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Monday 4 July 2011

Cendrillon at the ROH

I've confessed my love of Massenet before, and always relish the opportunity to get to know another of his forgotten works from the backwaters of the catalogue. Cendrillon is hardly a great opera, or even a great score, but if like me you have a sweet tooth, and admire the suavity and loveliness of Massenet's idiom, this is an evening of delights.

The story is Cinderella, pretty much exactly as we know it. It's not a subtle reimagining either - just takes the tale at face value and presents the story as it is. This production, directed by Laurent Pelly with sets by Barbara De Limburg, doesn't try to clutter it and make it something it's not: it's just elegant and lovely. Every wall is covered in the text of the fairy tale, and the set keeps folding out and backwards - all very simple and beautifully done. The gates to the palace, and horse and carriage, continue this text theme and the text is again used to create a starry sky. Other than this the focus is on the characters, with superbly imaginative and lavish costumes designed by Pelly also.

Set pieces, like the ballroom scene with the princesses all presenting themselves to the prince work really well, but the more serious central love story falls a bit flatter, with a particularly poorly directed scene in the third act where Cinderella and the Prince can't find each other even although they're just metres away from each other (it later transpires that the scene was a dream. I'm still not going to let them off). There's lots of lovely little touches though, like the magical entrance of the Fairy Godmother with her imps being identical copies of Cinderella, the actions of the horses of Cinderella's coach, the individuality of all the princesses, the improbably large hips bestowed on Cinderella's step mother. It charms and is imaginative, and does far more than could be expected from the rather meagre libretto.

The cast is probably the best the ROH has had all year.

Joyce DiDonato is Cinderella, and the music fits her like a glove. She's a superstar of course, and she's a hugely likable stage presence. The voice doesn't quite have the last degree of technical polish that would make her a true great though - high notes reveal a slight flutter when singing quietly, the messa di voce that the role of Cinderalla requires not quite coming off exactly. Additionally, her coloratura is heavily aspirated. I really liked her though, and she's a singer with class.

This piece is a bit of a mezzo fest, with Prince charming also being a mezzo part - here Alice Coote takes on the role which she does very well (as we've come to expect from all her travesti roles). Unfortunately its nowhere near as grateful vocally as the part of Cendrillon, but Coote still sings it nicely. This opera is rather uneven musically which is probably the reason for its neglect: the two big duets between the romantic leads are nice, rather than passionate and beautiful, and pass by without quite managing to be the big set pieces they're clearly intended to be. Much better are Cinderella's monologues, where we're in familiar Manon and Thais territory, and Massenet even goes so far as to make a reference back to Manon: Cinderella bids farewell to her grandfather's chair when she plans to run away. Also fine are the tender interchanges between Cinderella and Pandolfe, her father, here unfortunately sung by a truly awful Jean-Philippe Lafont. It's a huge bass voice but completely ruined by an enormous wobble that he manages to wrestle under control only very very occasionally.

Great too are the comedy elements, and this production is genuinely very funny. Best of all is Ewa Podles as Cinderella's step mother. I have a thing for women's voices that have extremely powerful chest registers, something I hugely admire in Callas and Horne, Fleming, and recently Elizabeth DeShong too. Podles is that extremely rare vocalist that can manage the true tief Alt rep, but is just as powerful and pure when she strays higher, the sound rich and deep and beautifully even. She's technically brilliant too and this role is a gift for her: she can do its extraordinary vocal demands justice and the comedy acting is just perfect.

But the greatest discovery for me was Eglise Gutiérrez as the fairy godmother. This is a really virtuoso coloratura role, with three extended scenes of vocal fireworks, which I think very few current singers could do full justice to. I'd never heard Gutiérrez before, but I was just bowled over here - superb technique, wonderful control, with the most delicately beautiful pianissimos floating effortlessly into the auditorium. The whole voice gushes with harmonics and overtones, the silken vibrato vibrant and ravishing, and I have to say I think it's the most beautiful voice that the ROH has had this year. And finally someone who can trill! She's doing Sonnambula at the ROH next season and I will be clamouring to get tickets. The last portion of this youtube video (4.27 onwards) gives you an idea.

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