Bertrand de Billy brings out the best in Massenet fairy tale

Massenet,  Cendrillon: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Bertrand de Billy (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 5.7.2011 (CC)

Joyce DiDonato – Lucette (Cendrillon)
Jean-Philippe Lafont – Pandolphe
Ewa Podleś – Madame de la Haltière
Madeleine Pierard – Noémie
Kai Rüütel – Dorothée
Alice Coote – Le Prince charmant
Dawid Kimberg – Le Surintendant des Plaisirs
Harry Nicoll – Le Doyen de la facultée
John-Owen Miley-Read – Le Prémier Ministre
Jeremy White – Le Roi

Laurent Pelly – Director/Costume Designs
Barbara de Limburg – Set Designs

Amazingly, this was the first time that Massenet’s four-act fairytale opera Cendrillon has been performed at Covent Garden. The 14th of Massenet’s 25 operas (first performed Paris, 1899), it acted as a reminder of the stature of this composer’s music, even if this Christmas-associated tale seemed curiously placed at the end of the season. Charm there is a-plenty, but let us not forget that Massenet not only captures the flavour of this well-loved tale to perfection but that he sustains his musical treatment of it impeccably. The joie de vivre of the score is infectious, especially in as finely-honed a performance as this. The Royal Opera House orchestra was on top form, Massenet’s rapid string writing posing no perils for the players, and the wind soloists were uniformly fine.

The fairy tale element in this production (with sets by Barbara de Limburg) is inescapable: the Perrault story itself is literally written onto the walls of the set itself as a permanent reminder that we have entered into a different, childlike, parallel reality (the presence of children as audience members was heartening indeed). Indeed, perspectives shift magically as rooms re-orient and redesign themselves in a a miracle of balletic elegance. Laurent Pelly directs, but is also responsible for the costume designs (see below). Firefly stars underline the magic – the only surprise is, perhaps, the curiously unfairytale chimneyscape of the third act (whose design seemed too close to the world of Dick van Dyke and Mary Poppins to be accidental).

On paper, it was Joyce DiDonato who was the draw of the production and, indeed, who was probably behind the capacity house. With a string of solo albums behind her and a multitude of high profile appearances, she must surely have been the evening’s biggest draw. She was on good – if not great – form. Several times attempts to float high notes magically failed, robbing Massenet of his deserved magic. She only really hit form in the duet with the Prince towards the end of the second act. Cinderella’s disappointment in the first scene of the third act found her finally absolutely convincing, though. Perhaps as the run progresses the role will fall into place.

Despite the star name of Joyce DiDonato, the production was actually dominated by the Madame de la Haltière of Eva Podleś. Costume-wise, she was a triumph before she even opened her mouth. Her upholstered posterior could only be described as a thing of wonder, and underlined perfectly the cartoon-like character (continued in the bulbous, Christmas-cracker shaped dresses of her daughters, Noémie and Dorothée). But it was Podleś’ who triumphed; she is that rare thing, a true and masterful contralto. Her delivery seemed perfect, both dramatically and musically. I have heard a broadcast of a performance Podleś gave in Paris in the Salle Favart in March this year (Les Musiciens du Louvre were conducted by Marc Minkowski, and again Gutierrez was the Fairy) and she is just as fine there, her burnished bottom (the vocal one this time) again noteworthy.

The other cast member to outshine DiDonato was British mezzo Alice Coote. She managed to look fully convincing as Prince Charming, and dramatically she was nigh faultless; her Act Two “Coeur sans amour, printemps sans roses” was infinitely tender and involving.

As the Fairy Godmother, the Cuban-American soprano Eglise Guttierez excelled. This is a coloratura soprano role that she embraced perfectly. Cinderella’s father, Pandolphe, was taken by Jean-Philippe Lafont, who was making his Royal Opera debut. He was notable for a terrific stage presence; Jeremy White’s King, too, hit the perfect balance of dramatic placing and vocal excellence. Neither of the ugly sisters was actually ugly – in particular Kai Rüütel’s Dorothée – and both were astonishingly characterful over and above the gobsmackingly misshaped costumes they had to sing in. The pantomime atmosphere was underscored by Massenet’s sublime music to ensure a memorable evening

Bertrand de Billy clearly brought out the best from the orchestra. The occasional mis-synchronisation between players and singers apart, he ensured that the music was the star and was continually transfixing. The ballet sequences were beautifully paced and most entertainingly staged and performed.

There will be a live broadcast on Radio 3 on July 9 at 7 pm. Can one hope for a DVD to spring from this production, I wonder?. The Rudel/von Stade recording (with a male Prince Charming courtesy of Nicolai Gedda) needs supplanting and this would be a great place to start.

Colin Clarke