The Met’s current run of Massenet’s opera is the first time the company has performed the French composer’s version of the Cinderella story. Laurent Pelly’s production originated in 2006 at the Santa Fe Opera as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato who also starred in the current mounting of the opera. In the ensuing 12 years it has been halfway to the moon and back.
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) suffers the horrible curse of being a very good composer when the music business was dominated by great ones. He produced two very good operas, Manon and Werther, and a slew of competent works that show his facility for composition devoid of the sheen of genius. Cendrillon is such a work. That rejected works like Cendrillon are now regularly recycled shows the desperate condition from which opera now suffers. There is not a single standard repertory opera that’s by a living composer – not one. Philip Glass is the most frequently performed living composer and his most often staged opera, Satyagraha, is 156 on Operabase’s list of operas ranked by the number of performances for the 2017-18 season worldwide. It was performed 116 times by 12 companies. It’s not the Met’s fault that nobody seems able to write an opera that a wide audience wants to hear more than once, but if viable new operas don’t soon appear the artform may wither away.
The Met can’t fill a season of about 250 performances with constant repetition of Aida, Boheme, Carmen, and Traviata – though it tries – so they indulge vanity projects like today’s opera for star performers. Cendrillon, as I’ve indicated, is well crafted, though there’s not a single memorable tune in the whole piece. There’s just so much well made fluff that one needs a quick snooze or two to get through the long, at least they seemed long to me, four acts with one intermission.
The diva for whom the opera has been performed in multiple venues is Joyce DiDonato. After 12 years of impersonating Cinderella she appears more like her grandmother than the innocent and neglected teenager she portrays. Her voice is also not what it was at the start of her run with this opera. Her high notes are thin and fluttery, not bad enough to ruin the show but the sign of a declining arc. The career of an opera star, like that of a fine athlete, is achingly brief. Still, her vocal performance remains at a very high level.
Massenet wrote this opera with three mezzo-soprano principals. This odd trio and the absence of a tenor are another reason for the work’s weakness. Prince Charming was played by Alice Coote who looks nothing like a young prince. Her voice, however, is still in good shape and she handled her part with aplomb. The scene in the forest which contains the work’s best music was very well sung by the two mezzos and high soprano Kathleen Kim – the Fairy Godmother.
The third mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, was a hoot as the wicked stepmother. She has enough voice left to blow out half the candles in Manhattan and virtually stole the show. Her henpecked husband was well sung and acted by French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri.
Massenet was always a superb orchestrator and conductor Betrand De Billy got all the mini-Wagnerisms out of the Met’s brilliant orchestra with panache and style.
Pelly’s production is staged, mainly, around walls that contain the text from Charles Perrault’s version of the story. The costumes, also by Pelly, are bright and vivid. They contributed to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the production. Gary Halvorson’s video direction was very good. The only technical problem was that the volume, which was too loud two weeks ago, was too low during Pandolfe’s opening monologue.
I don’t want to be too negative. The performance was perky and nice to look at and the music not without charm. Cotton candy is a wonderful treat, but not as a dietary staple. Three hours of its musical equivalent was too much.
This was the last HD telecast of the season. Ten broadcasts are scheduled for next season. What’s first up? Aida, of course. Carmen and Traviata (in yet another new production of Verdi’s ubiquitous tear jerker) will come later in the season.