Barcelona’s Star-Studded Cendrillon and It’s Not Rossini’s

SpainSpain Massenet: Cendrillon, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Barcelona’s Liceu, 22 & 23.12.2013 (JMI)

Cendrillon (Cinderella): Joyce DiDonato/Karine Desahayes
Prince Charming: Alice Coote/Michèle Losier
Fairy Godmother: Annick Massis/María José Moreno
Madame de la Haltière: Ewa Podles/Doris Lamprecht
Pandolfe: Laurent Naouri/Marc Barrard
Noémie: Cristina Obregón
Dorothée: Marisa Martins
King: Isaac Galán

Production: Barcelona’s Liceu in co-production with London’s Covent Garden, Brussels’s La Monnaie and Opéra de Lille
Direction: Laurent Pelly (original)
Justin Way (revival)
Sets: Barbara de Limburg
Costumes: Laurent Pelly
Lighting: Duane Schuler
Choreography: Laura Scozzi

Cendrillon had its world premiere at Paris’s Salle Favart in 1899, and it was a huge event. Not only was it the premiere of an opera by Jules Massenet, at that moment the most famous active composer, it was also the first opera to be performed in the theater after a fire that almost destroyed it. Last but not least, it was the first opera to be performed at Salle Favart with electricity which allowed for sophisticated technical displays.

The years around the turn of the century saw the composition of a series of operas based on fairy tales which were hugely popular. To Cendrillon we could add Hansel und Gretel by Humperdinck, which was followed by his Königskinder. His pupil, who was none other than Siegfried Wagner, composed Der Bärenhäuter in those years, and Hans Pfitzner followed the same path in 1906 with Das Christ-Elflein. From the same period come Sadko and The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Dvořák’s Rusalka, probably the best-known today.

Unlike Rossini’s Cenerentola, Massenet’s opera faithfully follows the tale by Charles Perrault. Here we find the stepmother, the fairy godmother and even the magic glass slipper. The score has some beautiful moments with several showcases for  the three main protagonists, and it requires an excellent conductor and an imaginative director. All this came together at Liceu to create a very entertaining evening.

This stage production by Laurent Pelly premiered in 2006 at the Santa Fe Festival, and it is magnificent. Cinderella is a fairy tale and that’s precisely what the director offers on stage, with sets in the form of a big storybook whose characters come to life. Mr. Pelly moved the action perfectly, and the production oscillated between mirth and melancholy with great skill. The costumes are an explosion of color and amusing shapes; what Mr. Pelly achieved with Cinderella’s stepsisters and all the  Princesses chasing after Prince Charming should be highlighted. The lighting was excellent, as was the choreography by Laura Scozzi.

The other remarkable element of these performances was the outstanding musical direction by Sir Andrew Davis, a real guarantee in any pit. He offered an ecellent reading, perfectly coordinated with the stage direction and giving a perfect assist to the singers who were never covered by the sound coming from the pit. I have to say that the Liceu Orchestra was significantly better than in the past. I do not know whether it was due to the presence of Mr. Davis or the result of the work of Josep Pons as the new music director.

Liceu offered two different casts which should be considered as alternates since the price was the same for all performances.

Joyce DiDonato returned to sing opera at Liceu after six years, and her interpretation of Cendrillon was what could be expected from one of the greatest singers of recent years. She is at the top of her art, and it seems that she is there to stay. She offered huge vocal beauty, outstanding technique and great sensitivity. Karine Desahayes was also a convincing Cendrillon. Her mezzo soprano has developed in recent years, and it’s an attractive voice, well-handled and with enough volume for a big house.

Mezzo soprano Alice Coote, in her debut at Liceu, was a convincing Prince Charming. Although I don’t think her voice responds exactly to what Massenet wanted, she was more suited to the role than Michèle Losier in the alternate cast and offered a better vocal contrast with Cinderella (particularly important in the  beautiful duet of the third act). Ms. Losier’s voice is attractive, but her timbre was too similar to Cendrillon’s.

Annick Massis made an excellent Fairy Godmother. Her soprano is well-suited to the role, and she was quite brilliant. María José Moreno was also spectcular in the role from start to finish. This is just one of the many outstanding performances I have wittnessed from this excellent singer.

Ewa Podles was a fun Madame de la Haltière. This character requires a contralto and no one is more suited to the role than Ms. Podles. Her voice does not have the harmonic richness of a few years ago and her high notes were rather dry, but there is no doubt that she fills the stage. Doris Lamprecht was also good in the role, although somewhat short vocally.

Laurent Naouri was a serviceable Pandolfe, but I prefered  Marc Barrard in the character.

The two stepsisters, well played and sung by Cristina Obregón and Marisa Martins, were very entertaining.

Liceu was at about 95% of capacity. The audience was very satisfied at the final bows with cheers for all the singers, particularly for Joyce DiDonato, Maria Jose Moreno and Annick Massis.

José Mª. Irurzun