Massenet: Cendrillon (2 DVD)
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Recent Grammy award-winner Joyce DiDonato stars as Cinderella in the debut Covent Garden production of Massenet's Centrillon. DiDonato captures all hearts- not just Prince Charming's- in this enchanting, sophisticated retelling of the classical fairy tale. The charming production is by the famed French opera director Laurent Pelly (who also directed the best-selling DVD of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez).
The Cinderella fairy tale as seen through the eyes of the belle epoque, Massenet's Cendrillon was first performed at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1899 and its gorgeous score embraces pathos, pastiche, broad humor, subtle eroticism and sheer magic. In Summer 2011, its debut at London's Royal Opera House was built around mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who first took on the title role at the Santa Fe festival in 2006.
The New York Times found Joyce DiDonato's performance "thoroughly enchanting. She won sympathy for the girl's plight at once, and her exquisite articulation of the repeated phrase "Vous etes mon Prince Charmant" in the first love duet- surely the opera's most ravishing moments- was flawless."
Supporting DiDonato are bass-baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont, who made his Covent Garden debut in this production, soprano Eglise Gutierrez, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, contralto Ewa Podles, and conductor Bertrand de Billy.
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Top Customer Reviews
More than thirty years later comes this delightful DVD from a Laurent Pelly production at Covent Garden, and it rightfully restores the Prince to the mezzo soprano, and what a mezzo she is. Alice Coote is a perfect prince, besotted by his Cendrillon and singing with power and finesse. The wonderful duets Massenet assigned to the lovers are simply gorgeous here. The supporting cast is excellent with Eglisse Gutierrez a wonderfully worldly La Fee and singing with superb control, the fearsomely funny Eva Podles as the imperious and pompous step mother. My only caveat is Jean-Philippe Lafont's wobbly, unfocused singing, which undermined the tenderness in his one big scene with Cendrillon.
At the center of this confection is Joyce di Donato. I never thought anyone could match von Stade in the part. Ms. DiDonato's is fully her equal with softly lofted pianissimi, a rich tonal pallette, and equally elegant French. Her lower range is a bit more earthy than von Stade's --not a complaint--a compliment in the best sense. Bertrand de Billy's supple conducting is the icing on the cake.
This is superb compliment to the CBS recording and no serious collector should be without both!
It is easy to critize Massenet and other French composer of the mid nineteenth century such as Delibes, Thomas and Gounod. They were guilty of assaulting great works of literature, emasculating them and wonder of wonders they were successful--for a time. (I am excluding Berlioz, Bizet and Debussey from this group for obvious reasons.) Massenet was perhaps the most successful of the group. He was prolific and wrote in many styles and genres. He chose never to repeat a genre. What he and his colleagues were able to do was write lovingly for the voice and singers responded by singing their music. When He died in 1912 he had been oblivious to the winds of change and while he couldn't ignore Wagner, the influence was essentially superficial. What he wasn't oblivious to were the charms of many of the prima donnas who sang the roles of Manon, Esclarmond, Herodiade. He was also guilty of tailoring a role to a specific singer. This was not "high art" as the German, say, conceived it. It was entertainment. The twentieth century repaid Massenet by ignoring him.
Luckily these criticisms are of little consequence today and if you are not immune to charm and delicacy an opera such as Cendrillon can be immensely satisfying--at least I found it so. And it could hardly be otherwise with Joyce DiDonao who sings ravishingly. Her Prince Charming is the English mezzo Alice Coote whose voice is darker and probably large than DiDonato's. Their duets are sublime. The decision to cast Eva Podles as the stepmother was brilliant. This artist has too long been underexposed and any reason to cast her should be acted on. Jean-Phillipe LaFont as Pandolfe is the only native Frencbh speaker, but he has a wobble that is wearisom--my only criticism but certainly not a deal breaker. The Fairy Godmother--here known as La Fee--is sung by Eglise Gutierrez; her French is perhaps the poorest, but she has the top notes and is enchanting.
What I find most troubling about this release and newer DVDs is the failure to provide the cue points in the accompanying notes. Initially we got not only the cue points but the artists involved. Virgin was never one for providing extensive notes and now they are modeling their packaging after Kultur--a poor role model. I am old enough that I remember when I bought complete operas in the days of 78's. There were no notes. LP's of course changed all that. I wonder why the companies think they are absolved from providing any data--or at least data that would help the listening experience. At Least Kultur does (or did) provide the cue points.
Nevertheless, this is a delightful opera and it is well presented by The Royal Opera. Laurent Pelly created a ingenious setting with movable walls which are covered [in French] with the story of Cinderella, and which open and close book-like. The opera's story line is much closer too the original [written by C. Perrault] than that of the Rossini: here Cenerentola has a henpecked father who married a devilish old countess with two daughters. The costumes are lavish [designed by Mr. Pelly], and the action is well directed. Most of the singers are excellent, especially my favorites, Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, [Cendrillon and the Prince Charmante] with their many love duetts. The coloratura soprano Fairy Mother [Eglise Gutierrez] has a beautiful voice and I will be looking for her on other DVD-s. Ewa Podles, the experienced Polish mezzo, brings most of the humor to the stage with her two "daughters". Jean-Philippe Lafont, the father, has relatively simple music to sing, but unfortunately he has difficulties finding the right starting note when the orchestra does not give it to him ahead [which is very often, since this is how Massenet wrote the music] and then he sounds "bleating". The dances are entertaining and well choreographed and the overall visual impression is very good. Bertrand Billy is an excellent conductor and he keeps the production going at a good clip.
In summary, this DVD will give you plenty of pleasure, especially if you watch it a couple of times.
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