Absolutely fabulous

Voice and ravishment from Massenet to Muhly

from the TLS, 29 July 2011

Jules Massenet
Covent Garden

Nico Muhly

Luke Bedford
The Opera Group

Massenet’s fourteenth opera was conceived in London, in the Cavendish hotel, where the composer and his librettist Henri Cain were staying for the premiere of La Navarraise in 1894. Although the score was more or less complete by 1896, Cendrillon had to wait until 1899 for its first performance at the Opéra-Comique. Julia Guiraudon, a favourite with Opéra-Comique audiences, took the title role in a lavish staging by the theatre’s new director Albert Carré. Though not without his enemies, Massenet was France’s most celebrated opera composer at this time. He and Cain judged perfectly the public’s resurgent taste for the eighteenth century and “le goût exquis”, and their stylish adaptation of Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella” was a success, with forty-nine performances in 1899 alone. It soon spread to other European capitals – Brussels, Geneva, Milan – and across the Atlantic to New York, New Orleans, Buenos Aires and Montreal. A Chicago production of 1911, the year before the composer’s death, starred Maggie Teyte and Mary Garden.

Although Massenet’s reputation has never regained the dizzying heights it occupied at the turn of the century, the fact that Cendrillon has had to wait until now to receive its Covent Garden premiere is a mystery. Laurent Pelly’s glorious staging initially surfaced as a Royal Opera co-production in Santa Fe in 2006, with Joyce DiDonato, as here, in the title role. DiDonato is perhaps the world’s most in-demand mezzo-soprano, so it may have been her diary that has kept London audiences waiting for five years. The 107 years’ silence before that is harder to explain, but it may have to something do with a general mistrust of Massenet as a crowd-pleasing and commercial composer; and with the feeling that Cendrillon in particular, with its rich palette of pastiche and sweetened passions, lacks anything to cut the sugar rush. Certainly, the mid-twentieth century British view of the composer as being suitable only for an audience “which regards music as an agreeable after-dinner entertainment” (Grove, 1954) has endured, and the impetus for the more recent revival of interest has come as much from the United States as from anywhere else. Massenet still lacks a serious, scholarly biography.

Still, even Covent Garden audiences deserve some good postprandial entertainment now and then, and Pelly is the right person to mastermind it, as he proved with last year’s witty and oddly affecting La Fille du Régiment. In the new show, everything is as perfectly suited to contemporary tastes for the exquisite as was Carré’s sumptuous staging in 1899. Perrault’s text is the primary inspiration for Babarba de Limburg’s set, which is stencilled in eighteenth-century lettering on moveable walls so that the story “expands” with the size of the room. The costumes are designed by Pelly himself, together with Jean-Jacques Delmotte, and tailored to a fin-de-siècle setting both in terms of detail – the Prince’s White Tie is adorned with a simple blue sash for the ball, while Pandolfe (Cinderella’s father) slips on a musty brown dressing-gown after returning from it – and more satirically, in their lampoon of the haute couture tradition. The ugly sisters can barely walk in their outfits; the parade of crimson-upholstered princesses is as grotesquely exaggerated as it is beautifully executed; and all the choreography, at this point, is sensitive to the period “shuffles” with which Massenet adorns the score. The tasteful costumes are reserved for Cinderella. The cream satin of her ball gown darkens, in a cleverly practical touch, to ashen grey as it reaches the floor, while her work clothes are brightened by a decorated pinafore.

Cendrillon is based on one of the bestknown of all fairy tales. Arguably, few literary genres are better suited to operatic treatment. Fairy tales have a mythic aspect – an aura of always having been told – which meshes perfectly with opera’s necessary detachment from the literal sphere. As with opera, a fairy tale’s meaning lives in its enactment, in the telling, and in conjuring a way of seeing the world to which, by the spell of tradition, the listener is bound. The genre exceeds its narrative content, in the same way that opera’s performance often exceeds its dramatic content. In Cendrillon, this is almost explicitly demonstrated by the hero and heroine, whose third act duet centres on the refrain, “Et ta voix me pénètre, d’une extase supreme” (“The sound of your voice fills me with rapture”, as the surtitles have it). Clearly, a great deal of the “meaning” of Cendrillon is in the opportunity it affords its audience to be ravished by the sound of two female voices in full flow. Massenet’s insistence on scoring the role of the prince for mezzo- soprano tells us that this an idealised and exquisite love story, but it also naturally highlights the composer’s gift, matched only by Strauss, for this combination of voices.

