Are there any head-banging Massenet fans left in the world? Or maybe that’s the wrong question. My experience of Massenet has been primarily as vehicle for mezzos – in this case, two of them, Joyce DiDonato (Cendrillon) and Alice Coote (Prince Charming). But a few others too. I encountered Massenet for the first time twice, once on Magdalena Kožená’s French Arias recording in about 2003, which contains selections from Cléopatre, Don Quichotte and Cendrillon. It was not until some time later that I realized that Massenet was also responsible for the “Meditation from Thaïs” that my violin teacher and I had mutually inflicted on one another ten years previously. I say mutually because she assigned it to me – but then she also had to sit there and listen while I played it. I didn’t know then what it was about, and since there was no such thing as the internet in 1993 I didn’t find out until later. This is not one of those anecdotes that goes anywhere.
But about Massenet. I am embarrassed to admit that based on 1. conflation of Disney’s Cinderella and Disney’s Pinocchio and 2. the line that does actually exist in Massenet’s opera that says “reste au foyer, petit grillon” / “stay at the hearth, little cricket” I thought that in this version of the story Cinderella had a little pet cricket. If nothing else, watching this DVD has cured me of this ludicrous notion: when Cinderella tells the cricket to stay on the hearth, she is talking to herself.*
This production, which originated at the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and was recorded for this DVD at the ROH in 2011, places the story’s source material, Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella, front and center. There is text in French everywhere – the story is literally printed (or projected) on the walls of the rooms in which the action takes place. The production emphasizes the connections between books, words and magic – Cendrillon leaves for the ball in a vehicle that is formed out of ‘carosse,’ the French word for coach, and the liveried ‘horses’ that pull it are dressed in text; you can read on their coats that Cendrillon got into the coach. The gold filigree gates through which she arrives at and leaves the ball are formed out of letters. Everyone is aware that this is a story – or at least that they are operating within a narrative that works according to certain conventions. In one of the ballets doubles of Cendrillon and the prince dance with their faces planted in big red books, and near the end, the Fairy Godmother (Eglise Gutiérrez, who between the icy high notes, the va-va-voom costume and the frosted pixie cut comes off as a sort of Queen-of-the-Night lite by way of Ursula the Sea Witch; I am not being critical – it works) makes her entrance on a massive pile of books. This does no violence to the libretto: at one point, the wicked stepmother (the ever-impressive and entertaining Ewa Podles, saddled with a comedy derriere so big she can hardly walk) notes that sometimes love at first sight happens just like it does in books. And the final bars of the opera are ‘conducted’ by the Fairy Godmother – she has been stage-managing events all along.
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