Cendrillon – Louise Sjöstedt
Le Fée – Sophia Michailidou
Le Prince Charmant – Julia Riley
Madame de la Haltière – Ivana Dimitrijevic
Noémie – Laura Parfitt
Dorothée – Maria Kontra
Pandolfe – Seung-Wook Seong
Le Roi – Adam Miller
Le Surintendant des plaisirs – Whitaker Mills

Millennium Dance 2000

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Martin André

Director – Ian Rutherford
Designer – John Clarke
Choreographer – Jenny Weston
Lighting – Mike Gunning

Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: 10 March, 2005
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

Performances of “Manon” and “Werther” apart, Massenet’s operas have still not found a regular place in the opera house, so it was an especial pleasure to encounter his fairy-tale opera, “Cendrillon”, at the Royal Academy. A fairly traditional version of the Cinderella story, Cendrillon was written at about the same time as “Thais” and “Sappho”. But it does not have the exoticism and overheated sexuality to which Massenet’s operas can be prone and for this reason the opera has endeared itself to a public and critical establishment who are still slightly queasy with operas like “Thais”.

Members of Royal Academy Opera, the RAM’s post-graduate course, performed “Cendrillon”. This was the third performance of four.

Director Ian Rutherford had his work cut out producing a magical opera, complete with transformation scenes, on a small stage with limited budget, a chorus of eight and a dance troupe of 4. He and designer John Clarke showed a great deal of imagination and ingenuity and whilst a more luxurious production would have been welcome, at no time did I feel that Rutherford and his cast were selling Massenet short. Clarke had designed a simple single set, which could be transformed with the aid of screens, back projections and some very atmospheric silhouettes.

Performing French opera of this period is very much a question of style; too often nowadays operas by Massenet and his contemporaries are given in a generic international style, rather that with a real sense of French opera and for French vocalism. The opera opened with a stylish account of the dramatic prelude under Martin André and the Royal Academy Sinfonia displayed a real feel for Massenet’s music; the musicians played with subtlety and flexibility, especially when accompanying the singers.

Rutherford had chosen to set the opera in the early 1900s, which in theory is perfectly acceptable. But this meant that for Act One we got a photography scene (Cinderella’s father Pandolfe is made a photographer), callisthenics for Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, and even a car. Perhaps Rutherford did not really trust Massenet. Luckily things calmed down in the remaining acts and we had no more novelties just a simple telling of the story, which is all that it needs.

Ivana Dimitrijevic was a wonderfully dramatic Madame de la Haltière, Cinderella’s stepmother. I am not sure that her voice was quite ideal for the role; I suspect that she will grow into far more dramatic pieces, but she created a truly memorable, monstrous but chic character. As her two daughters Noémie and Dorothée, Laura Parfitt and Maria Kontra were nicely differentiated but made a fine double act. Unfortunately, Dimitrijevic, Parfitt and Kontra had all been encouraged to rather over-act and whilst they were undoubtedly funny, I thought that a little less might have made a great deal more of the roles.

That ‘less is more’ was shown by the fine, understated performance of Seung-Wook Seong as Pandolfe, Cinderella’s father. He laboured under that problem that all young singers have when essaying roles made for ageing character actors. But if he missed some of Pandolfe’s world-weariness, he brought to the role an attractive voice and a nice feel for understated comedy. He wisely did not attempt to play the role as an old man, so he managed to create a sad clown, a character for whom we could feel sorry. He had a good feel for Massenet’s musical style and his duet with Cinderella in Act Three, when they remember their past lives, was one of the musical highlights.

In the title role, Louise Sjöstedt had an attractive stage presence and was convincingly the underdog without ever overdoing it. Musically she did not seem quite at home in the more comic scenes in Madame’s house, as if she was always holding back and could not achieve the requisite lightness. She came into her own in the more dramatic scenes with the Prince and La Fée; here she seemed more comfortable and her voice took on a dramatic lustre.

With Julia Riley, who sang the Prince, we had a singer who seemed entirely at home in Massenet’s world. From the Prince’s very first passionate outburst, Riley sang with intensity of tone combined with style and intelligence that made her seem near ideal. In their duets, her and Sjöstedt combined to convincingly suggest two young people, passionately in love; both sang with intensity and tenderness.

Manipulating all this, of course, was La Fée, the fairy godmother. In Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain’s version she is not quite the figure of good that we are accustomed to. In Act Three, after the ball, she keeps the two lovers separated by a wall of light and seems to test them. Sophia Michailidou emphasised the otherworldly lack of human tenderness. Her coloratura was, perhaps, not quite brilliant enough but it was beautifully expressive.

The smaller roles were very well taken, with Adam Miller as a noble King and Whitaker Mills as Le Surintendant de plaisirs. La Fée was well supported by an entourage of spirits and attendants played by the hard-working chorus and the dancers from Millennium Dance 2000. Rutherford and his choreographer Jenny Weston had integrated dance into the production in a way that was wholly admirable. It was lovely to see dance being used properly in a small-scale production, which gave insight into the structure that Massenet intended – with dream sequences and fairy interludes.

If perhaps not every member of the cast will become known for singing lyric French opera, all performed quite creditably; some showed a real feel for the style of this music and others demonstrated voices which are going to grow into a more dramatic arena.

This was an enterprising excursion into the world of late-nineteenth-century French opera. The entire team at Royal Academy Opera is to be congratulated on a performance that showed a confident grasp of style as well as some truly lovely singing.

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