FOT unearths a charming rarity with Massenet’s magical “Cendrillon”

By Lawrence Budmen

Linsey Coppens (left) and Maya Davis in Massenet's Cemdrillon" at FRost OPera THeater., PHoto;

Linsey Coppens (left) and Maya Davis in Massenet’s “Cendrillon” at Frost Opera Theater. Photo: Shawn Clark

The fairy tale of Cinderella and Prince Charming has long provided inspiration for creative artists. Prokofiev’s ballet, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical and numerous film adaptations have given the familiar story their own unique spin.

On the opera stage, Rossini’s La Cenerentola has become a repertoire near-staple. But Jules Massenet’s long-neglected 1899 operatic fantasy Cendrillon finally seems to be coming back into favor as well.

On Thursday night Frost Opera Theater director Alan Johnson took the UM Gusman Hall stage to tell the audience that twenty-five minutes after he gives the downbeat for the Frost production of this Gallic confection, New York’s Metropolitan Opera would be premiering its own new production of Cendrillon. Lyric Opera of Chicago will produce the work next season for the first time as well.

It appears Massenet’s time has come and for good reason. Cendrillon is a delightful score. Written in the French composer’s twilight years (which also brought such substantial works as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin and Don Quichotte), Cendrillon seems far removed from the melodramatic romanticism of Manon and Werther, his two most popular operas.

From the quasi-Baroque pastiche overture to the high-stepping, happily-ever-after finale, this score glistens with the verve of the opera comique world of Offenbach and Lecocq. Catchy tunes follow one another in profusion but the duets for Cendrillon and Prince Charmant, a trousers role, chart a different course. The vocal blend and thematic lines are melodically and harmonically adventurous, reflecting the Parisian musical milieu in which Wagnerian music drama and the new impressionistic voice of Debussy were competing for public favor.

Alan Johnson can be counted on to explore such notable operatic byways in thoughtfully conceived, well rehearsed performances. If the Frost production was a less-than-perfect rendering, it still proved a diverting spectacle.

Director Jeffrey Buchman’s staging veered between period fable and brash modernity. While the setting for Cinderella’s house was traditional, albeit with a comedic twist, the Prince’s palace was very 21st-century,  A television camera crew and reporter covered the ball. Paparazzi displayed placards proclaiming “Prince’s love match gala” as would-be princesses walked the red carpet. The clash of styles was occasionally jarring. Still, it was undeniably funny and entertaining.

From the opening bars, Johnson displayed total command of the score. His pacing was flawless with the shifting moods from comedic brio to poignancy to toe-tapping energy achieved seamlessly. The playing of the Frost Symphony Orchestra was polished and well integrated. Especially fine flute and harp duos captured the Prince’s melancholy.

As in past Frost Opera offerings, Johnson fielded a strong cast of gifted student vocalists.

For all her sadness at the cruel treatment by her sisters and stepmother, Linsey Coppens’ Cendrillon projected a touching sense of hope in her dreams of a better life. Her fine sense of French style, voluminous mezzo and plethora of vocal colors riveted attention at her every appearance.

As Prince Charmant, Maya Davis’s lighter sound initially seemed too opaque; she improved throughout the performance and brought strength and finely gauged dynamics to a well-blended Act II duet with Coppens. Davis’s Marlon Brando-like, method actor portrayal of Charmant as a forlorn, tormented young royal seemed to come from another opera and era.

In Massenet’s version, it is La Fée (the fairy godmother) who directs Cendrillon to the palace to try on the missing slipper and reunite with the Prince. Laura Modglin was stunning in this showcase role. Wearing a wild mélange of colors and a mod hairdo, this fairy queen was very much in charge of her cadre of spirits and everyone around her. Massenet’s coloratura writing for this role makes Lucia’s Mad Scene seem like duck soup, but Modglin’s trills and runs were brilliantly executed in a voice both sweet and penetrating.

In an outrageous high red hat, Stephane Moore was the haughty Madame de la Haltière, terrorizing her servants in over-the-top fashion. The evil stepmother seemed absolutely nonplussed when her husband Pandolfe finally stood up to her. Moore’s attractive character mezzo was strong at the high and low extremes of range.

Shannon Richards and Emmalouise St. Amand were bright voiced as scatterbrained flapper stepsisters in exaggerated blond hairdos . Coburn Jones was a sympathetic, henpecked Pandolfe. His warm baritone melded with Coppens’ vibrant palette in a moving duet of sympathy and regret.

Cameron Sledjeski offered dignity and gravitas as Le Roi and Andres Lasaga, Taylor Stilson and Yotsawan Meethongkum provided strongly etched cameos as modern dressed courtiers.

Rosa Mercedes’ zany choreography for the chorus of servants (men in tuxedos, woman in traditional maid garb) and more stylized dances for La Fée’s spirits were wonderfully breezy. Stephan Moravski’s simple but imaginative sets easily moved from the natural world of spirits to Pandolfe’s chaotic house, filled with the Madame’s shopping bags. Nuria Carrasco Dominguez’s array of contemporary costumes entranced the eye and Stevie O’Brian Agnew’s evocative blue and black lighting for the fairy world conjured up theatrical fantasy.

Cendrillon is a charming musical diversion for the young at heart, regardless of age. There is one remaining performance and opera buffs should catch this rarity.

Frost Opera Theater repeats Cendrillon 7:30 p.m. Saturday at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. Christine Jobson will sing the title role.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Fri Apr 13, 2018
at 12:15 pm
No Comments