Which is the most popular of Massenet’s operas? Manon or Werther? It’s probably a tie. Then comes Thaïs, probably. And then Cendrillon maybe fourth?
The Metropolitan Opera is now staging Cendrillon, which it never has before. “Cendrillon” is French for “Cinderella,” as “Cenerentola” is Italian for the same. Rossini wrote a Cenerentola, as you know. Prokofiev wrote a Cinderella ballet.
That is the greatest Cinderella score of all, I think most would agree.
For the Massenet, the Met has a production by Laurent Pelly, a French director. It is a beautiful, witty, and enchanting production: from the Seuss-like costumes to the carriage that spells “carosse” (“carriage” in French) to the light at the end of the Fairy Godmother’s wand. The production has a series of moving walls, on which is written the Cinderella fairy tale, in French. It begins, “Il était une fois,” i.e., “Once upon a time.”
Which reminds me: I believe there is a gelato joint in New York called “C’era una volta” (“Once upon a time” in Italian).
In the pit on Friday night was Bertrand de Billy, a French conductor who has been working a lot at the Met. Earlier this month, I reviewed him in Luisa Miller, the Verdi opera. I said he conducted the score as if it were a masterpiece. He did the same with Cendrillon—although perhaps with less success, because he probably had less to work with. At his best, he was hypnotic, and so was Massenet. But, oh, does this opera have longueurs.
The Met’s woodwinds were in very fine shape, serving as stylish French soloists. The most smile-making orchestral moment, for me, came when the orchestra mocks the pomposity of the Wicked Stepmother.
Cendrillon has not one, not two, but three major mezzo-soprano parts, and the Met presented three of the best mezzos going. (That’s the sort of thing “the mighty Met,” as Martin Bernheimer calls it, is supposed to do.) Joyce DiDonato was Cendrillon. She sang beautifully and intelligently, of course. She did not have a chance to show off her virtuosity, so to speak: her runs and trills and the like. But she had ample opportunity to show off her lyricism. Some of the high notes were a little thin and a little wayward. But these were no big deal in the face of the overall DiDonato-ness.
In 2014, I interviewed Christa Ludwig, the great German mezzo. Asked about favorite singers today, she named two: Anja Harteros, the Greek-German soprano, and DiDonato.
Singing the role of Prince Charming was Alice Coote, the English mezzo. She was ever tasteful, as can be expected from a British singer—indeed, a British musician. But I wish she had let her hair down a bit more (even in a trouser role).
Stephanie Blythe was the stepmother, who in this show is known as Madame de la Haltière. She entered with perfect comic imperiousness. She was a hoot throughout and she sang well, too. She was loud, loud, in the Blythian tradition. The contrast in volume between her and her stage-mates was extraordinary. One of the gifts she brought was charisma. The stage was more alive when she was around.
Kathleen Kim, a familiar coloratura at the Met, was the Fairy Godmother. She was skillful and endearing, as usual, but I might have liked her singing a bit more gossamer, as befits a fairy godmother. She sometimes brought an edge. Another soprano onstage was Ying Fang, who portrayed one of the stepsisters. She had little to do—I barely remember hearing her—and it occurred to me that this was a waste of her talents. Yet Ying Fang is young and needs to try everything: such as creating laughs with Stephanie Blythe.
Laurent Naouri, the veteran bass-baritone, was the stepmother’s submissive husband and Cendrillon’s weak-as-water father. Among his gifts was native French. Also, he has extensive operatic experience to draw on.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a superb production—one of the most enjoyable productions of an opera I have seen. On Friday night, the singing was at a very high level, and so were the conducting and the playing. Why was the evening so damn dull? I hate to think the answer is Cendrillon, but . . .
Not dull at all is the opening flourish of Act III. It reminded me of Copland: the opening flourish of “Hoedown,” from his Rodeo. That is a footnote for you. I have another.
The English translation of the text, displayed in the Met’s seatback titles, was done by J. D. McClatchy, the poet, critic, and librettist. Sandy, as he was known, passed away two weeks ago. In the past, I have e-mailed him after a McClatchy-translated opera, saying I enjoyed the translation. That is not possible now. But I can say it in this little review.