look exactly like the heroine — an eminently practical way of ensuring that
the real Cinders can be smuggled off unnoticed for her quick change.

The word-theme continues throughout, with Cendrillon’s carriage being made
of the letters of the word “Carosse” (drawn by four dancers dressed as
horses) and the giant golden gates of the palace being formed of the letters of
the phrase “Les portes du palais”. Some would think this slavish, but I
simply got a strong and comforting sense that Pelly has a real, affectionate
love for this children’s tale.

The princesses at the ball were a grotesque array of cartoonish ladies in
red, all with exaggerated shapes and figures (none more so than Cendrillon’s
unpleasant stepmother and sisters, the former resplendent in what looked more
like a piece of amply-upholstered furniture than a dress) and many looking like
Grecian urns or elaborate topiary. If I hadn’t known that the production
dates back to 2006 (in Santa Fe) I would have thought them a reference to the
Queen of Hearts in the Royal Ballet’s recent Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderland. Cendrillon is, after all, one of the few French
19th-century operas where a ballet scene fits nicely into the story without
having to have an opportunity created for its existence, and it is telling that
as I left the opera house at the end of the evening, I had strains of various
divertissements from The Nutcracker floating through my mind along
with snippets of Massenet.

If the visual inventiveness lapses in the early part of Act 3, all is
restored in the curious ‘Fairy Oak’ scene (an invention of Massenet and his
librettist) in which the stage is transformed into a rooftop scene (chimneys
replacing the forest trees of the stage directions) which at first conjured up
the chimney-sweep scene from Mary Poppins. But later a more apt comparison
occurred to me; it’s the sort of scene generally seen from the garret window
in La boheme. This is more relevant than you might think, as despite the
supposedly fantastical context, it becomes one of the opera’s most genuinely
human scenes, climaxing in a rapturous love duet in which the Prince’s voice
joins Lucette’s in glorious unison before parting into harmony.

It was in this duet, and to a lesser extent their other scenes together,
that the two stunning mezzo leads were showcased to best effect. The voices
worked wonderfully well together — Joyce DiDonato’s tone sweet and
soprano-like in the title role, and Alice Coote’s velvety, plush shades as an
ardent Prince Charming. Individually of course they were just as good. Coote
has plenty of experience in trouser roles, and not merely because of her voice
type — her credibility as a hot-blooded youth is impeccable, evidently the
result of meticulous observation. Meanwhile, DiDonato had a handful of high
pianissimi which didn’t quite come off, despite the fact that the high-lying
role generally seems to sit very comfortably in her voice, but she was a
delightful heroine, making much of the understated, attractive music Massenet
gives her.

CENDRILLON.201107020238.gifJoyce DiDonato as Cendrillon

DiDonato was equally touching in the scenes with her father, Pandolfe, sung
by the French bass-baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont. Lafont makes much of the
character, but his voice is evidently far beyond its peak, grating and

In less distinguished company, the great Polish contralto Ewa Podle? as
Madame de la HaltiËre would have walked away with the entire show. Her lower
register remains earth-shaking, but more to the point, she understands the
critical importance of playing farce straight. Her final declamation of ‘Ma
fille!’ — when she finally sees fit to acknowledge Lucette as a daughter
— brought the house down.

Pelly generously makes this latter-day change of heart a result of an
intervention by the Fairy, rather than a cynical acknowledgement ot Lucette’s
sudden acquisition of status and glamour. And what an accomplished Fairy we had
in the Cuban-American soprano Eglise GutiÈrrez. She is confident and ravishing
in spinning high lines, and her trill is so impressive that I will forgive her
the occasional intonation lapse in staccato coloratura. Her poised and
alluring stage presence put me in mind of Tytania from Britten’s
Dream; she was given a bit of an edge with a modern, spiky hairdo, and
I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pair of customised Doc Marten boots
under her lavish silver-grey ballgown.

CENDRILLON.201107020463.gifEwa Podle? as Madame De La HaltiËre

ROH Young Artists Madeleine Pierard and Kai R¸¸tel were well-matched as
the two stepsisters, NoÈmie and DorothÈe; in the first scene (in which,
incidentally, they appeared to be dressed as pastel-coloured lampshades) their
diction was indistinct, but this improved as the evening went on.

Bertrand de Billy’s conducting, a couple of lapses in ensemble aside, had
energy and sensitivity. But the Fairy clearly thinks she can do a better; atop
a giant pile of books, like a Valkyrie calling from a mountain-top, she hijacks
the task of conducting the final few bars to make quite, quite sure of her
happy ending.

Ruth Elleson © 2011

image_description=(Back to front) Eglise GutiÈrrez As La FÈe and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera]
product_title=Jules Massenet: Cendrillon
product_by=Pandolfe: Jean-Philippe Lafont: Madame de la HaltiËre: Ewa Podle?: NoÈmie: Madeleine Pierard: DorothÈe: Kai R¸¸tel: Lucette (Cendrillon): Joyce DiDonato: La FÈe: Eglise GutiÈrrez: Le Surintendant des Plaisirs: Dawid Kimberg: Le Doyen de la FacultÈ: Harry Nicoll: Le Premier Ministre: John-Owen Miley-Read: Le Prince Charmant: Alice Coote: Le Roi: Jeremy White: Six spirits: Kristy Swift, Katy Batho, Yvonne Barclay, Tamsin Coombs, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell: Le HÈrault: Adrien Mastrosimone. Royal Opera Chorus. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Director: Laurent Pelly. Set designer: Barbara de Limburg. Costume designer: Laurent Pelly. Associate costume designer: Jean-Jacques Delmotte. Lighting designer: Duane Schuler. Choreographer: Laura Scozzi. Revival choreographer: Karine Girard. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, July 2011.
product_id=Above: (Back to front) Eglise GutiÈrrez As La FÈe and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera