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by on 24 November 2018

Butterflies at Midnight


by Jules Massenet, libretto by Henri Cain

Glyndebourne Opera, New Victoria Theatre, Woking until 23rd November, then tour continues until 1st December.

Review by Mark Aspen

Opéra féerie … a pretty term for a sadly neglected genre. What is dream; what is reality? Why is this magic; why is this actuality? Who am I; who is my personality? For a child, fairy tales build a safe bridge between infantile fantasies and adult realities. Often for the adolescent though, the bridge feels as if it is crumbling. So, just in case “pretty” sounds like beauty sweetened, Fiona Shaw’s direction of Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Cendrillon adds a delightful piquancy to Massenet’s mix of magic and l’amore … topped with a surprise garnish à la mode.

Visually Cendrillon is magic! Designer, Jon Bausor and lighting designer, Anna Watson, both new to Glyndebourne, have created a mystic world of mirrors, prismatic periaktoi of glass. Set against rich blues and greens, floats an ethereal pastel realm, inhabited by fleeting figures, in a “now you see them now you don’t” fantasy. The soft, delicate and flowing is set against the hard, brittle and crystalline.

Cendrillon 2

The set beautifully complements Massenet’s fine filigree of a score that interweaves voice, music and chorus into a gossamer of lyrical music. Cendrillon teases out the subtleties and psychological insights of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, the original story written 1698 that is the evolutionary precursor of the children’s fairy tale, Victorian pantomimes and modern films. Two centuries on, Massenet understood that Perrault’s parable holds a mirror to human nature and is not just a story of virtue overcoming cruelty. Within the familiar framework of the story, Massenet’s librettist Henri Cain interpolated an episode in which the distraught heroine, thinking she has lost her Prince Charming, runs off in near-suicidal turmoil and falls asleep in a wood. In a dream conjured by the Fairy Godmother, her al-fresco resting place becomes a magic bower, in which they are united in a mystical consummation ceremony.

The bower gives ample opportunity for singing spirits and dancing imps to create fascinating tableaux reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but without asinine liaisons. A lithe troupe of five contemporary dancers, choreographed seamlessly by Sarah Fahie, animates this landscape, and indeed all of the scenes, in keeping with delicate web of the music and adding to the wit and humour that also runs under the opera.Cendrillon 3

One of these dancers is discovered as the overture starts while a leprechaun cobbler sits making a slipper. In a prelude dumbshow with the child Lucette, who in a decade or so is to become known as Cendrillon, the child, beautifully enacted by Megan Silburn, tries on the slipper. The slipper is one of several visual motifs that reappear. Butterflies are ubiquitous, and if its symbolism is of emerging sexual awareness, then perhaps also is the slipper. Glass in its various forms is also omnipresent, that mirror to human nature and to ourselves.

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The elegant pale grey facades of exclusive shops, Bond Street plus, open the opera. Here the stepmother, Madame de la Haltière with her rancorous daughters Noémie and Dorothée shop ‘til they drop. Potuguese soprano Eduarda Melo and mezzo Kezia Bienek take on the ugly sisters with great gusto, sort-of Amy Winehouse and Diana Dors on a binge, meow-meowing about everyone and each other whilst indulging in that modern egocentric obsession, the selfie on the mobile. Agnes Zwierko has great fun with the role the battleaxe mum, Madame de la H, pushing the role towards the direction of the panto dame. All her servants defer tersely to her as they help her struggle into her gaudy gowns for the ball, but not before she has slipped in bum-falsies and corseted herself in Clingfilm, in desperate attempts to buttress her image. Meanwhile, the sisters are being pampered with hyperbolic cosmetics, blushers, Botox and blow-dry. Zwierko’s mezzo has presence and power, used to its full effect in Act IV when she bursts in with the news of the Prince’s entourage coming with the lost slipper, obviously for her daughters, she exultantly announces.

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Her poor old hen-pecked husband Pandolphe keeps his head down and wishes himself back in his old countryside home, fishing. He is more comfortable in tweeds, Barbours and bucket-brimmed hats with fishing flies in the hatband, than the white-tie grandeur of the Haltière mansion where his misplaced ambitious social climbing has brought him. William Dazeley’s characterisation of Pandolphe as crushed and world-weary is warmly rounded in his rich baritone. He has some sympathetically touching duets with Lucette, as they remember his late wife, Lucette’s mother, before the soubriquet of Cendrillon attached to her, just as the cinders attached to her cheeks when she was demeaned as the tweenie-maid.

