Fairy tales have been with us for a long time. The field of proto-linguistics has revealed that the genre may be thousands of years old, and it incorporates the hopes, dreams, and moral lessons that our primordial ancestors cherished before they settled down into what we call civilization. The Cinderella tale—of an oppressed daughter who escapes her trials by matching the right footwear and thus graduates to a regal existence—is filled with the universal symbolism of fate triumphing over adversity.
Rendered in French as “Cendrillon,” the story evolved in Greek, Arabian, Chinese, and other mythologies long before Charles Perrault wrote down France’s version in the 1697 collection Tales of Mother Goose. A son of France’s glorious seventeenth century, Perrault turned to writing late in life after pursuing a career as a manager of royal properties for the “Sun King,” Louis XIV. Enduring favorites ever since, his tales have delighted and informed generations of readers, with and without their simplified (if no longer always politically correct) refraction through the animated lens of Disney.
Indeed, the director Laurent Pelly’s production of Massenet’s version of the tale, which has been seen around the world and reached Chicago this season, was inspired by his grandmother’s antique leather-bound volume. Barbara de Limburg’s sets are enclosed within walls inscribed by Perrault’s lucid text, the simplicity of which belies the tale’s more serious psychological probing. Pelly’s production presents a heartening Alice in Wonderland quality, with Cinderella’s rivals traipsing about in oddly shaped red dresses that recall the Queen of Hearts (Pelly also designed the costumes). Sparsely decorated rooms were augmented by fairy-tale props and some reminders that the myth retains relevance in modern times. The enchanted forest, that universal symbol of the subconscious, is rendered here as chimney pipes mushrooming over the rooftops of Paris. The Fairy Godmother issues her final benediction from atop a vast stack of books. The spirits she commands are simulacra of the real Cinderella, female in form and easily adapted to the tasks necessary to take the real girl, named Lucette, to the ball.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago wasted no effort capitalizing on the production’s magical qualities to advertise to young people, large numbers of whom were seen braving the town’s frosty January weather to attend and, among other things, have their photos taken with dazzlingly tiaraed princesses in the opera house’s elegant art deco foyer. There was no shortage of enchantment displayed in the house’s Pedersen Room, a unique dining venue open only to ticketholders, which offered a pleasant range of wines, exquisitely prepared lamb and swordfish dishes, and its signature coffee-flavored Opera Cake.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago wasted no effort capitalizing on the production’s magical qualities to advertise to young people, large numbers of whom were seen braving the town’s frosty January weather to attend and have their photos taken with tiaraed princesses in the opera house’s elegant art deco foyer.
Massenet’s version of the Cinderella tale, which premiered in 1899, enriches it with some fin-de-siècle sensibilities. Gripped by an ecstatic Wagnerism in the decades after the titanic German composer’s death, Massenet and his French counterparts either sought to mimic his success (Massenet’s contemporaries derided him as “Mademoiselle Wagner”) or escape from his overpowering influence. Dismissed by detractors as “Mademoiselle Wagner” for his early imitative proclivities, Massenet tried to bridge the gap by engaging with Wagnerian color to illuminate his opera’s ravishing duets while answering critics with a return to the traditional operatic forms of aria and recitative that Wagner had abandoned in favor of continuous melody and organic scenes. The effect endows the characters with developmental arcs that are usually absent from more standard retellings of the Cinderella tale, reminding audiences that myths endure because they tell them so very much about themselves.
In the right circumstances, this fractured approach can overcome the potential pitfalls of a mixed style. Pelly’s tight direction and a splendid cast made this effort a success. The young Australian soprano Siobhán Stagg performed the title role with an effecting douceur that nevertheless rose to near-Wagnerian levels of dramatic power. Her Prince Charming, a trouser part in Massenet, went to the talented mezzo Alice Coote, who pulled off the role’s androgyny so convincingly that one could have believed her to be a promising new countertenor. With looks recalling the suave late French film actor Louis Jourdan, her portrayal captured the Prince’s transformation from a spoiled and shallow youth to an ardent romancer tempered into maturity by his quest for true love. Her arching tones combined extraordinary control and a solid technique in an extraordinary capacity for ardor that would bewitch any woman. Derek Welton’s stentorian Pandolfe, Cinderella’s father, explored the nuances of a character who is more perceptive than the standard treatments of the tale allow.
As the awful stepmother—the noble and obnoxious Madame de la Haltière—the veteran singer Elizabeth Bishop could not be ignored. Her transition from soprano to mezzo has proved a full success, with contralto-range low notes blustering out the character’s pushy posturing. Emily Pogorelc and Kayleigh Decker made noteworthy impressions as the horrid stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée. The soprano Marie-Eve Munger’s Fairy Godmother had a wiry tone but hinted at some talented contralto singing. It was unfortunate that only the more experienced Coote and Bishop, and the Québécoise Munger, among the principals, fielded solid French diction, but Sir Andrew Davis drew a masterful performance from the Lyric Orchestra.