We went to London for fairly practical reasons, but I engineered it so we'd spend an extra night and see Cendrillon at the Royal Opera. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that you can't come within reach of a Joyce DiDonato performance and decide not to bother. Although, perhaps not as universally as you'd think: the show wasn't sold out, and I booked my ticket on the morning of the show.
Just one ticket, as it turned out. It would have been two, but my date was called upon to save the day and step in for the Verdi Requiem here in Zürich — so after 24 hours in London, he was on a plane again, bound for rehearsals, and I stayed for shopping and mezzo-sopranos. Sounds like a fair balance, don't you think?
And there really are a lot of mezzo-sopranos in Cendrillon. My hat is off to whoever went to the trouble of assembling Joyce DiDonato, Alice Coote and Ewa Podles (who's a contralto, but still) in one cast. It's such a surfeit of low-voiced pleasure that when the ominous man-with-a-microphone appeared onstage with an announcement, and said "Joyce DiDonato..." and I thought she might have cancelled, I remained philosophical, because, hey, we'd still have Alice and Ewa. As it was, however, she who sang Rosina on a broken leg, was still singing — she just craved our indulgence if her illness interfered.
She needn't have apologised. I bet there are singers who'd happily buy and imbibe a bottled form of whatever ailment she was suffering, if it would make their voices glow as hers did. She sounds lovely in French — I started wishing that her next solo disc would be French art songs — and sweet, generous, resilient Cinderella fits her temperamentally to a tee, I think. Alice Coote sounded eerily similar to her at times, yet different enough to keep the two voices distinct, and to blend beautifully in their duets, which are probably some of the best music in the opera. To nobody's surprise, Ewa Podles's outrageous (and hilariously curvaceous) Evil Stepmother stole the show. Evidently, along with freakish vocal gifts (as impressive in-house as on record) she's also blessed with natural comic timing.
Honestly, I think this opera is the female equivalent of Parsifal in terms of skewed gender balance. There are almost no men. There are, however, two stepsisters, played with priceless vacuity by Madeleine Pierard (my compatriot!) and Kai Rüütel, and the platinum blonde Fairy Godmother — Intermezzo nailed it with the Dusty Springfield comparison — of Eglise Gutierrez on coloratura duty. Jean-Philippe Lafont, as Cendrillon's father (still alive, in this one, but powerless to resist his horrid wife's bullying) has the only sizeable male role, and struck a kindly if cowering figure; and I wished that Jeremy White, as a rather sprightly king, had had more to do.
I liked Laurent Pelly's production a lot. It's all made to look as if it's been fashioned out of a big old-fashioned book of fairytales. The walls are printed pages, chairs are made from letters, the carriage is shaped like the word "carosse", and almost everything sticks to a black/white/red/gold colour scheme. Cendrillon is allowed some shades of grey, however, in her rather fetching rags — an outfit which wouldn't look out of the place in the window of Anthropologie — and her ballgown (pictured above) is a beacon of light in a sea of ladies in bizarre scarlet concoctions.
Pelly goes with the fairytale flow, he doesn't try to subvert it, and I'm glad. The show was laugh-out-loud funny in front of an audience of adults, and I'm certain an audience of children would be even more enchanted than we were. What a shame the Royal Opera hasn't made it easier for them to come; a Christmas season of matinées — you wouldn't even need the same, starry cast — would be ideal.
As it was, my inner child and I were delighted by the frolicking horses, the red-painted servants, the fairy godmother's chimney-top world and the dancing. Oh, the dancing. We wanted to hug both Alice's adorably shy Prince Charmant and Joyce's radiant Cendrillon. We laughed at the silly stepfamily, and forgave them when Cendrillon did — they're pretty harmless in this version, Madame de la Haltière is not exactly Angelica Huston, and the sisters are to easily flummoxed to pose a threat. We cried sad tears when the lovers were separated, and happy tears when everyone lived happily ever after. It was all pretty magical.
The music, well, it's Massenet in sugary fairytale mode. Well, apart from that bit where he forgets, and turns Cendrillon into Thaïs or Manon in their respective repentant modes, singing expansively about redemption and misery. It showed everybody's voices off well — especially our trio of low-voiced ladies — without ever turning into, say, great art. But who needed great art anyway? That's what I have Parsifal for. Cendrillon is not Massenet's most memorable score, but while you're actually listening to it, it evokes the shiny unreality of the tale quite wonderfully. Having previously known only a couple of arias, and not the score as a whole, I can't say much to the merits of Bertrand de Billy's conducting; but the magic in the pit seemed basically to match the magic onstage. Ça suffit.
Now I'm back in Zürich, gearing up for a Verdi Requiem and one last Parsifal, before flying to Santa Fe — where, as it happens, this production of Cendrillon had its premiere — for Wozzeck. All very serious, weighty music, and magnificent of course, but I have to say: I'm glad I had my little sliver of enchantment in between.
Photo: Bill Cooper