Cendrillon, Juilliard Opera, New York – review

It seems to be Cinderella time in New York. The mighty Met recently revived its grotesque burlesque of Rossini’s semi-comic La Cenerentola, intermittently redeemed by virtuoso vocalism. On Wednesday the Juilliard School came up with an astonishingly poignant production of Massenet’s essentially sombre, gently exotic Cendrillon. The kids at the conservatory put the pros next door to shame.

Opera workshop endeavours are often tentative affairs, more notable for educational promise than for artistic achievement. Not so at Juilliard. Here, one can savour talent in depth, on stage and in the pit. While the Met may succumb to intimations of improvisation, Juilliard can luxuriate in polished idealism.

Emmanuel Villaume, the seasoned specialist on the podium, conveyed equal parts savoir-faire and inspiration. He sustained reasonable momentum, even when Massenet courted sentimental indulgence, and reinforced a delicate balance between lyrical restraint and dramatic exuberance. At one point he even contributed a witty bit of verbal commentary.

Peter Kazaras, a fine tenor turned director, made much of the sad undertones of Perrault’s fairytale, refocusing character relationships and avoiding narrative clichés. He did take certain liberties, cutting ornamental dances and moving the action to modern times. He turned the fairy godmother into a whimsical society matron, the prince into a charming, bookish dreamer and the mischievous elves into coy usherettes. Somehow, it worked.

Donald Eastman’s sets dealt decorative surprises. Cinderella dwells in a cluttered café. Her prince inhabits a barren house of framed mirrors. Despite the threat of stylistic disorientation, however, the designs are handsomely imagined and handsomely executed. In context it is enough.

Although the singers playing mature parts looked a bit immature (not their fault), everyone projected enlightened conviction. Julia Bullock exuded radiance as the titular waif, warmly partnered by Lacey Jo Benter en travesti as her royal lover. Elizabeth Sutphen soared deftly through the stratospheric trills and arpeggios of the godmother. Szymon Komosa mustered baritonal sympathy as Cinderella’s father, and Avery Amereau tried hard, though with pardonably limited success, to exert grandiose danger as her stepmother. Operatically, all deserve to live happily ever after.


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