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Cendrillon – Massenet’s musical fairytale

Alexandra Coghlan explores the musical world of Cendrillon which premiered at Glyndebourne this autumn as part of Tour 2018 and will make its Festival debut in 2019.

Alexandra Coghlan explores the musical world of Cendrillon which premiered at Glyndebourne this autumn as part of Tour 2018 and will make its Festival debut in 2019.

The premiere of Cendrillon at Paris’s Opera Comique in May, 1899 was a triumph by any standards. Audiences were beguiled by gorgeous costumes and designs, and elaborate and innovative stage effects that brought the magic of Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale Cinderella to new operatic life.

But even among so much spectacle one element of the opera stood out above all others, impressing even the sternest detractors of composer Jules Massenet. ‘All of the music,’ wrote the critic of literary magazine La Revue des deux mondes, ‘is full of melodies, rhythms, harmonies, colours… and the three fundamental characteristics of emotion, enchantment and balance are perfectly portrayed.’

Massenet might be best-remembered today for his two great tragedies, Manon and Werther, but it’s Cendrillon– the composer’s unassuming opera feerie, a musical fairytale spun from romance and moonlight with the lightest of touches – that is arguably his most sophisticated score.

A quick glance through the large and unusual orchestration alone tells us the care with which Massenet painted his pastel coloured tale. A viola d’amore, lute, crystal flute, fife and gongs all add their distinctive, evocative tone to the score, deployed sparingly and for specific atmospheric effect – used to colour the opera’s four very different musical worlds.

Dorothée (Kezia Bienek), Madame de la Haltière (Agnes Zwierko) and Noémie (Eduarda Melo), photo by Richard Hubert Smith

The world of Prince Charming and the court is one of nostalgic, gilded pomp. Massenet conjures its formality and tradition in music that harks deliberately back to the 18th century. A lively sequence of Baroque dances sets the scene at the ball (music that never loses its wit and Belle Epoque personality among the pastiche) while the score’s period instruments come together to create a sound-world for the romantic, gently melancholic, figure of Prince Charming himself.

Set against the elegant, elevated world of the court we have the everyday goings-on at the home of Cendrillon, her stepmother Madame de la Haltière, her two stepsisters and her downtrodden father Pandolfe. There’s a delightful, almost pastoral simplicity to the music of Cendrillon and Pandolfe. Their concerns are simple, their emotions truthful, sincere, and all these are expressed in dialogue of folk-like directness and tunefulness. Artifice and exaggeration, by contrast, are the hallmarks of the music of Mme de la Haltière and her daughters. All are colourful figures of ridicule, whether in the ponderous, mock-solemnity of Madame de la Haltière (written, naturally, for a stentorian contralto) or the chattering, twittering idiocy of Noémie and Dorothée.

But if Cendrillon’s interactions with her father and family belong to the everyday, then her love scenes with the Prince are a different matter. Music that was once simple and artless takes on new richness and complexity, harmonies thicken and darken with Wagnerian chromaticism, and musical dialogue becomes the sensual twist and tug of true duet. Whatever their musical sophistication however, Cendrillon’s young lovers remain essentially pure, kept chaste by Massenet’s decision to cast the role of Prince Charming not as a tenor but a mezzo-soprano. Mature, sexual attraction between man and woman is softened into the innocent, pre-pubescent affection of unbroken voices. The opera’s love scenes sit alongside those of Der Rosenkavalier as some of the most glorious celebrations of the female voice.

Prince Charming (Eléonore Pancrazi) and The Fairy (Caroline Wettergreen), photo by Richard Hubert Smith

At the glittering centre of any good fairytale however is magic. La Fée, Massenet’s Fairy Godmother, counters the worldly clamour of the contralto Mme de la Haltière with her high coloratura soprano. Gossamer-light in its agility and delicacy, sparkling with ornamentation, Massenet’s music for La Fée transforms woods and forests into a fairytale glade, and in a scene invented specifically for the opera, Massenet brings his lovers together in a ‘mystical marriage’ by moonlight. Suffused with light from thick layers of strings, catching the ear with high woodwind, the episode is a counterbalance to the public scenes of the court – a private moment of musical romance equal to anything the composer ever wrote.

It was Massenet himself who caught the beauty of Cendrillon best, describing the score as ‘… inscribed upon a pearl from Perrault’s casket of jewels’. It’s an image that captures both the opera’s delicacy and its radiant, unapologetic beauty – an operatic pearl to be handled with infinite care, and one that shows no sign of losing its lustre.

Cendrillon is on stage at Festival 2019 8 June–2 August

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