Pulling strings: Nick Kimberley on Welsh National Opera's Cendrillon

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The 1928 UK premiere of Massenet's Cendrillon ('Cinderella') was a puppet show. Nothing wrong with that. Much is made of music's psychologising insights, and while opera is keener on the elemental and instinctual than on the truly psychological, it still shares with puppet shows a preference for bold archetypes over the hesitancies of daily life.

Massenet's Cendrillon sometimes moves from archetype to cliche, but there are disruptive moments, as when Cinderella recounts her midnight flight from the ball as if in a Donizetti mad scene from half a century earlier. Massenet provides a wonderful showcase here and Rebecca Evans makes the most of it, fretting and strutting like loopy Lucia. Yet, as if shy of spoiling the party, Robert Carsen's Welsh National Opera production underplays the melancholy. This is the Christmas season, and the modern taste in fairy tales is for happy endings and monstrous villains.

Panto's most hideous villains would cower before Felicity Palmer's wicked stepmother, a social- climbing ogress who is perhaps a little coarser than Massenet intended. Palmer's raucous caricature takes its lead from Jeremy Sams' inventive translation, sometimes too smart for its own good. The torrents of patter syllables sometimes recall Gilbert and Sullivan - not inappropriate - and at other times degenerate into pseudo-populism. Carsen's staging is set at the heart of the 19th-century bourgeoisie, where no master of the house would bellow at his wife, 'You shut your trap.' Accessibility gone rancid, or a small price to pay for a vivid translation clearly enunciated?

Michael Levine's neat sets grow from a single jeu d'esprit involving changes of scale that whisk us in and out of reality, so that the magic scene in the fairy world takes place on the giant window-sill of a room we have just seen at normal size. It's cleverly done, although more could be done with Cinderella's 'mad scene'.

Making his British debut, Patrick Fournillier lovingly coaxes Massenet's distinctive style of heady enchantment from soloists, chorus and orchestra. Both Rebecca Evans (Cinderella) and Lillian Watson (the Fairy Godmother) delivered some pinched top notes, yet both are radiant presences, Evans skittishly eager, Watson serene. I can't help thinking that Donald Maxwell, a wonderful character actor, would rather make the father more creepy. Pamela Helen Stephen's Prince Charming is, well, charming: and, as noted, Palmer is sui generis. A fine ensemble performance in a production that perhaps pays too much respect to Massenet's hasty happy ending. While the multitudes sing 'As we bid you adieu, may we fervently pray that your dreams come true,' I wondered if something of the quality of dreams had been sanitised in the name of family entertainment. Bah, humbug.

Continues on tour until 17 December; for details: 0891 6001946