Jules Massenet was the dominant composer of opera in France for nearly two generations, and half a dozen of his 30-plus works for the stage are still widely performed in Europe. The best of these, such as Thaïs, Manon and Werther, evidence impeccable musical technique, expert stagecraft, noteworthy vehicles for prominent singers, and, most important, a durable quality of musical gracefulness— better call it charm — that is always winning. Claude Debussy, 20 years younger, throughout his career was ambivalent about the composer to whom he knew he owed a good deal in his youth; he wrote after Massenet’s death in 1912: “Massenet was the most genuinely loved of all our contemporary musicians. … His colleagues never forgave him for having such a power to please; it was really a gift.” (More on the subject is highlighted here by Cashman Kerr Prince.)
Boston can now [also revived by BU in 2015] enjoy a vivid example of Massenet’s charm in the New England Conservatory’s production of Cendrillon, first produced in 1899, at the height of Massenet’s career. This comic adaptation by Henri Cain of Perrault’s Cinderella story, with subtle additions from the Sleeping Beauty legend, makes for a well-paced evening that sparkles with droll humor, fairy dust, and, above all, effortlessly clever and often lovely music.
The NEC production is double-cast with graduate singers in the voice program. There was a cautionary announcement at the beginning by Joshua Major, stage director, that Sooyeon Kang, soprano in the title role and substituting for an ailing Erica Petrocelli, was herself vocally under-the-weather and wouldn’t be singing in full voice; but we wouldn’t have known this from the performance, because Kang gave us a vocally rich and well-acted Cendrillon. Her stage opposite, Prince Charming, is a Hosenrolle in this opera, and Margaret Bridge, soprano, shares equal honors for fine singing and able characterization. The Fairy Godmother/Queen, a coloratura role, was fearlessly handled by Helen Zhibing Huang; her music even offered a backward glance at the Bell Song (with glockenspiel) from Delibes’s Lakmé, composed 15 years earlier. The evil stepmother, Madame de la Haltière (Brindley McWhorter), and her grabby daughters, Dorothée (Morgan Middleton) and Noémi (Chang Liu), all executed their roles with professional nastiness and good sound. The dramatic weakness of the opera, namely that Pandolfe’s is the only important male role, was amply compensated by Josh Quinn’s outstanding performance.
I had not been in the Cutler Majestic since the Boston Lyric Opera did Beatrice et Benedict some years back, and it was gratifying to realize once more that the jewelbox theater is well proportioned to give a good sense of intimacy with a relatively large stage space. With a cast of this size, and only a dozen servants and courtiers, there was ample room for moving around effectively. The set for the domestic and ballroom scenes was dominated by a semicircular clockface at the rear, to emphasize the midnight cutoff, while the chorus of fairies in Act III brought in their own forest of white feathers on six-foot sticks; these were ranged as a line down the center of the stage, so that Cendrillon and Prince Charming could speak to each other across them in their dream sequence. Costumes were well ordered, from Cendrillon’s plain gray house uniform (magically transformed into a bright white ball gown) to the bright green fluffy foliage of the fairies.
The orchestra is small-full, with paired woodwinds (including two piccolos), normal brass, and strings 8-6-4-3-2. Hugh Wolff conducted the whole ensemble ably and comfortably, and even took part in some of the byplay. From where I was seated, I could watch him in a prompter’s television screen, not far from where the translations were projected.
Massenet paid homage to his own contemporaries throughout his career. His operatic craft was forged in the shadow of Gounod, whose Faust appeared when Massenet was 17 years old, and he carried on a tradition that would have been led by Bizet had the latter not died so young. The C major march that opens Cendrillon would have been admired by Meyerbeer (died 1864). Prince Charming’s sighs of sadness in Act II are wrought in Wagnerian chromaticism, but the waltz that accompanies the wearisome presentation of “desirable princesses” is like the later Weber. There was a hilarious choreographic moment after this when one of the desirables forces the Prince to dance a tango — probably not called for in the
score, but an inspired stroke of staging. Another episode of comic genius in Act III results when Pandolfe, the exasperated paterfamilias, shouts “Le diable vous emporte!” at his wife and stepdaughters, and they shriek in diminished-seventh dismay. But a moment of telling poignancy in Act I, during Cendrillon’s solitary rumination, is addressed to the cricket on the hearth, “Reste au foyer, petit grillon,” in 6/8 A minor, like Schubert’s Gretchen at her spinning wheel. This music returns with beautiful effect in Act III, after Cendrillon returns alone from the ball. Elsewhere, one can find dominant-seventh chords moving in chromatic-scale succession; this is also one of Debussy’s trademarks, but Fauré and Chabrier took advantage of them too, in a distinctively Gallic manner.
In Cendrillon one can especially admire Massenet for his amiable smoothness of dramatic thought. The music is confident, and appropriate to the task, and contains a popular touch that is neither pretentious nor excessively sentimental — qualities that I often find lacking in the best Italian opera and even more in German opera. Think of this opera as a romantic tribute on St. Valentine’s Day, and bring your friends. Repeats tonight and tomorrow.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.