Great DiDonato, Wonderful Opera

Review by: Albert Innaurato


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

In Cendrillon by Jules Massenet (1895) Joyce DiDonato again serves notice that she is one of the most treasurable opera singers in the world. She is officially a light mezzo, but she has range and a delectable timbre joined to an irresistible presence, infinite charm, and a vulnerability that is very touching in this marvelous opera.

Cendrillon (Cinderella) is lesser known Massenet but it may be his greatest (only great?) opera. Written when he was 53, world-famous, and very rich, it owes the least to the popular styles of his time. Massenet entirely deserts the heavy-breathing, sometimes manipulative (though often clever) style he had used in operas such as Manon and Werther for a very tender work. Underneath the playfulness is an ache for a time lost for good, a sadness, not heavy but recognizable to anyone who has seen youth fade. Times were really not better back then; but then, regardless, magic was possible and a happy ending might just be snatched at the last minute.

Cendrillon is a straightforward telling of the Perrault fairy tale, but it is a summa of all the music Massenet knew. He looks far backward to the baroque world of Lully and Rameau, providing as send up and homage irresistibly tuneful and fantastically scored dance music (trombones and a tuba figure in, always with wit); he also glances at the French comedies of Rossini and of Offenbach, and finally looks forward. The music given the Fairy Godmother (known simply as The Fairy), though the vocal line is high and very florid, has evocative, often original scoring and a harmonic palette that suggests musical impressionism—Ravel and particularly Debussy learned a lot from this score. Debussy’s sonata for flute, viola, and harp from 21 years later is clearly suggested by a wonderful sequence for exactly those instruments within the fairy music. Of great interest too are the duets between Cinderella and her Prince Charming, written to be sung by a contrasting mezzo—they are glorious in themselves, but Richard Strauss clearly had them in mind when composing Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

The witty production by Laurent Pelly is set in an old children’s book with red binding, open to show gilded pages as walls on which words from the story are written in antique script. He also designed the costumes, which are often hilarious. He plays with feminine silhouettes (dress shapes) from all the periods suggested in the music, but invents a lot of flamboyantly crazy gowns. The men wear attire from the 1890s. He has fun with a very game chorus, who among other things dance a wild tarantella (dancers are cleverly mixed in for the more elaborate choreography). He gets good acting from the cast.

Alice Coote as the Prince is plausibly boyish and deploys her rich voice well, managing her final outburst with some command. Eglise Guttierrèz as The Fairy sings her elaborate music ably, and has fun with Pelly’s conception of her as a sort of punk princess with purple hair and an attitude. Although a couple of high passages are a stretch, Ewa Podles, the evil step-mother, booms out her massive chest notes and is hilarious. Jean Pierre Lafont as the father has the style down perfectly but has less than the ideal resonance for his gorgeous duet with a desolate Cendrillon. Small roles are very well done. Bertrand de Billy relishes the brilliant orchestration and gets excellent playing, vividly captured on the DVD; his energy, though appropriate, doesn’t slight the tenderness in the music. It’s a wonderful performance of an opera more people should know.

There is no DVD competition, but the Sony recording with the great Frederica Von Stade is available. She and the tragically short lived Ruth Welting (The Fairy) are wonderful, and so, surprisingly, is the imaginative conducting of Julius Rudel. Unfortunately, Prince Charming is cast wrongly with a tenor, the distinguished but in this case dyspeptic-sounding Nicolai Gedda who obviously knows his timbre is all wrong.

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