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Summer Opera: Massenet's Cendrillon

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, 'Cendrillon': The Slipper Fits Just Fine (Washington Post, June 14)

T. L. Ponick, Cinderella story delivers on charm (Washington Times, June 15)
Continuing with our series Opera in the Summer 2005, we stay right here in Washington for the first of two productions by Washington's own Summer Opera Theatre Company, a nice rendition of Cendrillon by Jules Massenet. What started in the late 1970s as a dream, to start a small local opera company, has become a reliable part of an unexpected niche market. This company has been able to do extraordinary things with surprisingly few resources, and as we heard from General Manager Deanne Giarraputo before the performance, the company's meager budget, although not running in the red, is in need of supplemental funds. Students can buy tickets for $25, and anyone can stand in line and buy a rush ticket for $25, which are sold starting a half-hour before curtain. I think if you live in Washington, you should go and here's why.

Poster, Cendrillon, 1899, thanks to Patrick GoerzAlthough completed as early as 1896, Massenet's Cendrillon was not premiered at the Opéra-Comique until 1899. If you think about it, that is only three years—but three significant years—before Debussy brought Pelléas et Mélisande, which is a different kind of fairytale altogether, to the same theater. Massenet had become fascinated with the coloratura voice in the previous decade when he met American soprano Sibyl Sanderson, who sang the Queen of the Night's arias at a dinner party. He composed his remarkable but mostly forgotten opera Esclarmonde (which I reviewed at the Washington Concert Opera in April) in 1889 and Thaïs (1894) specifically for her. Although Sanderson did not appear in Cendrillon, Massenet was probably still by that point obsessed with her sound because what other voice part could we expect to sing the part of La Fée (Fairy Godmother) but a coloratura? That she may be the real starring role of the opera can be inferred, I think, from the poster of the first production, which is mostly a depiction of La Fée.

Here we get to the main distinction of this production, that is, what Summer Opera has done to Massenet's story (derived from the least threatening of the versions of this famous tale, Charles Perrault's 1697 story Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre—the stepsisters are not hacking off their toes or heels to try to force their bloody stump feet into the glass slipper). The characters and scene have been updated to a family of French diplomats posted to Washington, D.C. (near the present time, as the presence of a vacuum cleaner in the opening scene indicates). The king President of the United States is trying to force the Prince his son to marry. Lisette, our heroine, is forced by her wicked stepmother (whom her father, Pandolfe, married out of ambition to rise in the diplomatic corps), to stay at home and do nothing but chores, and they call her "ash-girl" (Cendrillon). After having to endure her stepsisters' preparations for a ball at the White House, her fairy godmother appears and... you get the picture.

This is cute (we had to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner before the opening curtain, to make sure we got the point), but it is not really convincing. Why do the presumably American servants bow and curtsy? Why do they keep calling the president's son le prince? Some details garnered a few modest chuckles in the audience, like the female chorus costumed as joggers, complete with a baby jogging stroller, in the final scene, or Cendrillon's costumes at home, a roomy Washington Nationals sweatshirt and jeans at one point and pajamas and a teddy bear at another. Still, enough of the story was not or could not be updated that the concept struck me as mostly a distraction (fortunately, not enough of one to be an impediment to enjoying the opera). Now, if La Fée had been a high-powered feminist lawyer or lobbyist ("I can make your dreams come true, and here is my fee") and her fairies an overeager team of summer interns... but to go any further would be to destroy the very point of a fairytale setting, that it both exists as a comprehensible idea ("Once upon a time, there was...") and can have no possibility of being mistaken for real ("...and they lived happily ever after.")

As La Fée, Hilary Ryon seemed sometimes (very rarely) to be slightly outclassed by the vocal demands of her part. She has great agility and a remarkable range, which mean that her voice will likely mature into something extraordinary as she gains power (Massenet did consider the role appropriate to a soprano léger, after all). My quibbling about vocal details was more than made up for by her acting ability: she was a floating, flighty wisp of a golden vision, enhanced by the fun lighting of Donald Edmund Thomas. Soprano Maureen Francis, who was an undergraduate student in these parts, was a beautiful Cendrillon, vocally and physically. Her voice has become quite rich in tone but has retained a youthful lightness that was very pleasing. There were no shortcomings to notice, although this role is much less demanding vocally than La Fée.

Tenor Rolando-Michael Sanz, whom I knew when he was (also) an undergraduate here, has received good instruction and training in terms of projection and especially diction. He was the only singer on the stage (Ms. Francis being almost in the same category) who sang French clearly enough that I did not have to consult the supertitles. In terms of French pronunciation, it was difficult to understand all the other singers, with the supernumerary who gave the speech as the prince's envoy in the fourth act definitively at the bottom, because of his incomprehensible diction. Jennifer Jellings and Kristin Green stole the show as the ludicrous stepsisters, although their antics sometimes made them hard to hear and, a definite no-no, detracted from other parts of the opera, such as one of the prince's tender arias. Eugene Galvin, who also teaches voice in the area, was an endearing Pandolfe, and gutsy mezzo-soprano Laura Zuiderveen was a perfect foil as the wicked stepmother.

Remaining performances of Summer Opera's Cendrillon, at the Hartke Theatre, will take place on Friday (June 17 at 7:30 pm) and Sunday (June 19 at 2:30 pm).

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