Royal Opera House DVD, 2012
One of the coloratura highlights, which give a good indication of the rest of the work.
Beautiful, boring and empty, this version of the fairy tale cannot be saved even by an amazing cast.
Once a popular composer, the hundredth anniversary of Jules Massenet’s death passed almost unnoticed in London, so I’ve opted for reviewing a 2011 Royal Opera production of his opera Cendrillon (Cinderella) on dvd.
Active during the decadent late nineteenth century when the concerns of high romanticism had become weary, the composer is most well known for his self-consciously lush sentimentality, allergic to the idea of a greater significance.
The director, Laurent Pelly, has done marvels with comic music dramas, from Rameau through Offenbach. Here, it is hard to tell if the tone of the piece reflects Massenet’s intentions, or Pelly’s comic interpretation, not that there is much humour amidst the camp.
Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain somehow manage to increase the sentimentality of the original Perrault folk story, so that it becomes so cloyingly sweet that it can only be intended as a kind of satire on the composer’s other works which are usually in a similar, though more explicitly realistic, vein.
This is an especially self-conscious work, which assumes familiarity with the story, but more than that, assumes that the audience will find the story naïve, and does nothing to dislodge that prejudice.
Comparison with Rossini’s earlier masterpiece Cenerentola seems useful. Both composer/librettist teams are faced with the same problem, of how to set a familiar story.
But Cenerentola, written in the first period of romanticism, is much the more lively work, compared to the deliberately tired approach at the other end of the century.
Where Rossini and librettist make Cinderella’s relatives unpleasant and at points extremely cruel, Cendrillon’s relatives are merely vain or weak-willed. Where the Italian prince is energetic and clever, the French hero is insipid and languorous. And most fatally, where the earlier drama maintains tension, the later one almost entirely removes it, so that we are almost always certain of a happy ending.
Musically, the piece is one long wallow in swooping strings, harps and long-breathed melody, broken with bright ‘magical’ coloratura or snatches of dance tunes attempting to evoke the elegance of the past.
Taking its description as a fairy tale literally, the opera makes great use of the fairy, who controls everything so completely that she might as well have written the tale, which is helpfully implied at the end of this production.
Unable to find any deeper interest in the work, I was left admiring the costumes and the singers. Pelly designed the former, which may explain his involvement.
The singers were perfect, and much better than the work deserved. Joyce DiDonato must have given the definitive performance of the title role, though I’ve no wish to sit through another performance to compare.
Ewa Podles has one of the darkest contralto voices I’ve heard, and gave good front as the snobbish stepmother, but Eglise Gutiérrez stole the show as a camp, busty, stratospheric fairy.
Bertrand de Billy’s conducting was soporific, though I don’t see how he could have energised this score.
No amount of magnificent singing or costuming can bring this work to life; Massenet’s claims to our attention must lie elsewhere.