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Massenet: Cendrillon / De Billy, DiDonato, Coote, Podles, Lafont

Release Date: 05/22/2012 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 2509  
Composer:  Jules Massenet
Performer:  Jean-Philippe LafontEglise GutierrezJoyce DiDonatoEwa Podles,   ... 
Conductor:  Bertrand De Billy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden OrchestraRoyal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Joyce DiDonato stars as Cinderella in the debut Covent Garden production of Massenet's Cendrillon. DiDonato captures all hearts in this enchanting, sophisticated retelling of the classic fairy tale. The charming production is by the famed French opera director Laurent Pelly.

The Cinderella story seen through the eyes of the belle époque, Massenet’s Cendrillon was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1899 and its gorgeous score embraces pathos, pastiche, broad humor, subtle eroticism and sheer magic.

Neglected for much of the 20th century, this entrancing and often surprising opera has found a firmer place in the repertoire over the past 30 years. In Summer 2011 its debut at London’s
Read more Royal Opera House was built around mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, who first took on the title role at the Santa Fe festival in 2006; there, as at Covent Garden, the staging was by French director Laurent Pelly. The décor is inspired by a venerable volume of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales bound in red morocco leather, and the dominant colors are white, black and crimson, though mauve is chosen for the body-hugging gown worn by the voluptuous, capricious Fairy Godmother of Eglise Gutierrez as she scales spellbinding coloratura heights.

The only principal role sung by a man is Cendrillon’s good-hearted but ineffectual father, Pandolfe, portrayed here by bass-baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont, a mainstay of the opera scene in France, but here making his Covent Garden debut. His gentle character hardly stands a chance against his armour-plated wife, the formidable Madame de la Haltière, here embodied in flamboyant vocal and physical style by Polish contralto Ewa Podle?: her cavernous lower notes shake the Royal Opera’s foundations, while her opulently padded derrière sweeps all before (and behind) it.

With the conductor Bertrand de Billy, as the Bloomberg said, proving “what a nonpareil he is in French music,” the Guardian found that “the performance weaves quite some spell.”

R E V I E W:

In Cendrillon by Jules Massenet (1895) Joyce DiDonato again serves notice that she is one of the most treasurable opera singers in the world. She is officially a light mezzo, but she has range and a delectable timbre joined to an irresistible presence, infinite charm, and a vulnerability that is very touching in this marvelous opera.

Cendrillon (Cinderella) is lesser known Massenet but it may be his greatest (only great?) opera. Written when he was 53, world-famous, and very rich, it owes the least to the popular styles of his time. Massenet entirely deserts the heavy-breathing, sometimes manipulative (though often clever) style he had used in operas such as Manon and Werther for a very tender work. Underneath the playfulness is an ache for a time lost for good, a sadness, not heavy but recognizable to anyone who has seen youth fade. Times were really not better back then; but then, regardless, magic was possible and a happy ending might just be snatched at the last minute.

Cendrillon is a straightforward telling of the Perrault fairy tale, but it is a summa of all the music Massenet knew. He looks far backward to the baroque world of Lully and Rameau, providing as send up and homage irresistibly tuneful and fantastically scored dance music (trombones and a tuba figure in, always with wit); he also glances at the French comedies of Rossini and of Offenbach, and finally looks forward. The music given the Fairy Godmother (known simply as The Fairy), though the vocal line is high and very florid, has evocative, often original scoring and a harmonic palette that suggests musical impressionism—Ravel and particularly Debussy learned a lot from this score. Debussy’s sonata for flute, viola, and harp from 21 years later is clearly suggested by a wonderful sequence for exactly those instruments within the fairy music. Of great interest too are the duets between Cinderella and her Prince Charming, written to be sung by a contrasting mezzo—they are glorious in themselves, but Richard Strauss clearly had them in mind when composing Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

The witty production by Laurent Pelly is set in an old children’s book with red binding, open to show gilded pages as walls on which words from the story are written in antique script. He also designed the costumes, which are often hilarious. He plays with feminine silhouettes (dress shapes) from all the periods suggested in the music, but invents a lot of flamboyantly crazy gowns. The men wear attire from the 1890s. He has fun with a very game chorus, who among other things dance a wild tarantella (dancers are cleverly mixed in for the more elaborate choreography). He gets good acting from the cast.

Alice Coote as the Prince is plausibly boyish and deploys her rich voice well, managing her final outburst with some command. Eglise Guttierrèz as The Fairy sings her elaborate music ably, and has fun with Pelly’s conception of her as a sort of punk princess with purple hair and an attitude. Although a couple of high passages are a stretch, Ewa Podles, the evil step-mother, booms out her massive chest notes and is hilarious. Jean Pierre Lafont as the father has the style down perfectly but has less than the ideal resonance for his gorgeous duet with a desolate Cendrillon. Small roles are very well done. Bertrand de Billy relishes the brilliant orchestration and gets excellent playing, vividly captured on the DVD; his energy, though appropriate, doesn’t slight the tenderness in the music. It’s a wonderful performance of an opera more people should know.

There is no DVD competition, but the Sony recording with the great Frederica Von Stade is available. She and the tragically short lived Ruth Welting (The Fairy) are wonderful, and so, surprisingly, is the imaginative conducting of Julius Rudel. Unfortunately, Prince Charming is cast wrongly with a tenor, the distinguished but in this case dyspeptic-sounding Nicolai Gedda who obviously knows his timbre is all wrong.

-- Albert Innaurato, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Cendrillon by Jules Massenet
Performer:  Jean-Philippe Lafont (Baritone), Eglise Gutierrez (Soprano), Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo Soprano),
Ewa Podles (Alto), Alice Coote (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Bertrand De Billy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1899; France 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  5 Customer Reviews )
 Cinderella Never Better May 11, 2017 By Leon S. (Fort Pierce, FL) See All My Reviews "Joyce DiDonato is superb. Excellent production. I highly recommend the Royal Opera House rendition of Massenet's Cendrillon. Enjoy!" Report Abuse
 wonderful September 4, 2012 By alan fetterly (toronto, ON) See All My Reviews "I didnt know how Id like this but I loved it. I has seen von stade, forrester, do this in Ottawa years ago in the most beautiful production ever. I love this music, conducting is amazing, sets are minimal, but work and the costumes, to die for. everyone is wonderful, I can find no fault with anything in this production which says something for me as I am usually highly critical. Do yourself a favor and buy this. You wont be disappointed, guaranteed." Report Abuse
 100% Enjoyable June 18, 2012 By James D Coco C. (Baton Rouge, LA) See All My Reviews "Even if Laurent Pelley's production is not traditionally "pretty," this is a fantastic presentation of Massenet's charming opera. DiDonato and Coote could hardly be bettered. In my mind's ear, I still hear a brighter, Ruth Welting sound for the Fiary Godmother, but Gutierez does a fine job with her darker timbre." Report Abuse
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