Massenet - Cendrillon

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 11 2011

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Production: Laurent Pelly, Benoît De Leersnyder. Sets: Barbara de Limburg. Costumes: Laurent Pelly, Jean-Jacques Delmotte. Choreography: Laura Scozzi, Karine Girard. Lighting: Duane Schuler. Cendrillon: Rinat Shaham. Le Prince Charmant: Frédéric Antoun. Mme de la Haltière: Nora Gubisch. La Fée: Eglise Gutiérrez. Noémie: Ilse Eerens. Dorothée: Angélique Noldus. Pandolfe: Lionel Lhote. Le Doyen: Yves Saelens. Le Surintendant des plaisirs: Quirijn de Lang. Premier Ministre: Donal J. Byrne. Le Roi: Patrick Bolleire. Premier Esprit: Yuhmi Iwamoto. Deuxième Esprit: Charlotte Cromheeke. Troisième Esprit & Une Jeune Fille: Caroline Jestaedt. Quatrième Esprit & Une Jeune Fille: Amalia Avilan. Cinquième Esprit & Une Jeune Fille: Audrey Kessedjian. Sixième Esprit: Camille Merckx. Le Héraut: Pascal Macou. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

There are times when operas are like corporation buses: you wait ages for one, then three turn up at the same time. In over thirty years of unflinching opera-going I’d never seen Massenet’s Cendrillon; this year I’ve seen it twice, in different productions, first at the Opéra Comique, now at La Monnaie in Laurent Pelly’s peripatetic production from Covent Garden, due, I believe, to go on to Lille and the Liceu (and from there, who knows?). So it was a chance for my fellow subscribers and me to compare impressions.

Back in the spring, I started my write-up with a whole “tra-la-la,” as the French call it, about how Massenet is a luxury composer requiring top-flight singers to succeed. Also back in the spring, we had a Lucette who was, as a friend reminisced over coffee between lunch and the performance, “aussi intéressante qu’un plat de nouilles froides sur le bord de l’évier,” i.e., more or less literally, "as fascinating as a dish of cold spaghetti on the edge of the kitchen sink." There isn’t a great deal to say about the cast we had this time round. Eglise Gutiérrez was the same as in Paris, so you have only to refer back, again, to what I wrote earlier this year: the notes are all there (though the top ones are slender indeed) but personality isn’t. Nora Gubisch was a bit of a disappointment, not only in comparison with the outrageous Ewa Podles in Paris, but also because I’ve heard her in better form. Lionel Lhote was perfectly sound as Pandolfe. And our couple of heroes, in this case a soprano and a tenor, though by no means cold noodles, were simply what, once more, the French might call “gentils” – a good looking young couple, brave to take the roles on but at no point making them soar.

Musically, therefore, what with an occasionally ragged orchestra and off-beat chorus (this was, I think, only the second performance) the afternoon didn’t succeed in making sense of what seems to me an odd, disjointed score. I’ve read a lot, with regard to Cendrillon, about Massenet “the magician,” but the afternoon wasn’t magical and, on the home-bound train, when one of the band read out, from the programme notes, that at the time of composition Massenet was “at the height of his powers,” I’m afraid another exclaimed “C’est vache !” – "That’s unkind." (It wasn’t me; save your complaints for her.)

In an interview on La Monnaie’s website, Laurent Pelly talks about his inspiration for the production (my translation): “When I started working with Barbara de Limburg […] I mentioned an old book I’d read at my grandparents' when I was a child. It was an edition of Perrault’s fairy tales illustrated by Gustave Doré. When you’re five or six years old, it’s the kind of book that makes an impression on you: big and heavy, with a red, gilded cover and magnificent pictures […] This book was the basis of our staging, conceived as a giant book of fairy tales that opens and multiplies ad infinitum. We play with the pages, the costumes are inspired by the colours of the cover, the shades of black and white of ashes and the print on the paper. ‘Once upon a time…’ Everything flows from that phrase.”

So yes, the sets were highly mobile walls the colour of yellowing paper, printed with pages from the book, moving smoothly around to form various spaces, and inset with multiple doors. Through these, not only characters but other pieces of set glided: e.g. the smoking chimneys that made up the “forest,” Pelly’s idea being that transporting us to the rooftops (inevitably bringing Mary Poppins to mind) added to the scene’s dreamlike quality. The fairy, in wispy, ashen grey, directed the business from the top of a pile of books. Her followers were identical Cinderellas, carrying little table lamps. The noblemen were in a kind of hybrid court dress, 19th century black and white with breeches and red sashes, but 18th century wigs and 17th century ruffs – and ermine for the king; the women were in a parade of extravagant, deep red dresses with exaggerated forms: hour-glass figures puffed out with padding, giant, bell-like crinolines, balloon skirts, hobble skirts, extravagant bows… At the ball, they did a frenzied, jerky dance that reminded me of The Rocky Horror Show. Only Cinderella’s ball gown was glittering white, fading from grey at the hem, presumably to recall the ashes she’d emerged from. Prince Charming changed from red silk pyjamas, at his sulky start, to ordinary (but nicely-tailored for his trim figure) evening dress. The typography theme was carried through to Cinderella’s carriage, made up of letters and pulled by prancing dancers with horses’ heads, to the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the ball, and to the backs of the chairs in the final act, spelling out “Cendrillon” as they were placed in a row.

A simple staging, dictated, as Pelly said, by the music and easy to read (“C’est le cas de le dire,” as, once more, the French would say). But I can’t say that, for me or the people with me (in fact, "Tarte" was their tart verdict), it actually took off, and I spent much of the afternoon wondering which other singers might have managed it better.

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