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10 Nov 2018

Fiona Shaw's Cendrillon casts a spell: Glyndebourne Tour 2018

Fiona Shaw’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon (1899) for this year’s Glyndebourne Tour makes one feel that the annual Christmas treat at the ballet or the panto has come one month early.

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A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Fiona Shaw’s production of Massenet’s Cendrillon

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Cendrillon was the twenty-third of Massenet’s thirty-four operas, to a libretto by Henri Cain based on Charles Perrault’s sober version of the Cinderella myth. The best theatrical fairy-tales are those in which shrewd mockery and schmaltzy magic are kept in fine balance, with a healthy dose of both droll, topical modernity and mythical universality - and Shaw treads the tightrope with élan and wit.

Cinders herself straddles both worlds and it is through the innocent, oppressed maiden that the modern and the magical are assimilated. Shaw’s opening scene is simultaneously a paean to and pillory of the modern worship of the designer mall and the cult of shopping, leading Cinderella’s father, Pandolfe - now married to Madame de la Haltière who comes, like a garish retail package, with two ‘add-ons’, her ghastly daughters Noémie and Dorothée - to lament his lost idyll of rural life with his beloved daughter, Lucette.

Thoughts of wedlock are also troubling Prince Charming. Tossing and turning in bed, the Prince torpidly rejects his father’s insistence that he marry, and marry well, even when the King threatens to have him sawn in half to determine the cause of his lack of romantic ardour. Before we know it, we are whisked by sleight of hand à la glass and mirrors into a fairy-tale quest of seeking and searching, courtesy of Jon Bauser ingenious designs which are beautifully lit by Anna Watson, and find ourselves tumbling through the revolving doors of Alice’s Wonderland.

The King (Adam Marsden) and Prince Charming (Eléonore Pancrazi).jpgThe King (Adam Marsden) and Prince Charming (Eléonore Pancrazi). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

One problem - characteristic of the French genre - is what to do with the opera-ballets? Choreographer Sarah Fahie solves the dilemma with aplomb, assimilating tradition and modernism, dance and dramatic development, persuasively. Throughout the dance sequences, there is a lovely fluidity of rhythm and the charm of Massenet’s melodies reminds us that, whatever the kinetic wizardry, it’s the music that’s calling the shots.

A rare false note is the inclusion of a child-Cinders who haunts far too many scenes, to no obvious purpose. During the overture, the blond-ringleted munchkin hop-scotches in outsize glass slippers, tumbling and scraping her knee, which necessitates the application of sticking plaster. But, Cinders’ slipper does fit, surely? Shaw may be tapping into the Freudian overtones of the tale - dead mothers and all that - but, like the over-load of butterfly imagery, it’s a tad too heavy-handed. And, just who is the man in stripy knickerbockers and top hat, who seems to be suffering from a slipper-fetish, and who prances through the overture, reappearing, sinisterly, at intervals?

Young Cinderella (Megan Silburn) and dancer (Robin Gladwin).jpg Young Cinderella (Megan Silburn) and dancer (Robin Gladwin). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

One of the joys and strengths of this production is the marriage of the two voices at the opera’s heart. Though Cinderella is ostensibly a soprano role, much of the writing lies in middle of the voice, and mezzo-soprano Alix Le Saux displayed a soft-grained tone, finely nuanced phrasing and a strong upper extension. She balanced folk-song simplicity and directness - as when her chavvy step-family dress in their ‘finery’ and rush off to ball - with more sophisticated vocal nuance and some lovely floating high notes which made Massenet’s honeyed melodies soar. This oppressed skivvy was no ingenue: loved by her father she was fully aware of what was what and what she wanted.

Shaw has, probably unintentionally, tapped into a zeitgeist debate too. During a much-reported appearance on the US talk-show Ellen, actress Keira Knightley recently announced that she has banned her three-year-old girl from watching Cinderella and The Little Mermaid because of the way in which they portray women. Cinderella ‘waits around for a rich guy to rescue her’, Knightley lamented, asserting her belief that girls must rescue themselves. In the Guardian, Steve Rose offered a countering argument, 'Why Prince Charming is all out of happily ever afters' . Shaw herself plays confidently with the en travesti ambiguities, suggesting that Eléonore Pancrazi’s Prince Charming is not so much feminine in manner, as female in fact. In this way, the director steers clear of over-sentimentality and intimates deeper psychological currents than a Disney-esque presentation would allow, while not banishing fairy-tale enchantment. And, Shaw’s gender games are subtly played - until, that is, the Prince morphs into a serving-maid.

Cinderella (Alix Le Saux) and Prince Charming (Eléonore Pancrazi).jpgCinderella (Alix Le Saux) and Prince Charming (Eléonore Pancrazi). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The wondrous vision of Cinderella in costume designer Nicky Gillibrand’s sumptuous ultramarine confection sends the Prince’s melancholy swiftly packing, and the similarity of the range and timbre of Le Saux and Pancrazi - the latter’s relaxed, supple phrasing was a real joy - made this marriage of minds, souls and voices utterly convincing. If the lightness of the two principals’ voices evoked their innocence, or even immaturity, then their Act 3 duet conjured an almost Straussian ardour. Le Saux and Pancrazi really did make us believe that they are destined to live happily ever after.

