Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

Cendrillon (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on a grand scale, where pageantry took precedence over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass repetitive performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, leisurely pastorals, mighty choruses, florid solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was a little after this time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin. While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the overly lavish costumes they and Ms. Blythe were given to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ – Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’: Regicide on the Radio

Marcelo Alvarez & Sondra Radvanovky (Sarah Krulwich/The NY Times)

Marcelo Alvarez & Sondra Radvanovky (Sarah Krulwich/The NY Times)

Last Saturday, December 8, was the first broadcast of the new Metropolitan Opera radio season. It was of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) in a new production directed by David Alden. It was good to have the Met Opera back on the air I have to say, after a long, hot summer and a tediously unproductive fall.

I’ve been listening to the Met broadcasts since (yikes!) 1965-66, and regularly after the 1967-68 season. The first opera I heard was Aida, also by Verdi and scheduled for airing this coming Saturday, December 15. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the names of the individual cast members, which included American soprano Leontyne Price as Aida, tenor James McCracken as Radames, and baritone Robert (“Oh, say, can you see”) Merrill as Amonasro. I can’t tell you any more about the performance without consulting the Met Opera’s archives, but I do recall taping most of Act II for later playback, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

But this post is more about the current scene, so let’s get back to Ballo, one of the Italian master’s finest and most intricately detailed works. Composed between 1857 and 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera is a transitional piece that came just after his so-called middle period (1851-1853), a time that produced three of his most popular operas, i.e., Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. It shares similar thematic material with Rigoletto, in the basic plot of an assassination attempt on its tenor lead; and looks forward to the Judgment Scene in Aida (1871), particularly the heavy use of brass, which adds considerable weight to the conflicts that take place between the main characters. There are nods to the future Otello (1887), too, in the Third Act drawing of names sequence with its sonic echoes of Otello’s farewell to arms speech (“Ora e per sempre addio”) and the Vengeance Duet that closes Act II of that work.

Verdi wrote Ballo on commission for the theater in Naples. He chose as his subject the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which took place there in 1792. However, due to the sensitive nature of the story, highlighted by the actual onstage murder of a royal figure, the Neapolitan censors refused to stage it unless drastic changes were made. An old hand at dealing with bureaucratic stonewalling (especially after the modifications to Rigoletto’s plot and characters), Verdi directed his first-time librettist, Antonio Somma, to comply with the censors’ demands. Somma did as he was told and the original title of Gustavo III was changed to Una Vendetta in Domino (“A Revenge in Costume”).

Still not satisfied with the results, the censors called for even more cuts and alterations, no doubt spurred by a terrorist’s bomb hurled at French emperor Napoleon III’s carriage. Both Verdi and Somma were thoroughly dismayed by the actions demanded of them and subsequently withdrew the work. A short while later, after further adjustments to the story, which transformed King Gustav into the fictitious Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and placed the opera in pre-Revolutionary War times (!), they offered the re-worked and re-titled Un Ballo in Maschera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where it met with sizable success.

Sondra Radvanovsky & Marcelo Alvarez (Ken Howard)

Sondra Radvanovsky & Marcelo Alvarez (Ken Howard)

There were other incongruities involved in this new context as well, the most noteworthy being the character of King Gustav (now Riccardo) himself. An extravagant individual and patron of the arts, the historical Swedish king was an admitted Freemason as well as rumored to be of a homosexual bent, although this has never been proven. That did not stop Verdi from giving him a love interest, Amelia, the wife of his would-be assassin Count Anckarström. In the Boston scenario, Amelia remained Amelia, but the Count had his name changed to Renato, the conspirators Horn and Ribbing were now called (don’t laugh) Sam and Tom, Oscar the page stayed Oscar the page, and Ulrica the mysterious medium became Ulrica the witch (or a soothsayer or prophetess, either one was acceptable). The work has since been performed in both its Swedish and American locales, while the Met uses the original Swedish one for its current production.

In the opera proper (and in the history books), the murder of the king occurs at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where the titular masked ball takes place. It’s this scene – the final one in the opera – that most resembles its predecessor Rigoletto, although everything about Ballo has an orderly flow and logical connection to the earlier work. The music here is bouncy and bright, full of ironic contrasts and startling juxtapositions, and done by the simplest of means: a minuet serves as the musical backdrop to the king’s murder, thus increasing the tension almost to the breaking point. Compare it to Rigoletto’s opening scene in Act I, which is equally light and airy, but with nary a hint of the darkness to come.

