THE OTHER CENDRILLON
This won't be the first time we have heard an opera that was all but forgotten until someone made the effort to discover it. And it won't be the first time that we heard a different version of a beloved opera--in this case, the Cendrillon of Jules Massenet.
This Cendrillon, by 19th c. Maltese composer Nicolo Isouard, might have gone undiscovered, were it not for the diligent labors of William Tracy (Head of Opera Musical Studies at Manhattan School of Music), soprano Jennifer Gliere, and conductor Pierre Vallet who joined forces to reconstruct a score for which there were no orchestral parts. The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater could not have gotten a better gift.
The delightful production they created was directed by the always wonderful Dona D. Vaughn; evidence of its supremely successful debut was the evident joy of the audience. We have never seen so many happy faces exiting a theater; nor have we ever heard such animated chatter.
Mr. Isouard's tuneful score had all the singable melodies of the Italian Bel Canto, but with French refinement. The overture itself was a masterpiece of melody which Maestro Vallet conducted with Gallic verve. That major parts were given to the harp (Hannah Murphy) and the horn (Nicole Rodriguez) was like sweet wine for our thirsty ears.
The libretto by Charles Guillaume Étienne was brief (about 2 hours) and to the point. This was not a spectacle with coach and horses and grand staircases. This was an intimate story about an unloved step-child finding the love she deserves from a worthy man. In the telling of the tale, extraneous characters were eliminated . There was no Disneyfication and no Fairy Godmother.
The only "magic" occurred when Cendrillon fell asleep at the end of Act I in her step-father's home and awoke at the beginning of Act II in the Prince's palace. The two step-sisters are merely selfish, vain, and entitled girls--not horribly wicked ones. In place of a lot of exaggerated humor we felt a sense of reality about the drama.
Dialogue was spoken in English which was translated from the French by Mr. Tracy and adapted by Ms. Vaughn.
Soprano Amanda Austin shone in the title role. In this version, she is obliged to serve her step-sisters and step-father but she is not a drudge. She is not feisty but rather modest and humble with a generosity of spirit. These qualities came through in the coloration and phrasing of her vocal lines. We totally believed her and thrilled to the crystalline quality of her instrument.
Tenor Michael St.Peter was a princely prince and colored his voice differently from tenderness to exultation as the situation dictated. He has a lovely clear quality to his instrument and fortunately no tendency to force in the upper register. He has superb dynamic control as well.
The pair sing a sweet duet in Act III ,"Vous l'aimez donc avec tendresse?". Oh, how sweet it is to hear beautifully aligned voices joined in harmony!
The roles of the two step-sisters were written for sopranos--but sopranos of a very different type than that of Cendrillon. Their vocal lines are more Italianate and it comes as no surprise that Isouard studied in Italy with musicians of the Neapolitan school. It is only fitting that their vocal lines are as flashy as they are, with lavish fioritura.
As Clorinde, Hyeree Shin fulfilled the vocal demands of the role as well as the dramatic ones. We particularly loved her florid Act II aria "Couronnons-nous des fleurs nouvelles" with its lavish embellishments. The accompaniment sounded a bit like Vivaldi in the string section but filtered through a highly syncopated Bolero rhythm. Since the dialogue was performed in English, we look forward to Ms. Shin improving her English diction.
Abigail Shapiro's Tisbé was equally successful, opening Act III with a dazzling recitativo and aria "Dieu! Quel évènement!" Ms. Shapiro did justice to this show-stopper and we hope she will use it for auditions! Come to think of it, Ms. Shin could do the same with her aria.
Not only were the two sopranos superb on their own but their duet in Act I "Ah! Quel plaisir" was sheer delight, as beautifully performed as it was beautifully written. These two sisters are harmonious at first, much like Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. But by Act III they are brawling on the floor, having dropped the mask of refinement.
Standing in for the prince was his servant Dandini in disguise, and baritone Marshall Morrow made the most of his role, garnering hearty laughs from the audience with his exaggerated French accent and gauche wooing of Tisbé and Clorinde. It was the Prince's wish that Dandini be wed to one of the sisters and no one wanted to marry him! Cendrillon got a very funny line "I wasn't attracted to him at all, but his not being a prince did not make him more attractive". We suspect that line was written by Ms. Vaughn but she has yet to admit it!
William Huyler's baritone was just right for the role of the Baron, an aristocrat who had blown his fortune on his own two daughters to get them married off. To watch him standing behind Tisbé as she performed and echoing her movements was a "source of innocent merriment"; we thought of all the stage mothers we have met.
As Alidor, the Prince's wise tutor, we heard Marcel Sokalski who had to pretend to be a beggar in Act I in order to reveal the true character of the Baron's daughters. He is the guiding force of the story, leading the Prince toward a good decision. His Act I duet with Mr. St. Peter was not only harmonically impressive but emotionally stirring. The Prince expresses his gratitude and filial devotion whilst Alidoro expresses his paternal love. His acting, however, could be improved during the spoken dialogue which seemed a bit wooden.
The knockout performances of the principals were matched by that of the chorus, especially in "Au doux sommeil" which opened Act II. We have always noted that Chorus Master Miriam Charney does a great job. The same tribute goes to Bénédict Jourdois who ensures that everyone's French is superbe. Nous avons tout compris!
Dona D. Vaughn's direction was so on point that the action always seemed realistic. We might have been watching a drama about a family with all the feelings made clear by their interactions.
Arnulfo Maldonado's set design was simple and tasteful with no particular emphasis on period whereas Tracy Dorman's costumes were most definitely influenced by Paul Poiret, placing us firmly in the pre-World War I period. Cendrillon was simply dressed with an apron but sported a fabulous gown at the palace. The two step-sisters were lavishly dressed and swanned about the stage in their garments and turbans.
We could go on and on, waxing rhapsodic, but we would prefer that you see for yourself. There will be two performances today, matinée and evening, with another matinée on Sunday. The afternoon performances will have some different cast members and some of the same. Performances are at the comfortable Florence Gould Hall of the Alliance Française on 59th St.
We hope that this work, having been brought to such vivid life, will be taken up by opera houses around the country. It deserves a place in the canon. Moreover, we hope that more works by this prolific composer will be rediscovered.