Dorothée (Kezia Bienek), Madame de la Haltière (Agnes Zwierko) and Noémie (Eduarda Melo).jpg Dorothée (Kezia Bienek), Madame de la Haltière (Agnes Zwierko) and Noémie (Eduarda Melo). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

William Dazeley sang with tenderness and warmth, as Pandolfe. His was a sensitive and discerning portrayal: it’s quite a challenge to be a hen-pecked wimp and to make one’s mark vocally, and Dazeley achieved this impressively. Madame de la Haltière and her daughters formed a grotesque trio of hollow-hearted, empty-headed greed and grossness - did they need to be quite so vulgar? - putting on an over-the-top comic display in which Eastenders met AbFab. Polish mezzo Agnes Zwierko was game and committed as the ghastly, over-bearing mother, and made terrific use of a chest voice which would strike fear in any subjugated spouse. Her fellow Pole, Kezia Bienek (as Dorothée), and Portuguese soprano Eduarda Melo (as Noémie) were superbly awful, but rather over-shadowed by their mother’s antics which included a chair-top striptease act. Caroline Wettergreen’s vocally sparkling Fairy, nonchalantly drawing on a cigarette as she expounded the terms of the spell to Lucette, provided an elegant antidote.

The Fairy (Caroline Wettergreen).jpg The Fairy (Caroline Wettergreen ). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Conductor Jack Ridley waved his own magic wand in the pit, relishing Massenet’s delicacy and daintiness: indeed, at times a little more robustness might have provided greater drama thrust, but Ridley successfully blended the magic and the comic mayhem into a gratifying whole. Shaw’s Cendrillon truly cast its spell.

The previous evening, Tom Cairns’ production of La traviata returned to the Marlowe Theatre, where I first saw it almost four years ago to the day. Revived by James Hurley, the production is well-suited to touring. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets are simple, establishing milieu swiftly and clearly, and, adopting a fairly restrained approach to Verdi’s visceral emotional dramas, Cairns effectively focuses our attention on the eponymous courtesan herself. Not her physical decline - there was more consumptive coughing from the Canterbury audience than there was from the heroine herself; nor her oppression within the rigid class hierarchies and mores of the day. Rather, Cairns shines the spotlight on Violetta’s innate integrity, which isolates her from the surrounding social superficiality and confirms both her goodness and her loneliness.

Bechtler, too, ensures that Violetta commands our gaze. As the curtain rises, and as it falls, she is alone on stage. During the overture, prone on her bed - the latter is ever-present stage-left as we move between Parisian salon and pastoral retreat - Violetta languishes beneath a huge glistening chandelier. By Act 3, the glitter has dulled, the chandelier has shrunk, and beside the bed is a side-table cluttered with pill bottles. In the closing moments, she rises and walks towards the rear before, with her back to the audience, she suddenly slumps to the floor - a surprising denouement, and rare loss of logic and clarity by Cairns, as prior to this collapse Violetta’s death does not seem imminent. Why does she give up the ghost?

The sets and costumes are eclectic: there are some period details alongside 21st-century inferences, and this further reduces the relevance of the social context. The stage is divided by two towering walls and by Peter Mumford’s deep-hued lighting contrasts, emphasising the separation of public and private worlds. Stage-left an upholstered edifice curves graciously; on the opposite side a wooden wall stands ramrod-straight. Opposite Violetta’s bed, the revellers lounge lazily around, sinking into chairs whose curving folds might have been designed by Georgia O’Keeffe. Their evening dress is demure, almost uniformly black, which makes Violetta’s pale silk seem all the more pure, its wearer more innocent and vulnerable. In the gaming scene, the carousers hustle round three circular green baize tables in the central strip of the stage; the red peignoir that Violetta dons in this scene is ugly and ill-suited - no wonder it ends up crumpled on the floor, abandoned and trampled.

Giorgio Germont (Noel Bouley).jpgPhoto credit: Robert Workman.

Act 2 offers freshness and light. Despite the messy clutter - a scruffy sofa is strewn with clothing and oddments, the coffee table topples under the weight of discarded glasses, cups, papers and knick-knacks, as if loyal, dependable Annina simply doesn’t have time to clear up after the self-absorbed couple - a gentle, pastoral backdrop suggests a rural idyll, although the gradual passing of the day visually complements the darkening that accompanies Germont’s arrival and demands.