The voices of Joyce Didonato and Alice Coote are clearly made for each other, and if the opera’s pacing in Acts Three and Four doesn’t quite match the brilliant progressions of the first two acts, then any narrative slackening is more than made up for by the performances. Coote shapes her phrases masterfully; her emotional modulations from languorous disaffection to searing passion consistently produce operatic fireworks. Didonato, though not in the best voice, has the kind of rich, expressive tone and appearance which one can’t help falling in love with, and is well suited to a part whose girlishness, one senses, is only skin deep.

The two leads are more than ably supported by Eglise Gutiérrez’s superbly sexy Fairy Godmother and the fearless stepmother of Ewa Podles, whose powerful contralto counterbalances the airier registers of her stepdaughter and future son-in-law. Among the men, Jean-Philippe Lafont’s troublingly over-affectionate Pandolfe looked the part but had a little trouble singing it. The orchestra revelled in Massenet’s sensuous string textures and were alert to Bertrand de Billy’s light touch in the pastiche passages.

Cendrillon represents, in many respects, the Royal Opera at its best. Brilliant and imaginative casting in a stylish production and an orchestra whose focus and control have few equals, collaborating to produce something capable of appealing to the tastes of all except the most steadfastly serious Wagnerians. It is a shame, then, that when the idea of broadening the appeal of opera is usually proposed, what people really have in mind is strategies blandly conceived to justify the state subsidies on which most houses rely. Opera, the bureaucrats tells us, should “wise up” and echo the wishes and wants of our daily lives if it is to continue to deserve our support. One unfashionable answer to this is to point out that anything great – anything that demands a central place in society’s interlocking value systems – must inevitably echo our concerns if we opt to be concerned by it. But those commissioning and composing new operas are beset by challenges for which such sophistry – however true – provides little consolation.

Two new operas both aim to wise up. Seven Angels (music by Luke Bedford, words by Glyn Maxwell) co-opts Milton’s Paradise Lost into a fable about environmental catastrophe while Two Boys (Nico Muhly, Craig Lucas) depicts a society whose norms are threatened by the way the internet has changed what adolescents get up to in their bedroom. Both works represent each composer’s first opera and the results in each case would have benefited from more time in development. In Bedford’s case, a lack of experience writing for the voice has led to an imbalance between the intricately worked chamber score and the rather featureless vocal parts. A more experienced composer might also have worked more productively with the librettist – as Elena Langer did, last year, when she worked with Maxwell on The Lion’s Face. Maxwell’s libretto for Seven Angels makes for interesting reading – in part because it is laid out in a manner reminiscent of Mallarmé’s poetry – but the plot and characters are awkwardly contrived. The sponsorship by Friends of the Earth is ingenious at a corporate level; less so when it comes to leaving the audience to make up their own minds about the opera.

In Two Boys, while the voices are well served, the orchestra suffers from being given too little to do in the way of driving the story on. Muhly counts Glass, Adams and Britten among his influences, but in terms of flexibility of pacing and providing a musical canvas for the characters’ feelings, it is unfortunately Glass who dominates. Nonetheless, there is much to build on here: Muhly is only twenty-nine. Though experienced for his age, and blessed with astounding musical fluency, he is still developing his talent. What particularly impressed me was the way in which Muhly and Lucas were able to get the exultant quality of their medium to reflect the peculiar intensity of an internet chat-room. They have perceived that this virtual space has its own weird theatricality: in a chat-room, the lack of inhibition associated with the physical presence of others, far from being an obstacle to sexual and emotional intimacy, actually results in a kind of inflation of sensory experience – an insight which the opera’s choirboy villain continually uses to press his advantage.

As a police procedural, built around an incident in which an older boy is thought to have groomed and stabbed a younger boy, Two Boys doesn’t come close to what is frequently achieved on the small screen; one deduces “whodunit” too quickly – and certainly faster than Susan Bickley’s luddite detective. Vocally, though, Bickley is on fine form, and oddly credible as a hard-bitten spinster who, in a nice twist, is offered the solution to the mystery by her semi-senile mother. Nicky Spence also turns in a fine performance as Brian, the older boy, as does the young soprano “Mary Bevan” making a confident debut as his online friend, Rebecca. Bartlett Sher’s production, to sets designed by Michael Yeargan, is slick, sometimes dazzling, while Rumon Gamba, an English conductor of whom we hear too little, has the full measure of Muhly’s score.

Two Boys evidently succeeded in its attempt to reach out to a new public, and one hopes it will enjoy similar success when it transfers to the New York Met for the 2013/14 season. Neither its moral (never trust a sweet-faced choirboy) nor its score were as cutting-edge as they might have been, but what I really missed was something simpler. In its relentless pursuit of a dramatic solution, the music somehow forgot to change gear or create those natural pauses that allow characters to stop, reflect, and sing. In other words, though presented as a fairy-tale de nos jours, it sorely lacked a touch of the fabulous.

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