What is the difference between real life and dreams, especially for an insecure young person?
This poignant question is at the core of Massenet’s 1899 opera “Cendrillon”, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday as “Cinderella” in English translation – a holiday offering truncated to 95 minutes and aimed at families.
In Laurent Pelli’s boldly stylized production of this adaptation of Perrault’s fairy tale, she is restless and disheartened when we meet Cinderella (influenced mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard). Dressed in a torn dress and a torn sweater, she is treated like a lowly servant by her stepmother and step-sisters.
Left alone to contemplate her fate, Cinderella sings an astonishing aria, music that suggests an old folk song, and gives herself a moment to dream. There must be someone who can rescue him; Somewhere a loving life partner is waiting. Leonard, who has excelled as Debussy’s Melisande in the Met and other leading roles, melts away.
Cinderella’s defender, unfortunately, is not her father, Pandolph (bass-baritone Laurent Nouri). As we learn, Pandolph was a widower contented with his beloved daughter in the country when he married the foolishly energetic Madame de la Haltier, who already had two children. Soon she revealed herself to be domineering and ambitious. Pandolph proves unable to stand before him and protect his daughter.
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And who can stand opposite this production’s haltier, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blyth? With her powerful, deep-seated voice and taking charge presence, Blythe is gleefully quivering.
In the hustle and bustle opening scene, she orders her fearsome servants and mates to make fancy gowns for their daughters to attend the royal ball; The King of the Realm (strong bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, in his Met debut) has decided that the rebellious prince will finally choose a wife. Massenet’s music flourishes with rustle and fanfare, led by conductor Emmanuel Willem. Left behind, poor Cinderella curls up on the floor and falls asleep.
But her longing to attend the ball is overheard by the Fairy Godmother (bright-voiced coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt), who arrives with spirit-helpers—a dancing chorus of women dressed like Cinderella, draped in silver-cream. Awakens and is taken to the palace in a horse-drawn carriage. Is this all a dream?
What comes to mind in the beautifully rendered maisonette in this performance is that Prince Charming (Emily D’Angelo, a rich-voiced mezzo) is also a dreamer. We first see him in his red pajamas, terrified of the ball and his responsibilities.
During a mock-humorous, sharply comic chorale scene, a parade of eligible women in outrageous costumes—Pelli also dressed up—appear in front of the gloomy prince, who can barely answer. Then, in a vision, Cinderella arrives. As their silent glances turn into beautifully sung lyrical exchanges by Leonard and D’Angelo, these young people truly seem like the answers to each other’s dreams.
And so the familiar story unfolds: the glass shoe that falls off Cinderella’s foot as she runs through the middle of the night; The prince’s relentless quest to find his master; And happy results when their dream of love becomes reality.
The production is a delight, with lines from Perrault’s fairy tale written on the set of Barbara de Limburg and Laura Scozzi’s choreography a clever mix of sleek moves and silliness. The cast (including Jacqueline Echols and Maya Lahyani as half-sisters) could hardly be better. It’s a fitting companion to the Met’s other family fare for the holidays: Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” which opened last week.
at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan until Jan. 3; metopera.org.