Laurent Pelly’s production of Massenet’s Cendrillon, first seen in Santa Fé in 2006, finally made its way to New York, after detours taking this charming and ironical mise–en–scène to major European opera houses (including Covent Garden in 2011). Composed in 1899, this retelling of Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale has its première at Metropolitan Opera on this occasion. Cendrillon is thus part of a veritable wave of rekindled interest for Massenet’s music at the Met: Thaïs was revived earlier this season; Werther and Manon are also part of the regular repertoire, always featuring high-octane casts.
Massenet composed the role of Le Prince Charmant for a female voice, probably to underline the attraction between two innocent souls. DiDonato’s partner was British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote. Embodying a sulky youth or an ardent prince, her stage presence is undiminished. The known incandescence, intensity and focus of her voice are a tad faded now. At points, she pushed, especially on the top notes, her instrument beyond its current capabilities. It was impressive, though: Coote’s duets with DiDonato still sounded lovely despite the not-so-young voices.
In the role of Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s father, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri graced the stage with his warm, deep voice. He was as successful in his humorous dialogue with his termagant wife as in displaying his deep affection for his daughter. Kathleen Kim was the Fairy Godmother, her voice ascending calmly and assuredly to the proper heights. It was not, however, mesmerizing.
Arguably, the most memorable aspects of this performance were those related to Laurent Pelly’s frothy, elegant staging, balancing wit and emotions. The sets (Barbara de Limburg) consisted of moving panels inscribed with French extracts from Perrault’s text. They opened and shut according to the action’s needs, revealing all sorts of details. On the other hand, choosing to move the love scene from an open space to a chimneyed rooftop didn’t make too much sense. The costumes, designed by Pelly himself, were superb. Cendrillon’s white ball gown had an ashen lower trim, a reminder of her status. Her carriage was drawn by two-legged white horses. Madame de la Haltière and her daughters were dressed in bulbous outfits barely allowing them to move. The most astonishing costumes, in different shapes and various nuances of scarlet with fantastic assorted hats were those of the noble ladies trying to woe the prince. Their parade (choreographed by Laura Scozzi) had a subtlety and grotesque reminiscent of the “Parada de moda ecclesiastica” from Fellini’s Roma.
Irrespective of how successful a staging of this fin-de-siècle composition it is, it can’t raise the work’s place in the operatic canon too much. At the same time, Massenet’s music for Cendrillon was the foundation for one of the most pleasant evenings at the Metropolitan this season.