Enter Oscar, the king’s lighthearted page, voiced by a coloratura in boy’s clothing, what is often termed as a “trouser” role. Verdi fashioned this character after the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, but he clearly took after the adolescent Cherubino of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Needless to say, Oscar’s music is the main attraction in Ballo, and the most titillating Verdi ever wrote: at once charming and carefree, full of youthful vigor and warmth, the master would not compose themes of this flavor and wit until his very last work, the comic Falstaff, some 44 years later.

The story, in brief, involves King Gustav’s affair with the married wife of his chief counselor and friend, Anckarström, who hatches a plot to kill the king after he catches his spouse in an illicit encounter with the monarch. The role of both King Gustav and his friend are plum parts for tenor and baritone, as are Amelia, Oscar and Ulrica.

Now on to the review: Marcelo Alvarez did well as Gustavo. The Argentine tenor has a real feel for the words, and his lyric singing – the opening “La rivedra nell’ estasi,” for example – was exceptionally heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. However, he does not like to linger on high notes (unlike the late Luciano Pavarotti, who relished every aspect of this part). Elsewhere, Alvarez refused to dawdle. The attitude was, let’s get this show on the road, which was fine by me (and no doubt the conductor’s choice).

Unfortunately, he ducked the high C in the great second-act duet with Amelia, sung by the excellent Sondra Radvanovsky – what’s with that? Pavarotti was known to have thrust his face (and prickly beard) into the back of his female lead’s hair at this point, but he still managed to get that C-note out. In conductor Georg Solti’s Decca/London recording of the work, Carlo Bergonzi was all-but overwhelmed by the Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, but he still made it to C (or tried to, albeit in drowned-out form). As I recall, Marcelo (as Cavaradossi) sang the note in Tosca’s Act III duet with Karita Mattila, so I was a little taken aback by the omission. He did deliver a ravishing last act lament, though, so reminiscent of Otello’s death scene, with the final word cut off just as Gustavo expires – a nice touch, that.

How like the Duke of Mantua the king is, but without that character’s insouciance and self-centered egotism. A truly rewarding role for any tenor to tackle, which Alvarez could have made more of than he likely did. His “È scherzo od è follia,” Gustavo’s mocking reaction to Ulrica’s prophecy that the next person to shake the king’s hand would be his assassin, lacked the customary “laughs” and “giggles,” a practice started by Alessandro Bonci, and later taken up by Beniamino Gigli. Perhaps Alvarez was going for a more straightforward approach. Not that the scene was badly sung, it just missed that final spark of “fun” that would have truly ignited his performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia was sublime, the only word that comes to mind when talking about this marvelous artist. Sondra has done magnificent work in Verdi and Puccini before, but in Ballo she really outdid herself. All the emotional impact and dramatic thrust this role can have on an audience were there in spades. Mind you, Amelia is not the most gratifying of soprano roles – she makes a brief appearance in Act I, in a remarkable trio with Ulrica and the disguised king. But she really comes into her own in Act II, where she is onstage throughout. Act III starts off with her pathetic farewell to her son, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which earned Sondra a huge round of applause at its close. Brava!

Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Sondra (Ken Howard)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Sondra (Ken Howard)

The Anckarström was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in good, solid voice but in my opinion he took an inordinately long time to warm up. He may have been under the weather, but Dmitri picked up steam in Act III during “Eri tu?” This aria stands as a carbon copy of Rigoletto’s great scena, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Act II of that opera, they’re so strikingly similar (in musical terms, that is, not textually), especially in the way both pieces start off fast and furious, but end up slow and calm. A prolonged and well-deserved ovation was in order! Stephanie Blythe was Ulrica, and a good one, to boot! I love her low notes. It’s one of the few true contralto roles that Verdi wrote, one to be savored no matter how brief it is. And no contralto worth her salt can hope to make it in the opera world without making one’s hairs stand on end in this part. Blythe met the challenge head on.

On the high-end of the scale, Kathleen Kim was delightfully chirpy as Oscar. I remember her as Madame Mao in Nixon in China – a killer role, to be sure, but she pulled both of them off with aplomb. Basses Keith Miller and David Crawford chuckled convincingly as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, respectively, without actually delineating their personalities to any audible degree (at least not over the airwaves).

Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted. He, too, refused to dawdle, although I like this opera to be more expansive in spots. Luisi sped things along á la Toscanini, much unlike James Levine, who used to find great drama in this piece. Less tautness and more deliberation next time, maestro, please. The Met’s chorus was in tiptop shape, a tribute to its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, who in the last six years has done yeoman work in making this aspect of the performance stand out from the rest. A job well done! Let’s see what awaits us with Aida. The season is young and there’s more to come… Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes