By Bryson David Hoff
Nearly every culture has at some version of the Cinderella fairy tale. Thanks to the machinations of the Walt Disney Company, America is most familiar with the Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, which was the basis of the animated film released by the studio in 1950. This same version of the story is the inspiration behind French composer Jules Massenet’s rarely-performed opera, first produced in Paris in 1899 and this season produced for the first time by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The story should be more or less familiar to most opera-goers: Lucette (soprano Siobhan Stagg) is the daughter of a country gentleman named Pandolfe (bass-baritone Derek Welton), who has recently been remarried to a cruel noblewoman, Madame de la Haltière (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop) with two daughters (soprano Emily Pogorelc and mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker) whom she dotes on while neglecting and abusing Lucette. When a royal ball is announced to find a wife for the prince of the kingdom (mezzo-soprano Alice Coote), Lucette is left behind while the rest of her family attends. However, the intervention of her Fairy Godmother (coloratura soprano Marie-Eve Munger) provides Lucette with a stunning gown, an opulent carriage, and a pair of glass slippers that will ensure that she is not recognized at the ball.
She and the prince are instantly smitten with one another, however she is forced to flee before the stroke of midnight breaks the spell, leaving behind a single glass shoe. The prince is distraught, Lucette is distraught, there’s a massive search for the girl whose feet fits the shoe, and eventually everyone lives happily ever after.
What makes Massenet’s opera impressive is not its plot. It’s that, of all the many iterations of this story, Massenet’s may be among the most mature. That is to say, rather than focusing on the lush romance or the elements of magical spectacle, Massenet’s gift is his and librettist Henri Caïn’s interest in the emotional state of his heroine: her despair at the beginning of the opera and her turmoil and confusion the morning after the ball are particular highlights that make one wonder why it’s taken so long for this work to be performed on the Lyric stage.
The taught writing is helped by Stagg’s absolutely stunning and powerful voice, coupled with her undeniably magnetic stage presence. This production represents her American debut and certainly raises hopes that she will find her way back to the Lyric stage again sooner rather than later.
Laurent Pelly’s staging has been acclaimed in every previous city to host Cendrillon and it is easy to see why. His treatment of the piece’s comic moments is laughter inducing while still seeming germane to the piece. The haute-couture costume designs, which are also Pelly’s creation, are also sterling works of comedic art, complimenting Massenet’s send up of the French elitism of his time with a send up of the contemporary flavor of elitism.
In short, while Cinderella may be a story ubiquitous enough to be a cliché, there’s enough artistry, humor, and pathos in this version that makes the Lyric trip well worth it. Not to mention that the familiarity of the story makes it an excellent choice for opera-loving parents to pass on their love to the next generation.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Cendrillon” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through January 20, 2019. More information and tickets are available here.