Finally, ‘Cendrillon’ Gets To The Met, And It’s Magical

Joyce DiDonato in the title role in Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’ at the Metropolitan Opera.
(Photos by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – A French-speaking Cinderella rode her coach onto the Metropolitan Opera stage for the first time on April 12, when Joyce DiDonato sang the title role in the company’s debut production of Massenet’s Cendrillon.

Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother.

The opera, premiered in 1899 in Paris, has a libretto by Henri Caïn; his source was Charles Perrault, who practically invented the fairy tale as a French literary genre. Barbara de Limburg’s muted-tone sets — and even some of the props and costumes, most notably the horses pulling the famous coach — were printed with text from Perrault’s story. The characters were literally emerging from a storybook.

Although Laurent Pelly’s whimsical production is new to the Met, versions of it have been around since 2006, when it premiered at Santa Fe Opera, also with DiDonato in the lead. Pelly designed the mostly red costumes, too, a combination of elegance and wackiness — Coco Chanel meets Dr. Seuss. It wasn’t clear why the Spirits working for the Fairy Godmother were all dressed in rags identical to Cendrillon’s, but the six women who played those elvin underlings sang so beautifully and moved so lithely (choreography by Laura Scozzi) that it didn’t much matter.

DiDonato’s acting was superb, as were her middle and lower registers, which Massenet really milks in Cendrillon’s part. The aria “Enfin, je suis ici,” opening Act III, was a gorgeous recounting of her escape from the ball through a terrifying woods. The moment where she remembers realizing that the fairies were watching over her, keeping her safe — the vocal writing changes character and key at that point, and the orchestration blossoms — was overwhelming. Unfortunately, the top of DiDonato’s range had a strange thinness, and she often tended slightly sharp when she held a high note.

The love chemistry bubbled between Cendrillon and her Prince Charming. The latter role is designated for “Falcon soprano,” a voice named after late-19th-century singer Cornélie Falcon, who was famed for having a range that encompassed those of both mezzo-soprano and soprano. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote has played the prince opposite DiDonato before, at Covent Garden in 2011.

The two of them twirled Massenet’s silken ribbons of melody around each other with sensual abandon. More important, their major scenes together in the second and third acts, respectively, showed Coote’s character develop from a spoiled boy who only thinks he knows suffering (compared to the actual tragedies Cendrillon has endured) to a young man finally understanding the value of true love.

Maya Lahyani (Dorothée), Stephanie Blythe (Madame de la Haltière), Ying Fang (Noémie).

Met staple Stephanie Blythe was a comedic force of nature as she barreled her way through the role of the evil stepmother, Madame de la Haltière. It’s hard to say which was funniest: the bustles that made her hips double-wide, the two mountain-like points in her wig, or Blythe’s blustery strutting and ranting. I kept thinking of that line Henry Higgins sings in My Fair Lady: “She’ll have a great Wagnerian mother with a voice that shatters glass.” What an enormous voice Blythe has; it was entirely believable that such a sound could make a husband cower!

Speaking of whom, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri was another standout as Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s father. Henpecked doesn’t begin to cover it. Naouri swung deftly between his character’s extremes — from whingeing comic relief to serious, guilt-ridden parent determined to do better. Ying Fang and Maya Lahyani played the stepdaughters with sublime ridiculousness. As the king, Bradley Garvin graced his part with gentle comedy.

There was real magic in the hall every time soprano Kathleen Kim, as La Fée (Fairy Godmother), opened her mouth and waved her wand. Her exquisite coloratura, with both pitch and dynamics under perfect control, was particularly wondrous in the second half of Act 3. Librettist Caïn included a scene in which Cendrillon and the prince wander through a forest, praying to La Fée to help them find their love. She lets them hear but not see each other. Their pleading grows until the fairy is convinced that their love is real, and she removes their supernatural blindness. The scene’s musical journey was thrilling.

Although it’s the best writing (and was the best performance) in the work, that scene causes a serious plot hitch for weeknight-weary opera-goers: it makes Act 4 superfluous. The prince and the pauperess have already found each other. Yes, yes, the errant glass slipper needs to be slipped onto Cendrillon’s dainty foot, but couldn’t the Fairy Godmother have taken care of that at the end of the forest scene? Judging from the numerous, barely stifled yawns in the audience throughout Act 4, I was not alone in wondering this.

Cendrillon (Joyce DiDonato) arriving at the ball.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra dazzled under the baton of Bertrand de Billy. Massenet’s orchestral writing in this opera varies wildly from full-bodied Wagnerian spectacle to a delicate faux-Baroque trio of flute, viola d’amore, and lute. The overture opens with violin runs that could well be an homage to Rossini, composer of that more famous operatic version of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. While the ballet sequences showed off the rich romantic sound of the whole ensemble of instruments, the individual obbligato lines that decorated the arias — most notably oboe and flute — allowed for a stirring intimacy, even in the 3,800-seat hall.

Yet some of the most moving moments happened when the orchestra fell silent, such as a passage in Act 3, when Cendrillon’s a cappella voice is joined by the ethereal sound of the Spirits singing offstage. (Perhaps this was inspired by the scene in Verdi’s 1853 Il Trovatore when the monks can be heard chanting offstage as Leonora sings outside Manrico’s prison.) Massenet, for all his Romantic emotionalism, certainly recognized that less could be more.

Performances of Cendrillon continue at the Met through May 11. For information and tickets, go here. The April 28 performance will be broadcast in cinemas as the conclusion of this season’s Live in HD series.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.