Little romantic charm, Massenet magic in Lyric Opera’s silly “Cendrillon”

Mon Dec 03, 2018 at 2:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Siobhan Stagg in the title role and Alice Coote as Prince Charmant in Lyric Opera’s production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Jules Massenet just can’t seem to catch a break.

The Frenchman remains the most neglected of the great opera composers 106 years after his death, his music still regarded in some lofty circles as slick, sentimental and superficial. Yet his best stage works, such as Manon and Werther, are a testament to Massenet’s indelible melodic richness, distinctive writing for voices and orchestra and sure sense of theatricality, all of which remain touchstones in the genre.

One has to give credit to Lyric Opera for continuing to bear the torch for Massenet. The company has brought to Chicago audiences a memorable Don Quichotte in 2016 as well as an unmemorable Werther in 2012.  

On Saturday night, Lyric Opera presented its first performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella). And while it’s laudable for the company to mount one of the composer’s less-often-heard works, the results proved mixed at best—undone by dubious casting of the title role and a staging that leaned heavily on campy sight gags, largely leaving the opera’s charm and wistful melancholy in the fairy dust.

Premiered in 1899, Cendrillon is something of an outlier in Massenet’s output—less centered on the Biblical sex and sand of Thaïs or the roiling life-and-death romantic passions of Manon and Werther.

Instead, Cendrillon offers a witty and sophisticated take on the Cinderella fable. While the opera has fewer breakout arias than his other, more popular works, Cendrillon is one of Massenet’s most irresistible scores—a seamless ride of silvery, vivacious music as light, charming and delicious as a slice of Mille-feuille.

Yet that subtle wit and light caprice were mostly missing in action in Laurent Pelly’s well-traveled Santa Fe Opera production,which cloaks the opera in boisterous silliness and elephantine slapstick comedy.

The low-brow tone is set immediately with the appearance of Cinderella’s stepsisters, here costumed in garish getups with massive spherical derrières, like Kim Kardashian on steroids. Mildly amusing initially, the visual gag gets tired as the sisters flounce about the stage for the next two hours. Likewise, most of the comprimarios are encouraged to mug shamelessly and run around waving their arms in ridiculous fashion. Frenetic does not automatically equal funny.

More grievous was the loss of the opera’s romantic allure and innocent charm. The retooling of La Fée (Americanized in the program to “Fairy Godmother”) as a kind of vexed Hollywood bombshell added little to the proceedings. And while it may be hard to avoid tweeness in presenting the opera’s chorus of fairies, I’m not sure having multiple doubles of Cinderella (and later, Prince Charming) wandering around as substitutes brings much starlight and moonbeam to those moments. 

For all its heavy-handedness, Pelly’s knockabout staging is not as fatal as Lyric’s revisionist production of Werther six years ago. Yet the show would have been more successful if the broad comedy was balanced by a more affecting performance in the title role to provide a stronger center of gravity. And in a decidedly uneven American debut as the put-upon Cinderella, Siobhan Stagg was largely a disappointment.

The little-known Australian soprano appears to have the notes for the challenging role—more often taken by mezzos today—which rises into dauntingly high territory at times. Yet Stagg’s slender, reedy tone sounded thin and lightweight throughout the first part of the evening, her voice often fading away into the corners of the house.

While Stagg sang with greater projection and presence after intermission, the main problem is that she brought little feeling or expression to the role, vocally or dramatically. The opera doesn’t work if we don’t have some degree of sympathy for Lucette—the lonely girl who is treated harshly and made to work as a servant by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters, yet who still dreams of happier times and romantic fulfillment with Prince Charming.

But Stagg consistently missed the opportunities in the score to win our affections. Her blandly sung Act I scene (“Reste au foyer, petite grillon” ) brought little feeling or tug at the heartstrings; nor was there much expressive nuance or emotional intensity in the opening of Act 3 where Lucette is devastated by her separation from the Prince. Further, the soprano’s French diction was often cloudy and at times inscrutable.

