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MASSENET: Cendrillon 

spacer DiDonato, Coote, Gutiérrez, Podleś; Lafont; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, de Billy. Production: Pelly. Virgin Classics 60250995 (2 DVDs), 148 mins., subtitled

Star vehicle: DiDonato in Pelly’s Cendrillon staging at Covent Garden
© ROH/Bill Cooper 2012

Cendrillon is not easy to bring off in performance. Its delicate whimsy can turn into cloying cuteness, its veins of sentiment into rivers of syrup. But Laurent Pelly's production of Massenet's Cinderella opera, created for Santa Fe in 2006 and here caught in a 2011 Covent Garden mounting, uses an abundant measure of dry wit to balance out the sweetness. 

The dominant element of Barbara de Limburg's protean set is a group of walls inscribed with the words of Perrault's fairy tale. The tactic puts the characters quite literally inside the story; without resorting to Disneyesque garishness, it tells us that what we're seeing indeed happened Once Upon a Time. Cendrillon's scenes are played out in earth tones and pastels, while primary colors are reserved for the comic characters — the wicked stepmother and her daughters, along with the corps of vainglorious princesses vying for the prince's attention. Pelly, in his capacity as costume designer, clothes these buffoons in outlandish, pneumatic ball gowns, their rears padded to grotesque proportions. The presentation verges on misogyny, but these scenes are nonetheless very strong and very funny, and they provide a contrast essential to this Cendrillon — a bubbling counterpoint to the prevailing sentimentality. 

The strategy allows Joyce DiDonato to play Cendrillon straight — not as a fairy-tale princess but as a young woman with recognizable yearnings, a first cousin to Werther's Charlotte. She brings sadness but no self-pity to her entrance aria, "Reste au foyer, petit grillon"; when she proclaims "Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant," it's with the grace of a woman who truly recognizes what love is. The sweetness of DiDonato's voice defines the character — this Cinderella could inspire love in any prince — and her ability to produce warm, plangent tone throughout her range, including some wondrous floated high notes (in the score, Cendrillon is listed as a soprano), allows her to realize the full lyric potential of Massenet's honeyed melodies.

Alice Coote, in the trouser role of the Prince, has a sound much like DiDonato's — perhaps a shade flintier and more "masculine," but still a lustrous lyric mezzo. In another opera, the aural similarity between two principal singers might pose an obstacle, but here it seems to illustrate something essential about the characters: they are like twin souls, destined to join together and live Happily Ever After. 

The role of Madame de la Haltière, the wicked stepmother, is here taken by none other than Ewa Podleś. In Pelly's bulbous creations, the great Polish contralto looks like a Macy's parade balloon, and she's every bit as attention-grabbing. Podleś's stentorian chest tones announce the matron as a formidable antagonist; her riveting presence — call it "star quality" — makes the character a real counterforce to the heroine. Madeleine Pierard and Kai Rüütel, the stepsisters, make a pair of boffo sidekicks. 

One can imagine a fairy godmother with a sound more sparkly and focused than Eglise Gutiérrez's. But her smoky soprano suits Pelly's presentation of La Fée as a worldly, crop-haired disco doyenne. Jean-Philippe Lafont brings tremendous authority to the role of Pandolfe, Cendrillon's father, but his weathered baritone has trouble sustaining a true legato, preventing him from achieving the necessary succoring tone in the Act III duet "Viens, nous quitterons cette ville." 

Conductor Bertrand de Billy executes a balancing act every bit as impressive as Pelly's: he lets the opera make its full lyric effect without ever sending it over into mawkishness. It is hard to imagine a more persuasive case being made for Cendrillon than is found on these discs. spacer 


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