Harvard College Opera celebrates its 26th year and its sixth production in Agassiz Theater with a glowing performance of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. This beloved comic treatment of the 18th-century Cinderella story as updated by Henri Cain may never be as popular among operatic Francophiles as Manon or Thaïs, but it is certainly popular in the Boston area; I saw NEC’s production [HERE] two years ago, and Boston University did it two years before that. (Last spring I saw a workshop production of a different Cendrillon, the one by Pauline Viardot-Garcia [HERE], and of course Rossini’s Cenerentola dominates operatic depictions of the story). Harvard’s production, entirely run by undergraduates, mobilized 80 students on stage, behind the scenes, and in the small orchestra pit — actually just the floor in front of the stage. Recruiting such a large company adds up to an impressive achievement in itself, but what was most remarkable was the musically and dramatically satisfying result — good singing, good acting and stage presence, excellent cooperation among a complicated ensemble constantly in motion. Madeleine Snow, stage director, and a team of four producers kept this all expertly in hand.
Décor and costumes appeared handsome and tastefully restrained compared to the somewhat Day-Glo version at the Conservatory two years ago. One wondered how the full ballroom scene, required in Acts II and IV, could be accommodated on a small stage with a staircase in the rear, but it proved sufficient for the chorus of nine women and six men plus eight principals, and even a charming corps de ballet of three dancers — every French opera before Debussy, after all, has to have a ballet. Much of Act III is a dream sequence in a forest, and the chorus of spirits brought a gently receptive atmosphere to this part, carrying light globes to the rear of the stage effectively enough without mists or fairy dust. Supertitles appeared clearly and worked effectively.
The dramatically important roles of Lucette-Cendrillon herself and Prince Charming found admirable interpreters in veterans soprano Arianna Paz (who sang Adele in last year’s Fledermaus) and tenor Samuel Rosner (last year’s Alfred). Both projected clear, bright, full vocal tone, and good enunciation (and even good French accents), and they know how to project dramatically as well as vocally. Paz especially dominated her scenes with expressive acting, which didn’t interfere at all with good singing; her “Reste au foyer, petit grillon” soliloquy was particularly touching. The lesser principals were all strong as well: Alexander Chen was a sympathetic Pandolfe, henpecked by Rebecca Thau, who was a delightfully bitchy Madame de la Haltière; their daughters, Noémie (Hagar Adam) and Dorothée (Ruva Chigwedere) were elegantly ditzy in what were almost slapstick roles. James Rose, as the King hoping to find a princess for his Dauphin, was wryly bemused by it all. Natalie Choo, the Fairy Godmother, had a difficult coloratura role; her tone had too much vibrato at first, but warmed up to a lovely sound by Act III with a precise staccato in the manner of the Bell Song in Lakmé.
Placing an orchestra on the floor between the stage and the audience always risks overwhelming the singers. Here the instrumental complement was reduced to strings 3-3-3-3-2, paired woodwinds including piccolo and English horn, brass 2-2-0-0, timpani, three percussionists, and harp. Some changes in scoring were inevitable; two of the usual four horns, for example, have to be substituted sometimes with bassoons. (Even Wagner did this now and then.) From my seat in the second balcony, I nevertheless came to realize that this practical reduction of a full opera orchestra was quite workable in a small theater, and it’s as reasonable to think of Cendrillon as a chamber opera just as one might consider Cosí fan tutte. The sound was good and I could hear the singers clearly almost all the time. This instrumental ensemble, made up entirely of nonprofessionals, was ably conducted by Benjamin P. Wenzelberg; I remembered him from last year’s Fledermaus in which he sang Prince Orlovsky, but he shows no difficulty in an entirely different discipline.
From what I was able to tell, without consulting the score, this production of Cendrillon cut some numbers, especially dances, for whatever practical reasons. But even in abbreviated form it reminded us of Massenet’s way with melody, a mastery of musical technique and stagecraft; his charm dominated the opera house as did no other French composers for half a century between Meyerbeer and Debussy, and he remains durable today. To see and hear an operatic tradition kept so ably kept alive in a student production proved particularly gratifying.
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.