Dramatically, Stagg was even less convincing. While she looked lovely and resplendent in Cinderella’s shimmering ball gown, her stiff, stagey movements and awkward arm gestures seemed coached, with acting skills rudimentary at best. Possibly, there was more detail of characterization from the singer than one was able to discern sitting nearly 20 rows back from the stage. But her casting looks like another of Lyric Opera’s baffling artistic decisions, along with handing the directorial reins of a new Ring cycle to David Pountney.

Alice Coote provided all of the night’s vocal highlights as Prince Charmant. The English mezzo-soprano possesses enough artistry and experience to bull through the staging excesses, and her vocal gleam and dramatic impact elevated the evening. Coote made the Prince’s lonely pliant in Act 1 an affecting moment and brought emotional fervor to the distressed lover worried that he has lost his mystery woman forever. Even Coote couldn’t make the duets soar single-handedly, undone by Stagg’s lack of passion and a hectic staging that reduced the lovers to bit players in their most important moments. 

There was zero magic about Marie-Eve Munger’s La Fée, as well. The solo native French speaker in the cast, the French-Canadian soprano’s singing of her high-flying coloratura lines was strained and unfocused in Act 2, more agile and flexible in the latter acts.

Sadly, Pelly’s characterization of the benevolent fairy as an imperious blonde bombshell—commanding Lucette and the Prince to kneel, and sashaying about the stage and upstaging their Act 3 duet— made her more annoying than engaging.  At the close of the evening, Pelly hurries the entire cast and extras off the set so Munger can remain alone to conduct the orchestra in the final bars—long after this unlikable character has worn out her welcome.

As Lucette’s put-upon father, Derek Weldon brought a sympathetic presence and serviceable bass-baritone to the role of Pandolfe. The Australian singer’s nostalgic duet with Stagg recalling their peaceful time on a farm before he married her stepmother was a rare moment of lyric repose amid the hijinx. 

Elizabeth Bishop was a worthy villainess as the battleaxe Madame de la Haltière, Lucette’s evil social-climbing stepmother. The veteran mezzo sang solidly, particularly in her Act 3 moment recalling her vaunted family lineage (“and one or two King’s mistresses”). Yet the unsubtle staging provided little opportunity for a light touch, vocally or dramatically. 

The same was true in spades for the show’s cartoonish take on the not-too-bright stepsisters, here reduced to satirical near-robots that only exist for costuming gags. Emily Pogorelc and Kayleigh Decker, as Noémie and Dorothée respectively, were game comic presences, deploying their shelf-extension physiques. Both sang well in their rapid-fire bursts of venom but there wasn’t room for any artistic individuality with Pelly’s comic caricatures. 

Alan Higgs’ King brought fleeting gravity to the witless proceedings. Hoss Brock’s Royal Herald was clarion of tone with jarringly unidiomatic French. Christopher Kenney’s company debut as a particularly silly-ass Master of Ceremonies was miles over the top, likely the result of Pelly’s frenetic direction. Let’s hope there are better opportunities ahead for the first-year Ryan Center member. 

Revival choreographer Karine Girard’s exaggerated comic dance moves were in the same slapsticky vein as Pelly’s direction. Barbara de Limburg’s set designs reflect the current industry mode of cost-effective minimalism with a couple striking visuals—the framing walls with the Cendrillon fable’s words and the piquant horse costumes and Lucette’s carriage evoked some of the storybook charm missing amid the postmodern cynicism.  

Andrew Davis seemed less in his element here than in the more overtly impassioned drama of Werther. The company’s music director gave the big climaxes Wagnerian heft but, as with the over-the-top staging, too much of the score’s sparkling effervescence and wistful charm went by the boards. There were also more moments of miscoordination between singers and the pit opening night than one expects from the company music director.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra played well, especially the woodwinds in their rustic solos in the latter two acts. After a rather rough beginning as the household servants, the Lyric Opera Chorus, under Michael Black’s direction, provided robust and radiant singing as needed in their various guises as fairies and ball guests.

Cendrillon runs through January 20, 2019.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment