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Massenet’s Cendrillon is many things – a fragile study in Gallic romanticism, a precarious fusion of fantasy, comedy and melancholy, a sophisticated composition that makes knowing references to Debussy and even Wagner, a sensitive ode to adolescent love. It is not, however, a crass cartoon. One wouldn’t have guessed that on Saturday, when the New York City Opera introduced a popsy new production that it shares with Karlsruhe, Strasbourg and Montreal.
Renaud Doucet, the director, and André Barbe, the designer, have turned the gentle fairytale into a clumsy distortion of 1950s kitsch. The comic-book sets invoke neon and Formica. Cendrillon, aka Cinderella, first appears working inside an oven big enough to seat 10. The hearth? What hearth? The palace is a nightclub.
Newsreel interpolations cite royal weddings, most notably Grace Kelly’s. Also screened: a homemade nuptial- flick apparently involving the designer’s parents. The heroine’s antagonists are gross caricatures. The prince could be a refugee from Happy Days. The zany fairy godmother emerges from the frame of a giant radio and resembles Lucille Ball. The sweetly sad heroine and her befuddled dad flee to a suburban housing project. It is all very cool, very bright, very nicely executed, very smart-ass.
Under the circumstances one had to be grateful for musical favours. The ubiquitous George Manahan conducted with perceptive verve, warmth and point. The cast respected ensemble values and sustained as much elegance as the tawdry conditions would allow. Cassandre Berthon personified sympathetic innocence in the title role and sang exquisitely, a few shrill climaxes notwithstanding. Katherine Jolly glittered gaily as the winged creature from radioland. Eugene Brancoveanu bumbled agreeably as Pandolfe. Joyce Castle projected the bitchy bombast of the stepmother with élan, blithely seconded by Lielle Berman and Rebecca Ringle as her showbizzy daughters. The suave tenor Frédéric Antoun was drastically miscast in the delicate duties Massenet intended for a soprano en travesti. But given the glitzy-mod milieu enforced by Doucet and Barbe, no prince could be charming.