Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon offers a mature and complex telling of the Cinderella story without sacrificing humor or glamour along the way. Written in 1899 (15 years after Manon), this relatively unknown opera is well worth an evening’s attention. While it has no big tunes to whistle on the way out, it is constantly inventive: there’s much French post-Wagnerian writing, of course, especially when the dramatic action is amorous. There’s also a wide range of brilliant, even exotic music. It’s an entertainment that never risks boring the listener. The BU School of Music: Opera Institute’s collaboration and the university’s School of Theater opened Thursday night and will run for three more performances at the BU Theater.
The broad outline of the story is familiar to us all. Henri Caïn’s libretto contains a number of unfamiliar elements that admit some enriching threat and disturbance into the narrative. The annotator makes much of the “dark” quality of the emotions of the Cendrillon and the Prince, and to be sure they both have extended arias where they bemoan their fates: Cendrillon is lonely and downcast, the Prince is lonely and depressed. In practice, this doesn’t feel quite so innovative, since it’s just the natural consequence of realizing this fairy tale within the conventions of opera. In fact, the Prince’s solo arias are so morose one sees a lifetime of mood-altering medication ahead of him. This is a result of the libretto’s heavy hand and Massenet’s lugubriousness. Jesse Darden’s sweet and plaintive tenor suggested colorings that the text could not support. (All of the principals heard at Thursday’s performance will also be heard Saturday; a second cast will perform Friday and Sunday). Much more interesting and troubling is the presence of Cendrillon’s father, Pandolfe, a weak, inconsistent and conflicted man, making the indignities the step-mother foists against the young girl acts of simple cruelty. He is weak and knows it: it takes all his courage just to tell his wife and step-daughters to leave the room. And yet his voice is the one voice that has a moral strength behind it; his character alone worries about others (even Cendrillon and the Prince, lovely as they are, cannot see beyond the horizon of their attraction). The emotional center of the piece is his aria sung to Cendrillon after the ball. She is distraught although he does not know why, and Massenet provides touching, reassuring, disarming music as he tells her they should run away together to the forest. And yet it is not enough. After his departure Cendrillon runs into the forest alone, ready to die there alone. When she later returns, he lies to her, telling her all her memories of the ball and the Prince were a dream. This lie is quickly discredited and Cendrillon makes nothing of it, but her father’s inability to back up his love with action or honesty hangs heavily over the happy ending. Benjamin Taylor’s rich voice and weighty dramatic presence made him a compelling Pandolfe.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Cendrillon and the Prince is lukewarm. At one point Massenet has the phrase “coup de foudre” pounded out multiple times: literally “thunderbolt”, but meaning “love at first sight.” That’s a common operatic convention, but it takes more than saying it to make it so, and Massenet’s version is faint compared to, say, Wagner or Puccini. Samina Aslam as Cendrillon has a velvet tone that can build to a powerful clarion, and she and Darden are a quite attractive couple. But the real chemistry in the piece belongs to her and Pandolfe, or really to the step-mother and step-sisters, who are as one in their perception of the world and in their polished obnoxiousness.
The vocal work was excellent throughout. This is a student production, to be sure, and some of the performers are still growing into their voices, but the overall level of singing was gratifyingly high. The stepmother and the two step-sisters (Sara Beth Shelton, Katy Polk and Emily Harmon) were a tight-knit trio capable of impressive vocal outbursts as well as of finely calibrated comic business. This is Cinderella, and it is a fairy tale: so of course there was still a fairy godmother and fairies who combined elegance with a subtle wildness. Maya Kherani’s fairy godmother was a striking vision: in a white, classically-influenced gown and high-piled white wig she glided from place to place with fluid arm gestures while singing Massenet’s quirky coloratura part with a brilliant voice with tight vibrato: five parts Isidora Duncan to one part Glinda the Good Witch (and I mean that as praise). The chorus of spirits (Impertinence, Sensuality, Constraint, Timidity, Playfulness and Grumpiness, if my French is accurate) wore similar but appropriately less refined gowns; their wigs had a touch of Rastafarian rat’s-nest to them. The decorated the set beautifully, and on occasion Massenet allows them emit quite lovely ensemble singing (wig and makeup design was by Rachel Shufelt). Jenna Damberger’s costumes were inspired and symbolic: Pandolfe’s sweater catching the right balance between avuncular and anemic, the step-ladies’ ensembles both powerful and just a bit crass—and there’s one gigantic hat that should not be missed.
The production is located in a not-quite-present (Marthe Hoffman is credited with Scenic Design): most of the clothes could be worn in the street, while the King’s court is filled with men wearing ribbons and crowns, and the occasional cell phone or iPad makes an appearance. The set is a large curving stair case dressed up with handsome translucent blue-black geometric panels heavy on the diagonals: think of stained glass in a modern church, or a set model from an RKO musical dropped and glued back together again. There’s some inventive stage craft on display, and the picture in front of the viewer is uniformly beautiful. Stage Director E. Loren Meeker is a skillful traffic director as well—the opening scene in particular is filled with constant shifting of large numbers of people: neither a beat nor any opportunity for laughter was missed. Conductor (and Artistic Director of the Opera Institute) William Lumpkin coaxed a rough and ready interpretation of the score from the BU Chamber Orchestra. The pit at the BU Theater is tiny, so the performance used an orchestral reduction that has been used by the English National Opera on tour. For the most part it was remarkably effective despite the unflattering acoustic of the BU Theater; perhaps some of the tepid quality of the relationship between Cendrillon and the Prince could be due the watering down of Massenet’s lush orchestral sound. Nevertheless, Cendrillon offers a fascinating score, impressive young local talent, excellent production values, and even a happy ending that ignores the complications that preceded it—just like a fairy tale should.