18 Jul 2006


JULES MASSENET'S 'BROADWAY HIT,' the 1899 Cendrillon, billed as Cinderella but sung in French, was given top notch treatment at its Santa Fe Opera debut Saturday night (July 15).

The Old Master of French opera would have been delighted that his fairy tale show was so well treated. Indeed, Broadway would be lucky to welcome such an audience-pleasing and musically polished light entertainment.

Santa Fe Opera, not known as a French house, pulled off a high-style, energetic production with enough excellent singing and good orchestral playing to let you know you were not in a vaudeville theatre. Otherwise,
the presentation was strictly show-biz and for this mild, melodious bit of operetta fluff, that is a very good thing.

French producer/designer Laurent Pelly was hero of the occasion. His conception of the musical fairy tale was low-farce with touches of romance and sentiment, and when it was not over-illuminated by the inconsistent lighting designer Duane Schuler, it glowed with youth and, dare I say, modernity. With no special effort to bring the old 19th Century show into a later era, the feeling was always up-to-date and fresh. The boy-girl plot is a slight one; Cinderella's trials and tribulations are thrice familiar and just barely endurable, but couched in Massenet's beautifully written score and graced by his buoyant melodies the package was a delight to enjoy on its own terms. A few solo numbers and lovely duets took care of expectations of operatic music, otherwise all was romp and posturing.

Set in a series of sliding walls, panels and free-standing backdrops entirely covered with the artfully inscribed text of the fairy tale (in French) - it was fun to sit there and translate - the show was alive visually due to vividly colored costumes (rouge ruled), comical and over-stated, that had the audience laughing and applauding at every turn. Cinderella's coach, pulled by two dancers charmingly gotten up as horses, was the French word for coach - carrosse - most artfully wrought into a carriage of sorts, that wheeled gracefully onto the stage and off again bearing its beautiful cargo to the Prince's Ball - yes the glass slipper was visible as was a pungent Fairy Godmother issuing her charge to be home by midnight.

What made it all work? Aside from Massenet's music, the performance of Joyce DiDonato, a winsome young lyric mezzo-soprano from Kansas City, galvanized the show. Cinderella is a big sing, and DiDonato had the vocal strength and quality to last the evening. Her acting was simple and natural, while she played against Richard Stilwell, as her loving father Pandolfe, with sincerity and touching sentiment. This is likely a hard role to master as it requires unfailing energy, a lot of high notes and strong emotion, and it cannot seem artful. DiDonato was in every way appropriate to the occasion, as was the sympathetic veteran baritone, Stilwell, a favorite at Santa Fe since 1972.

The important role of Fairy Godmother, engine of the action all evening, was a big success for Cuban-born coloratura soprano Eglise Gutierrez. Her mock magical heroics on stage and her remarkable high soprano singing were assured and engaging. Cute, bosomy, delightfully costumed, with an illuminated wand and amusing gestures to control those in her spell, this was one Fairy in a million. Watch for the name, she's to be heard from. Billie Burke is envious!

Most of the remainder of the cast was in a lesser league. Judith Forst, the distinguished Canadian mezzo, seemed ill-cast as the caricatured social-climbing stepmother, Madame de la Haltiere, disappointing in both vocal force and comic creativity. She was quickly a worn cliché, as were her 'ugly' daughters sung by faint voiced Ann-Carolyn Bird and Gabriela Garcia. Special dispensation must be given to a young mezzo soprano, Jennifer Holloway, a second year apprentice in the Santa Fe Opera young artist program. She replaced the noted Kristine Jepson, through on several months' notice, as Prince Charming - normally the other leading role of the opera. It was otherwise with Holloway, not that she did not look the part and have a promising voice - for indeed she was convincing to the eye as a lean young man and her voice encompassed all the notes. Stage experience, however, was not hers and she seemed too often dramatically pallid and emotionally uninvolved. It was probably unwise to cast young Holloway against a major talent such as DiDonato; let's check back in five years.

A few members of the Aspen-Santa Fe Ballet graced the stage as presenters at the Prince's Ball, and after a rather insipid start, conductor Kenneth Montgomery and his fine-sounding orchestra settled into good routine. Cinderella at Santa Fe is a winning show, maybe even the hit of the five-opera summer season, with seven performances to go through August 24.

We are advised the season is largely sold-out, though there are turn-backs.

J. A. Van Sant, Santa Fe