12 Jul 2011
Cendrillon, Royal Opera
Words, stories, books — the gateway to a world of fantasy in which anything is possible.
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
Words, stories, books — the gateway to a world of fantasy in which anything is possible.
This is the starting point for Laurent Pelly’s vision of the Cinderella story — this, and the substantial faithfulness with which Massenet’s opera adheres to the original Perrault fairytale. The opening tableau is the opening pages of the Perrault, enlarged to wall-size; a small room soon grows into a bigger room, and a bigger room still. Soon, words are everywhere. As Lucette — the eponymous Cendrillon — falls sadly asleep in the middle of the first act, the stars come out — pin-pricks in the text on the wall, just where the dot of every ‘i’ should be. Next, ten or so Lucette-clones appear with lamps in their hands, as if making the stars dance, and thus the text begins to come literally to life.
Alice Coote as Le Prince Charmant
The clones turn out to be the pet spirits of Lucette’s Fairy Godmother, who get sent off to prepare Cendrillon’s gown and carriage and horses. Of course it is handy having ten singers and dancers running round the stage who look exactly like the heroine — an eminently practical way of ensuring that the real Cinders can be smuggled off unnoticed for her quick change.
The word-theme continues throughout, with Cendrillon’s carriage being made of the letters of the word “Carosse” (drawn by four dancers dressed as horses) and the giant golden gates of the palace being formed of the letters of the phrase “Les portes du palais”. Some would think this slavish, but I simply got a strong and comforting sense that Pelly has a real, affectionate love for this children’s tale.
The princesses at the ball were a grotesque array of cartoonish ladies in red, all with exaggerated shapes and figures (none more so than Cendrillon’s unpleasant stepmother and sisters, the former resplendent in what looked more like a piece of amply-upholstered furniture than a dress) and many looking like Grecian urns or elaborate topiary. If I hadn’t known that the production dates back to 2006 (in Santa Fe) I would have thought them a reference to the Queen of Hearts in the Royal Ballet’s recent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Cendrillon is, after all, one of the few French 19th-century operas where a ballet scene fits nicely into the story without having to have an opportunity created for its existence, and it is telling that as I left the opera house at the end of the evening, I had strains of various divertissements from The Nutcracker floating through my mind along with snippets of Massenet.
If the visual inventiveness lapses in the early part of Act 3, all is restored in the curious ‘Fairy Oak’ scene (an invention of Massenet and his librettist) in which the stage is transformed into a rooftop scene (chimneys replacing the forest trees of the stage directions) which at first conjured up the chimney-sweep scene from Mary Poppins. But later a more apt comparison occurred to me; it’s the sort of scene generally seen from the garret window in La boheme. This is more relevant than you might think, as despite the supposedly fantastical context, it becomes one of the opera’s most genuinely human scenes, climaxing in a rapturous love duet in which the Prince’s voice joins Lucette’s in glorious unison before parting into harmony.
It was in this duet, and to a lesser extent their other scenes together, that the two stunning mezzo leads were showcased to best effect. The voices worked wonderfully well together — Joyce DiDonato’s tone sweet and soprano-like in the title role, and Alice Coote’s velvety, plush shades as an ardent Prince Charming. Individually of course they were just as good. Coote has plenty of experience in trouser roles, and not merely because of her voice type — her credibility as a hot-blooded youth is impeccable, evidently the result of meticulous observation. Meanwhile, DiDonato had a handful of high pianissimi which didn’t quite come off, despite the fact that the high-lying role generally seems to sit very comfortably in her voice, but she was a delightful heroine, making much of the understated, attractive music Massenet gives her.
Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon
DiDonato was equally touching in the scenes with her father, Pandolfe, sung by the French bass-baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont. Lafont makes much of the character, but his voice is evidently far beyond its peak, grating and wobbly.
In less distinguished company, the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś as Madame de la Haltière would have walked away with the entire show. Her lower register remains earth-shaking, but more to the point, she understands the critical importance of playing farce straight. Her final declamation of ‘Ma fille!’ — when she finally sees fit to acknowledge Lucette as a daughter — brought the house down.
Pelly generously makes this latter-day change of heart a result of an intervention by the Fairy, rather than a cynical acknowledgement ot Lucette’s sudden acquisition of status and glamour. And what an accomplished Fairy we had in the Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez. She is confident and ravishing in spinning high lines, and her trill is so impressive that I will forgive her the occasional intonation lapse in staccato coloratura. Her poised and alluring stage presence put me in mind of Tytania from Britten’s Dream; she was given a bit of an edge with a modern, spiky hairdo, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pair of customised Doc Marten boots under her lavish silver-grey ballgown.
Ewa Podleś as Madame De La Haltière
ROH Young Artists Madeleine Pierard and Kai Rüütel were well-matched as the two stepsisters, Noémie and Dorothée; in the first scene (in which, incidentally, they appeared to be dressed as pastel-coloured lampshades) their diction was indistinct, but this improved as the evening went on.
Bertrand de Billy’s conducting, a couple of lapses in ensemble aside, had energy and sensitivity. But the Fairy clearly thinks she can do a better; atop a giant pile of books, like a Valkyrie calling from a mountain-top, she hijacks the task of conducting the final few bars to make quite, quite sure of her happy ending.
Ruth Elleson © 2011