On Saturday afternoon I walked down to Lincoln Center to see the final opera I'll be attending this season - Massenet's Cendrillon, a work that has only begun to receive in recent years the attention it deserves. It's difficult to believe that its performance on Saturday was only the fifth in the Met's history.
This was actually the second Massenet opera I've seen this season - in November I attended an excellent production of Thaïs - and was again impressed by this composer's ability. Perhaps the fact that Cendrillon is making its Met premiere this season, more than a century after it first opened in Paris, is an indication that Massenet's work in finally undergoing a well deserved critical reevaluation.
Cendrillon was a relatively late work - Massenet was already in his fifties and at the peak of his popularity when he began work on it with librettist Henri Cain - but it has the freshness one would expect from a much younger composer. The subject was an interesting choice as Massenet and Cain had only just completed work on La Navarraise, the pair's attempt at verismo. at the time they decided upon this lyric piece. Massenet had always been very sensitive to the tastes of Parisian opera goers, and it may have been that he felt verismo was only a fad, one that would not continue to find favor with the public. Certainly, Cendrillon was about as far any composer could go in the opposite direction. Based on the seventeenth century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the story had already been adopted much earlier in the century first by Nicolas Isouard in 1810 and then more famously by Rossini in his 1817 La Cenerentola. (There was also another version by singer Pauline Viardot that, though it may have been composed earlier, did not premiere until 1904.) Once decided on his subject, Massenet proceeded to put into it everything he felt might contribute to its success. As the Wikipedia article notes:
"Massenet’s perfectly proportioned score moves from a scene worthy of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide ... through Rossinian vocalises and archaic orchestrations to ballet movements on a par with Tchaikovsky."
It may have been Massenet's willingness to pander to popular taste that lay behind the neglect his music suffered after his death. But no composer can really be blamed for wanting to make his music a success. While Massenet's operas are not profound in the same sense as Wagner's tragedies, they are instead sly and sophisticated and offer the modern listener a rewarding glimpse into the Parisian fin de siècle. They also contain some of the finest French music written during that period. In the final scene of Act III, Cendrillon rises above mere entertainment with the haunting fairy music that climaxes in the duet a deux genoux with the fairy godmother singing behind the young lovers in a truly romantic moment.
At this performance, Joyce DiDonato in the title role (I had also heard her several seasons ago sing the same character in La Cenerentola) stood out in an all-star cast that included mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière. Soprano Kathleen Kim was exceptional as the Fairy Godmother.
Bertrand de Billy conducted and fared better with Massenet's music than he had two weeks ago with Verdi's Luisa Miller, though that's hardly high praise.
This was a new production (the first in the Met's history for this opera) by Laurent Pelly that, at least as far as I was concerned, failed in its attempt to bring to life the world of Perrault's fairy tale. When the Met's publicity referred to the staging as a "storybook production," I did not take it to mean that actual enlarged texts of Perrault's story would be used as sets. But that's really all there was to this production aside from a variety of nondescript props haphazardly moved across the stage. The carriage that takes Cinderella to the ball was so tacky it would have been an embarrassment at a middle school theatrical. Matters were not helped by Laura Scozzi's lifeless choreography in the long Act II ballet. The costumes, on the other hand, also designed by Mr. Pelly, were bright and colorful and added a good deal of life to the proceedings.