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Needless to say, the essence of Cendrillon’s late mother is subsumed in The Fairy. A tall sophisticated, elegant figure, clad in pale she-mink, cool as a catwalk model, yet full of maternal warmth for her protégée, Caroline Wettergreen excels as The Fairy in her balanced acting, whereas the clear purity of her coloratura soprano voice is more then up to the demands of Massenet’s score in its acrobatic runs and trills, which seem almost effortless.

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The magical transformation from rags to rich adornments is vested on the somnambulant Cendrillon via the agency of the dancing spirits who whirl her around in a garment-carrier until she emerges in a ball gown of dazzling blue, from a chrysalis to an Adonis Blue butterfly. In case the symbolism is hard to miss, a shadowgraph image of a butterfly flitters across the room. And it is in shadowgraph that we see her coach, formed from the banqueting table and chairs, and the prancing horses, shadows of the fire-dogs alongside the hearth where the ragged Cendrillon still sleeps.

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Meanwhile, in the King’s palace, there appears to be concern about the health of the adolescent Prince. We might have put it down to puberty, but The Dean (Anthony Osborne) takes charge, performing some pseudo-surgery, which involves examining his heart, which is now worn on his sleeve, quite literally, while a clock becomes his ersatz ticker. Time, maybe they imply, for coming of age. The King (Adam Marsden) just wants to kick him out of his teenage lassitude.

Cendrillon 20Alix Le Saux’s appealing portrayal of Cendrillon has great charm, a heroine of selfless fortitude in spite of all her mistreatment. In the breeches role of Prince Charming, Eléonore Pancrazi makes the emotional journey from an indolent and depressed teenager to a confident noble, from being sick with love to being charged with love; for when Cendrillon meets Prince Charming at the ball, it is love at first sight for both. The midnight chimes come all too quickly in the playful frustrations of a mirror-maze. When next they meet it is in the enchantment of the magic bower, where their feeling blossom. Le Saux and Pancrazi are both French mezzo-sopranos, but my, how different are the timbre of their voices. Le Saux has a soft delicacy and Pancrazi’s soprano dramatico has a brooding colour lower in the range. (Massenet calls for a “falcon soprano”, singing in the style of Cornélie Falcon, a contemporary French soprano who sang at l’Opéra in Paris.) When their voices intermingle beautifully in their pulsating love duets, we know that the two lonely adolescents are totally stricken. The duet in the magical bower is accompanied by the chorus and a harp in the wings, an exhilarating ethereal sound that thrills with enchantment.

Massenet brings together a full and contrasting range of women’s voices, Madame de la Haltière with Noémie and Dorothée, The Fairy with Cendrillon and Prince Charming, all different and all amalgamated into a complete musical and dramatic whole. With the other principals and the delightful Glyndebourne Chorus, in top form under chorus master Nicholas Jenkins, the effect is mesmerising.

As with the voices, so with the instruments. Massenet’s complex interlacing of delicate musical strands is sensitively evoked by conductor Duncan Ward, who consummately conjures all the magic form the augmented Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, which at Woking spills out from the pit with the strings at stalls level, and with occasional excursions into the wings for flute and harp.

And Fiona Shaw’s surprise garnish à la mode ? Well, we discover that not only all that has happened is merely the youthful dream of a pubescent girl, but that it is a Freudian fantasy in which the Prince is a projection of Cendrillon’s erotic attraction to the parlour-maid. To the perceptive, however, there were some subtle signals towards the sapphic denouement. During Cendrillon’s transformation to princess, one of the spirits humorously hands her a small toad which she kisses to no avail and shrugs off. Moreover, didn’t the Prince look remarkably like the parlour-maid all along? It may be argued that Massenet’s prescription that that the Prince should be played by a falcon soprano en travestie nudges the plot in that direction, but it does seem to lay too adult an interpretation of the story. Gender fluidity is part of the Zeitgeist, but this twist in the tale may make things difficult to explain to an accompanying granddaughter. Nevertheless, Shaw presents the concept lightly with unabashed openness. Probably though, the overarching message is that love is to be found close to home, and that love lasts more than ambition.

Massenet’s opéra féerie epitomises the magic of the fairytale, and his entrancing music remains light and delicate as a butterfly, but reflective as a mirror-maze. Fiona Shaw’s Cendrillon stands out as a spellbinding tribute to his insight, and touches the quintessence of the fairytale, a peep into the adult world from the enchantment of childhood.

What is dream? What one fears or desires. Why is this magic? Because life is fascinating. Who am I? Whom I know myself to be.

Mark Aspen
November 2018

Photography by Richard Hubert Smith


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Rigoletto | Mark Aspen
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