Onwards and upwards. Since Jérôme Deschamps took over, the Opéra Comique’s new mission has been to defend its historic repertoire – no mean feat in a country that still looks askance at many of its own composers. Massenet is a case in point, but it would take particularly insensitive ears not to fall under the charm of his setting of Perrault’s Cinderella, first seen in this same theatre in 1899.
The staging has been entrusted to Benjamin Lazar, best known in opera circles for a painstakingly “authentic” representation of Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, complete with fluffy cardboard clouds. Cendrillon is not much of a quantum leap for him as he trots out the same lavish grand siècle costumes and towering headdresses that characterised the Lully. But he does try to ginger up his attractive and efficiently organised production with references to technological and medical advances that were the buzz of Paris when the opera was written.
It’s a noble idea, but pointers to Charcot’s work on hysteria – the two ugly sisters throw a particularly theatrical fit – or pioneering work in film needed to be woven more deeply into the fabric rather than looking like merely decorative overlay. If more had been made of these themes in the Act III dream sequence, a rather long moment when Massenet’s librettist Henri Cain was at his least inspired, the audience might have stopped fidgeting.
No fear of attention deficit disorder when Polish diva Eva Podles’s monstrous stepmother is in action. Her Madame de la Haltière is a seething ball of self-importance, firing off sturdy chest notes like cannon balls; a glorious sound and funny too. In the travesty role of Prince Charming, Michèle Losier’s full-blooded, confident mezzo is so good you wonder how theatres can ever justify substituting a tenor. Eglise Gutiérrez sounds curiously heavyweight for the coloratura role of Fairy Godmother but nails all the notes. The disappointment is Judith Gauthier’s pitch-challenged Cinderella, who looks miserable even when she gets her prince.
Stodgy rather than stately in grand, ceremonial moments, Marc Minkowski’s conducting is at its best in the ethereal Mendelssohnian accents of the fairy music, performed with exquisite detailing by his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble.