Buxton International Festival – Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon

Cendrillon – Opéra comique in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in French with English dialogue adapted by Laura Attridge with English side-titles]

La Fée – Pasquale Orchard
Marie (Cendrillon) – Nikki Martin
Le Prince Charmant – Camilla Seale
Maguelonne – Olivia Carrell
Armelinde – Flora Macdonald
Le Baron de Pictordu – Ross Cumming
Le Comte Barigoule – Andrew Henley

Iwan Davies (piano)

Laura Attridge – Director
Anna Orton – Designer
Michelle Bristow – Costume Designer
Rachel E. Cleary – Lighting Designer

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 July, 2021
Venue: Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK

Pauline Viardot’s version of the Cinderella story (1904) is better described as a salon or drawing room opera, since it lasts for only a little over an hour (hence no interval is necessary) and its small cast is accompanied by piano alone. It is none the worse for that, but is a more or less succinct re-telling of the tale from Charles Perrault’s celebrated collection of stories, omitting the diversions from, or developments of, the plot known from Rossini’s or Massenet’s more prominent operatic settings.

The composer’s own libretto forms a suitable vehicle, therefore, for her refined compositional skills in art song, interspersed with spoken dialogue (sometimes delivered over the piano as melodrama in the strict sense of the word). Occasionally that breaks out into more sustained vocal passages, in truer operatic vein, such as Cinderella’s song at the Prince’s palace, although the two sisters’ duet contribution to the ball simply takes over the ‘Barcarolle’ from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. In its brief way, it evokes the era of the Belle Époque and could be imagined as appearing in a scene in Proust.

A simple set in Laura Attridge’s production, with the grand piano to the side and backdrops of William Morris wallpaper brings the work into an English drawing room, however, with a mixture of fairly traditional comic fairy-tale costumes (outlandish ones for the two sisters) and more contemporary elements. The performance overall is measured, not particularly playing up the comic aspects of the dialogue or plot, other than to let the quiet sincerity of Cinderella and the Prince come through – ably realised by the unaffected simplicity of Nikki Martin and Camilla Seale’s performances respectively – amidst the deliberate persiflage and bombast of the other characters. The rest of the cast offer creditable performances, though they tend to receive comparatively little music in order to get into their stride. Olivia Carrell and Flora Macdonald exploit the chances to express the sisters’ haughtiness to good effect without undue caricature. Iwan Davies at the piano sets the scene and leads the way with discreet authority throughout, stylishly capturing the intimate dimension of this music, rather than taking any more interventionist or heavy-handed approach.

Viardot has probably been best remembered in the century or so since her death as a singer, and as the dedicatee of a remarkable range of vocal pieces by appreciative composers. This is a welcome opportunity, then, in the bicentenary of her birth to assess her own accomplishments in composition.

Further performances on July 16 and 24

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