In Act 1 Mané Galoyan’s Violetta Valéry floated amid the salon clientele, in a beautiful blue floral gown, as if she had risen from a painting by Édouard Manet. The Armenian soprano had the daring and dazzle to despatch the pyrotechnics of Act 1 with minimal fuss, and sang with a lovely lyrical bloom throughout the evening. But it was the sensitivity of her phrasing, and in particular a stunning pianissimo thread that was both whisperingly soft and heart-piercingly clear and true, that impressed most. During Violetta’s Act 2 tussle with Germont, her self-knowledge, submission and sacrifice were conveyed through an almost angelic purity of tone, while Galoyan’s wisps of vocal silk intimated Violetta’s vulnerability and inevitable decline. Her wept words to Alfredo, in the final Act, ‘Oh, tell your daughter, so lovely and pure, that a poor and wretched woman, who has but one precious thing in life - will sacrifice it for her - and then will die!’, were exquisitely delicate, fading almost to nothing but making a deep emotional impact.

Mane Galoyan Lynn Lane.jpgMané Galoyan. Photo credit: Lynn Lane.

Neglecting contextual concerns such as class and status, Cairns focuses on the theme of thwarted love, and there was a fittingly strong rapport between Galoyan and Luis Gomes’ Alfredo. Gomes acted persuasively, communicating through his engagingly warm tenor all of Alfredo’s love and anger - he hurled his remonstrations vehemently at Claire Barnett-Jones’s patient Annina, when the latter revealed that her mistress had sold off the coaches and horses - as well as his bitterness and despair.

As Giorgio Germont, dressed in a rather non-descript overcoat Noel Bouley seemed earnest rather than coercive or intimidating. Bouley’s tone lacked focus initially, though his demeanour was dignified, but he grew in strength and stature in his Act 2 scene confrontation with Alfredo, restraining himself, just, from striking his son.

Doctor Grenvil (Donald Thomson), Flora Bervoix (Emma Kerr) and Marchese D’Obigny (John Mackenzie-Lavansch).jpg Doctor Grenvil (Donald Thomson), Flora Bervoix (Emma Kerr) and Marchese D’Obigny (John Mackenzie-Lavansch). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Cairns shows little interest in developing the relationship between Annina and her mistress, but Barnett-Jones gave a strong, sustained performance. Donald Thomson boomed sonorously as Dr Grenvil and Emma Kerr was a vibrant Flora. Conductor Christoph Altstaedt prioritised colour and sensitivity, drawing consistently expressive playing from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra and thus complementing Cairns’ conception.

UK opera audiences have had their pick of Traviatas of late: Daniel Kramer’s ENO staging in March was followed, at Opera Holland Park , by Rodula Gaitanou’s acclaimed production. Currently, Welsh National Opera are also taking La traviata to the provinces - likewise paired with fairy-tale, in the form of Rossini’s take on the Cinderella-myth, La Cenerentola. Galoyan’s superb performance ensures that Cairns’ production makes it mark among the many.

The Glyndebourne Tour , which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, continues until 1 st December.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: La Traviata
Violetta Valéry - Mané Galoyan, Alfredo Germont - Luis Gomes, Giorgio Germont - Noel Bouley, Annina - Claire Barnett-Jones, Flora Bervoix - Emma Kerr, Gastone - Nico Darmanin, Giuseppe - Daniel Mullaney, Marchese D’Obigny - John Mackenzie-Lavansch, Baron Douphol - Nicholas Folwell, Doctor Grenvil - Donald Thomson, Messenger - Romanas Kudriašovas, Flora’s Servant - Joseph Padfield; Director - Tom Cairns (Revival Director - James Hurley), Conductor - Christoph Altstaedt, Set & Costume Designer Hildegard Bechtler, Choreographer Aletta Collins (Choregraphy revived by Emily Piercy), Lighting Designer - Peter Mumford (Lighting revived by Keith Benson), Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, The Glyndebourne Chorus (Chorus Master - Nicholas Jenkins).
The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; Tuesday 6th November 2018.

Massenet: Cendrillon
Cinderella - Alix Le Saux, Prince Charming - Eléonore Pancrazi, Pandolfe - William Dazeley, Madame de la Haltière - Agnes Zwierko, Noémie - Eduarda Melo, Dorothée - Kezia Bienek, The Fairy - Caroline Wettergreen, The Master of Ceremonies - Romanas Kudriašovas, The Dean - Anthony Osborne, The Prime Minister - Michael Wallace, The King - Adam Marsden, First Spirit - Suzanne Fischer, Second Spirit - Jacquelyn Parker, Third Spirit - Jennifer Witton, Fourth Spirit - Leslie Davis, Fifth Spirit - Rhiain Taylor, Sixth Spirit - Eirlys Myfanwy Davies, Servants (Sofia Larsson, Rachel Taylor, Natalia Brzezińska, Michaela Parry, William Blake, David Shaw, Andrew Davies, Edward Hawkins), Dancers (Robin Gladwin, Ryan Munroe, Emily Thompson-Smith, Sophie Thorpe, Connor Williams), Children (Olive Dale, Megan Silburn); Director - Fiona Shaw, Conductor - Jack Ridley, Set Designer - Jon Bausor, Costume Designer - Nicky Gillibrand, Choreographer - Sarah Fahie, Lighting Designer - Anna Watson,Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, The Glyndebourne Chorus (Chorus Master - Nicholas Jenkins).
The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; Wednesday 7th November 2018.

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