One wave of the fairy godmother’s magic wand and Massenet’s delicate opera might disappear. Its music alternates between long scenes of comic business as threadbare in material as Cinderella’s rags and light-as-thistledown love duets as enchanting as any ever written. Long neglected, Cendrillon is getting its first performances at the Royal Opera House.
The production is a joint staging shared with Barcelona, Brussels and Lille, but the truck from the continent did not have much to bring. Laurent Pelly, the producer, sets the entire opera against the backdrop of pages from Perrault's fairy tale. He hits the grotesque tone of the scenes with the stepmother and ugly sisters almost too accurately and they overstay their welcome. But there are also a few nice touches: the fairy godmother’s attendant spirits are Cinderella lookalikes, representing downtrodden parlour maids the world over, and her forest kingdom has been moved to the rooftops, where she presides among the smoking chimneys like a glittering, camp Mary Poppins.
Even so, this is a plain production. The real magic is left to the music. Joyce DiDonato might be thought perfect casting for Prince Charming, but here she takes on the title role, playing a Cendrillon of star quality who is ready to win everybody’s heart, while approaching the higher parts of the role in a cautious, rather quavery voice. The trousers are worn instead by Alice Coote, who has been made up to look the most perfectly elegant Prince Charming. In a role that is hardly less high for a mezzo, she sings with glorious fullness and confidence. Coote has done nothing better in her career in London.
Other productions, notably the Welsh National Opera staging back in 1993, have found more comedy in the scenes with Cinderella’s ghastly family, but Ewa Podleś booms ferociously as the battleaxe stepmother, making up for Jean-Philippe Lafont’s out-of-tune singing as the father, Pandolphe. Eglise Gutiérrez’s Fairy sprinkles the softest of top notes like fairy stardust and Bertrand de Billy, the conductor, is hardly less light on his feet, giving the opera as a whole a delightful lift. There are longueurs here, but also passages as enchanting as anything in opera. Massenet, the old magician, knew how to cast a spell.