Pauline Viardot was the scion of a distinguished vocal dynasty. Her father, Manuel Garcia (tenor, impresario, teacher) took part in the premieres of Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra and Il barbiere di Siviglia and was a notable exponent of the title role of Rossini’s Otello. Her elder sister was the distinguished soprano Maria Malibran and her brother, Manuel Garcia became a leading vocal pedagogue and invented the laryngoscope. Viardot was herself a fine mezzo-soprano who created the title role in Gounod’s opera Sapho, Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le prophète and for whom Berlioz created the role of Orphée in his influential version of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, as well as singing in the first public performance of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody.
In Paris in retirement, she presided over a salon and had a close relationship with the writer Ivan Turgenev, with whom she wrote a number of small-scale operas for her pupils to perform at her salon. Most of Viardot’s compositions were written for pupils, and in 1904 at the age of 83, she premiered her final opera Cendrillon, a re-telling of the story of Cinderella for a cast of seven, small chorus and piano. The date of composition of the work is unclear, but it is presumed to date from after 1883 when Turgenev died as he did not write the libretto. Whilst Viardot’s first four operas still somewhat languish, her songs (which include vocal adaptations of Chopin’s piano music) and Cendrillon are receiving something of a revival.
The Northern Opera Group (NOG), artistic director David Ward, is a Leeds-based group dedicated to reviving forgotten operas and their previous productions have included Thomas Arne’s Thomas and Sally (performed in the open-air this Summer)and Alfred, and Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing. For its Christmas production, NOG has chosen Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon creating a film project produced under social distancing. Directed by Sophie Gilpin, conducted by Chris Pelly and sung in Rachel M Harris’ English translation, Cinderella features Claire Wild as Cinderella, Rachel Duckett as the Fairy Godmother, Naomi Rogers and Louise Waymann as Cinderella’s step-sisters Armelinde and Maguelonne, James Cleverton as Cinderella’s father, Baron de Pictordu, Nicholas Watts as the Prince, and Robert Anthony Gardiner as Barigoule, the Prince’s valet. The pianist is Jenny Martins.
The music is not-uncomplicated, and certainly, Viardot set to challenge her students, but the style must have seemed somewhat old-fashioned in 1904. Certainly, we must wonder about the relationship between Viardot’s opera and Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon which premiered in 1899. It is perhaps worth noting that Viardot sang in the premiere of Massenet’s oratorio Marie-Magdeleine in 1873 after she had retired from the stage.
What makes Cinderella work is the wit and imagination that Viardot has brought to the story. The plot follows roughly that of Rossini’s opera, there is no evil step-mother and the sisters are selfish but not ugly, and Cinderella’s father is rather bumbling. However, there are differences, the prince and his valet swap roles from the beginning, and the beggar who comes to the house is in fact the prince. Cinderella and the prince (still pretending to be a valet) recognise each other at the ball.
Viardot’s extra twists to the plot include having Cinderella reading about a fairy-tale prince at the beginning, which gives the character a real spark of life. And her father is revealed to be a former grocer with a dubious past and is recognised as such by the prince’s valet. In some respects, these plot details are under-developed, but the whole makes a charming package.
The Northern Opera Group imaginatively filmed the piece at two local historic houses, so that the Landmark Trust’s Calverley Old Hall was Cinderella’s home whilst the ball was held in Temple Newsam house with its grand 18th-century Saloon. Designer Laura Jane Stanfield had clearly had great fun creating the costumes and masks used for the ball, and I do hope that the company has the excuse to use them again. The transformation scene is done using picture book graphics (graphic designer Polly Rockman) rather than attempting coaches, horsemen and the like. A clever solution.
Claire Wild makes a lively Cinderella, strong-minded and characterful with attractively warm-toned voice and delightful manner. Her Prince, Nicholas Watts is charming with a fine-grained lyric voice, though you felt the role was somewhat under-written.
Naomi Rogers and Louise Wayman make a wonderfully thoughtless pair of sisters, with James Cleverton as a rather wistful, somewhat distant father. Robert Anthony Gardiner has great fun with his scenes where he plays the Prince, though throughout Viardot’s comedy is far more restrained than Rossini’s.
Rachel Duckett sparkles as the Fairy Godmother. This is a coloratura role and the character attends the ball and is asked to sing but rather strangely Viardot gives the singer liberty to choose, rather than writing a showpiece aria. So here we have Johann Strauss, sparkily sung with new words.
The choruses are sung by NOG’s lively community chorus, filmed individually but costumed, the results making a rousing choral contribution. Jenny Martins provides the sympathetic and flexible accompaniment.
Cendrillon is a charming and accessible piece, which tells the story with wit and style. Sometimes I felt that Rachel M Harris’ English version was a bit too direct and demotic, though I can understand the wish to have it sung in a clear and accessible manner.
There is more than a whiff of the salon about Viardot’s music and style, and I did wonder whether the work might have seemed stronger if there had been a sense of the salon in the production. However, the work makes an ideal seasonal offering and fits the company’s bill of investigating rarely performed operas.
Northern Opera Group’s new film of Viardot’s Cinderella can be viewed online (here) from 7pm, 12th December 2020 and is available on demand until January 2021.
Pauline Viardot: Cendrillon (Cinderella)
Cinderella – Claire Wild, Fairy Godmother – Rachel Duckett, Armelinde – Naomi Rogers, Maguelonne – Louise Wayman, Barigoule – Robert Anthony Gardiner, Baron de Pictordu – James Cleverton, Prince – Nicolas Watts; Director – Sophie Gilpin, Conductor – Chris Pelly, Pianist – Jenny Martins, Costume designer – Laura Jane Stanfield, Graphic Designer – Polly Rockman, Make-up and Hair – Ashleigh Smith.