Cendrillon, Royal Opera House, London
Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Holland Park, London
Rinaldo, Glyndebourne, East Sussex
A picture-perfect production of Massenet's take on the enduring fairy tale brings the Royal Opera House season to a triumphant end
Sunday 10 July 2011
First seen in Santa Fe, Laurent Pelly's pert, postmodern staging of Cendrillon is a fairytale ending to the Royal Opera House season.
Crisply executed, with walls fashioned from the pages of Perrault's story and an enchanted forest of Parisian chimney pots (design by Barbara de Limburg), it is more than a showcase for its leading lady, Joyce Di Donato (Lucette), and her scene-stealing, cross-dressing beau, Alice Coote (Prince Charmant). Premiered in 1899, Massenet's fantasy traces the history of French opera from the rustic wheeze of a Lullian musette to the grand divertissements of Versailles, the night-sweats of Berlioz, the frank sensuality of Bizet, the tart satires of Offenbach, and the subtle assimilation of the Wagnerian aesthetic.
The opera begins with an unhappy marriage. Lucette's hen-pecked father (Jean-Philippe Lafont) reminisces with the florid self-pity of a drunk, while his second wife (Ewa Podles) hectors her daughters and their couturiers and coiffeurs: Never be too trite or too original! You get the hair you pay for! Ninnies in hobble-skirts, Noémie and Dorothée (Madeleine Pierard and Kai Rüütel) hang on her every word. These are the social climbers of Massenet's era, while the court of the King (Jeremy White) is the ancien régime. So far, so Manon. But Cendrillon also points to the future. Listen carefully to the lavender-grey chromatics of the enchanted forest and there are pre-echos of Pelléas et Mélisande, a work premiered only four years later.
Pelly deftly balances humour and pathos, stillness and commotion, allowing the central characters space to breathe. Peeping out from the skirting board like a little mouse, Massenet's heroine is warm, forgiving, resourceful. Di Donato captures these qualities perfectly, despite intermittently fragile intonation, but it is Coote's Prince that dazzles. Heartsick and lonely, exquisitely bored, this handsome boy's transformation into an ardent lover is more spectacular than any sequinned coup de théâtre – a vocal performance of immense sophistication and unguarded, untiring beauty. While Podles camps it up as the bellowing battleaxe and Lafont rumbles lugubriously, Eglise Gutiérrez's fairy pirouettes over a narcotic wash of har- monics, aided by a superlative sextet of Spirits. Though conductor Bertrand de Billy could refine the seasoning in this richly perfumed score, the orchestral performance is moreish.
Irresistibly entertaining in a small theatre, Liam Steel's subversive choreography loses focus on the wide, sunlit stage of Opera Holland Park. Dancers are a constant presence in his debut production of Le nozze di Figaro, juggling pot-plants, curtains, chairs without legs, mirrors without glass and a broken window frame for Cherubino's emergency exit, as Figaro and his bride stage a small revolution in the Almaviva household.
The year is 1914, the setting a minor stately home, the atmosphere mutinous. Much of it is sharp, sweet and well-observed. But Steel's predilection for physical illustrations of abstract notions – servants as pieces of furniture, revolution as perpetual movement – needs more discipline than this cast can muster. Though Sarah Pring's Marcellina and Andrew Glover's Basilio embrace the exaggerated mannerisms of physical theatre, Jane Harrington's winsome Susanna, Hannah Pedley's priapic Cherubino, George von Bergen's Count, Matthew Hargreaves's urbane Figaro and Elizabeth Llewellyn's diffident Countess remain naturalistic. The City of London Sinfonia's strings glance and gleam through Matthew Willis's high-speed reading of Mozart's score.
Written in 1711, Rinaldo was the first of Handel's London operas. Psychological depth not yet a priority for the young composer, the scents and sounds of Rome, Naples and Venice are still fresh in the opera's hectic violin and keyboard fizz. At Glyndebourne, two readings of the work unfold at once. Directing from the harpsichord, Ottavio Dantone with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment aims for the heart, while Robert Carsen's staging is tongue-in-cheek, the adventures of Handel's crusader hero the fantasy of nerdy, bullied schoolboy Sonia Prina.
Though the abject desolation of Prina's "Cara Sposa" still registers, Gideon Davey's designs suggest a St Trinian's party at the Playboy Mansion: the male characters are infantilised, History Boys to a man, Carsen's women are swots or sluts. Beneath her academic gown and mortar board, Brenda Rae's Armida is a latex-clad dominatrix, more peeved than incandescent. Anett Fritsch's Almirena struggles to project past pigtails and glasses, though even she gets to flash her bottom in the girls' dorm. The most distinguished singing comes from Tim Mead (Eustazio) and Luca Pisaroni (Argante). For those who haven't tired of sadistic teachers and saucy canings after ENO's Dream, this might titillate. For those who simply want to hear a thrillingly inventive score and some knock-out harpsichord solos, Dantone's Proms performance on 25 August looks a better, cheaper bet.
'Cendrillon' (020-7304 4000) to 16 Jul; 'Figaro' (0300 999 1000) to 16 Jul; 'Rinaldo' (01273 815000) to 22 Aug
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