Cendrillon, Opera de Paris
MASSENET’S CENDRILLON entered the repertoire of the Paris Opéra for the first time on March 26 in a new production by Mariame Clément conducted by Carlo Rizzi. The premiere was warmly received in a production that cleverly sidestepped the potentially cloying sentimentality of the work.
The work had its world premiere in 1899, in the intimate setting of the Opéra Comique, but Clément and set designer Julia Hansen devised a suitably grand opera setting for this new production of the opera. The curtain rose on an immense industrial construction of smoking pistons and flashing lights overseen by evil stepmother Madame de La Haltière—who used this contraption to transform her daughters into glamorous brides. Madame de La Haltière’s henpecked husband dreamed of a quiet life in the green fields of the country far from this industrial revolution. Cendrillon’s stepsisters entered this machine through one door to exit from another transformed into crinolined bridal candidates. A ring of spotlights framed the appearance of the fairy who magically transports Cendrillon to the ball, not in a carriage but in a spectacular hot air balloon. The ball scene also drew inspiration from the Paris Universal exhibition of 1889 and the construction of the Grand Palais with an immense steel and glass ballroom. Tara Erraught’s Cendrillon was at her most winningly comic as a charming country girl corseted into unfamiliar formal attire. With a touch of Lucille Ball humor, Erraught desperately tried to imitate the gestures of the courtly dances with flapping arms and delightful incompetence. When she found it impossible to sit comfortably beside the prince in her bustle she slipped off her dress and replaced her pinching ballroom shoes with a pair of sneakers. The prince, like the audience, fell under the charm of this simple girl.
The magical forest scene, in which the couple dream of love, brought a spectacular stage effect as the entire industrial set rose on the Bastille’s hydraulics, and the Prince and Cendrillon dodged around the dirtied columns. By concentrating on the humanity of the characters, Clément avoided sugary romanticism with tongue-in-cheek humor while retaining the essential melancholic charm of the work.
The performance also benefited from fine singing and exemplary French diction under the baton of Rizzi, who made a welcome return to the house in a well-played performance. The recently unmasked chorus also offered an excellent contribution. Rizzi succeeded in showing how Massenet plays with musical genres of the past in the more stately moments, while luxuriating in the more Wagnerian love music.
Erraught sang the title role with plush warmth, perfectly matching the timbre of the supple mezzo of Anna Stéphany as Prince Charming. Stéphany’s royal rebel had a loose-limbed determination to win his bride, provoked by the gravel-voiced authority of his baritone Philippe Rouilllon as the King. Soprano Kathleen Kim sang La Fée with power and exemplary coloratura precision. As Madame de La Haltière, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona confirmed her dramatic authority and fine sense of comic timing. Although the character is a formidable harridan, Barcellona earned the biggest laugh of the evening when she embraced Cendrillon as her daughter when she learned of the Royal marriage. Her long suffering husband, Pandolfe, was movingly phrased by baritone Lionel Lhote, who gained in vocal security as the evening progressed. The stepsisters were more clumsy than ugly—one was played as a tomboy and the other as a silly flibbertigibbet—but were well sung by soprano Charlotte Bonnet as Noémie and mezzo Marion Lebègue as Dorothée. —Stephen J. Mudge