The Met’s Excellent Production of Massenet’s Delectable Cendrillon

01/05/2018

Massenet, Cendrillon:  Cast, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Bertrand de Billy (Conductor), Broadcast live to the Dundonald Omniplex Cinema in Belfast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 28.4.2018. (RB)

Alice Coote & Joyce DiDonato in Massenet’s Cendrillon (c) Ken Howard

Cast:

Cendrillon – Joyce DiDonato
Prince Charming – Alice Coote
The Fairy Godmother – Kathleen Kim
Madame del a Haltière – Stephanie Blythe
Pandolfe – Laurent Naouri

Production:

Production – Laurent Pelly
Set Designer – Barbara de Limburgh
Costume Designer – Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designed – Duane Schuler
Choreographer – Laura Scozzi

Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Ailyn Pèrez

Massenet’s opera Cendrillon was first performed in Paris in 1899 and was an immediate triumph.  The composer used a libretto by Henry Caïn which was based on a 1698 version of the Cinderella story.  After its initial success, the opera fell into relative obscurity until it was resurrected by Frederica von Stade in the 1970’s.  In more recent years Joyce DiDonato has championed the opera and her performance in 2011 at Covent Garden with Alice Coote and Bertrand de Billy was recorded on DVD (review).  Cendrillon differs from Rossini’s La Cenerentola in a number of key respects.  While Rossini gives us a sparkling fable which shows why goodness wins the day Massenet provides us with a delicate musical framework which gives more emphasis to the romance between Cendrillon and the prince.  While Rossini’s prince Ramiro is sung by a tenor, Massenet’s Prince Charming is a trouser role sung by a mezzo.

Laurent Pelly’s production struck a delicate balance between the formal and absurd aspects of the opera while at the same time giving ample room for the heady romance.  Barbara de Limburgh’s set was relatively bare and used minimal props although the walls were inscribed with large text from a story book.  Pelly provided most of the female cast with ridiculous, flamboyant costumes which highlighted the absurdist comedy of the work while also fitting with Massenet’s witty pastiche of 18th Century galant music.  Cendrillon herself was provided with a dowdy costume in the initial scenes which was then replaced with a dazzling white ball gown in the ballroom scene.  When Cendrillon and the Prince met in the enchanted forest in Act III, Pelly used dark lighting to emphasise the dream-like nature of the scene.  There was certainly room for the production team to have created more elaborate scenery and spectacular visual effects but Pelly’s more pared back approach worked well with this particular opera as it subtly underlined the composer’s themes in a relatively unobtrusive way.  It was an object lesson in where less is more.

Joyce DiDonato is now something of a veteran in the role of Cendrillon and she gave a superb performance.  She seemed to physically inhabit the character of Cendrillon as we watched her transformation from sad, wistful dreamer to dazzling belle of the ball.  She was completely on top of Massenet’s vocal fireworks and the sequence of arias and duets in Act III in particular were absolutely gorgeous.  Her love duet with Alice Coote in the enchanted forest was spellbinding and it was impossible not to get drawn into the rapture of the scene.  I had two issues with her performance, one general and one specific.  Firstly, on a couple of occasions I noticed that DiDonato’s intonation was not perfect at the top of the vocal register, something which perhaps stands out all the more with this most polished of performers.  Secondly, I wondered if time has moved on and – while her acting skills are first rate – she was not completely believable as the young fairy tale princess.

Alice Coote is no stranger to trouser roles and she acquitted herself well as Prince Charming.  She brought a sensual tonal lustre to the two love duets with DiDonato and I loved the seamless blend of the voices and interweaving of the vocal lines.  Stephanie Blythe’s wicked stepmother was a wonderfully grotesque caricature, both imposing and ridiculous.  Her vocal projection was excellent across the vocal range and her tone was rich and assured.  I had mixed feelings about Laurent Naouri’s Pandolfe.  Some of the early vocal entries could have been more polished but he brought a sensitivity and sweetness to his bucolic Act III aria.  The real find of the evening was Kathleen Kim’s fairy godmother.  She dispatched Massenet’s coloratura and vocal flutterings with laser-like accuracy and she is clearly an impressive performer.

Bertrand de Billy brought poise and elegance to Massenet’s score and he succeeded in balancing the many diverse elements.  The pacing of the music was extremely good as the conductor moved seamlessly from light comedy to neo-Baroque pastiche to heady romance.  The Met’s instrumentalists complemented the singers beautifully in some of the individual numbers and succeeded in blending with and enhancing the vocal lines.  De Billy and the Met Orchestra brought charm and elegance to the ballet numbers and there was scrupulous attention to phrasing.  De Billy achieved the considerable feat of maintaining momentum while at the same time ensuring the instrumental entries were restrained and nothing was overdone.

This was another evening of first rate music making from the Met and I hope this excellent performance of Cendrillon will lead to the opera becoming much better known.

Robert Beattie           

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