Jules Massenet: Cendrillon (1899)

Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.

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I know, I know, the role of le Prince Charmant was written for a soprano, but I am tired out of breeches parts and if I have to spend over two hours on this I want it to be with Nicolai Gedda! Also, technically isn’t Frederica von Stade a mezzo-soprano? How was that okayed by CBS?

Also, do not forget that two-star items are things I very much like, but they aren’t stupendous. A lot of two-stars means I am happy. For some reason readers seem to think that anything not a three-star means I don’t like it. If I three-starred everything, I would hope no one would read my blog because I would lack critical thinking skills.

I am pushing back Maometto again, to next week, because I figured that after my somewhat disastrous review of Thaïs I need a solvent.

SETTING: France, early modern period. Pandolfe (baritone) the father of Lucette (soprano) the Cinderella, lives with the stepmother Mme. de la Halitère (contralto) and her daughters Noémie (soprano) and Dorothée (mezzo-soprano). Although for the first two and a half acts this is basically the standard Cinderella story plus a living father for the protagonist, the middle of the third act turns into a faerie panto in which the Prince (tenor here, although composed for a dark soprano voice) and Lucette are kept away from each other by the magic of La Fée (coloratura soprano).

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A large room in the mansion of Mme. de la Haltière. (39.5 minutes)

0: The very brief orchestral introduction * is a good scenario setter: we are in for regal (quasi -18th-century) fairy-tale delights.

1, 4: On appelle, on sonne!/Du côté de la barbe The servants are in ball-prep freak out ** as the service bells ring out. Pandolfe, the second husband of the Mistress, contemplates why he remarried to a wealthy woman and gave up his country estate to live in the city with her when she gives him no peace and belittles his own daughter in favour of her own two self-centred offspring **.

8: Faites-vous très belle! Madame arrives with the stepdaughters as they make ready to dispatch to the ball **. Mother gives pointers on how to attach the Prince as the sisters go through a wardrobe of gowns.

15: Félicitez-moi donc Pandolfe tries to talk his way out of going to the ball, but ends up getting drafted anyway **

20: Ah! Que mes soeurs sont heureuses! Cendrillon (Lucette) comes on and sings about how she would love to go to the ball as she goes about her chores *** (mostly chimney cleaning).

27, 38: Ah! douce enfant The Fairy Godmother arrives in all her coloratura faerie splendour ***. She comes on with her retinue (because she has one) and magics Cinders into a luxurious dress while she sleeps by the hearth. A carriage and glass slippers are produced (here the slippers are supposed to make her unrecognizable to her family, an interesting plot point). Cinders wakes up and is super grateful. Godmother warns about the whole midnight thing and the act ends with a very jaunty On Our Way chorus ***.

ACT 2: The Ball. (32 minutes)

0: The act opens with a return of the jaunty tune, now in various orchestral presentations *, along with something with a bit more solemnity to it. This moves on to a flute solo, then a flute and cello (?) duet, and then we pop into the act at the ball: comic fabulousness ensues to recurring flute theme.

5: Allez, laissez-moi seule Finally, the Prince comes on and expresses how incredibly unhappy he is ***.

10: Le Roi arrives telling his son that he must choose a bride, followed by a ten minute ballet of the eligible foreign (and not so foreign) princesses ** (with choral commenting). I especially like La Florentine (the fourth but unfortunately shortest movement).

21: Voyez l’adorable beauté ! Cinders shows up in the middle of the fifth movement and everyone finds her just peaches and cream (they express this in an a cappella chorus straight out of a Rossini opera) except for Madame et filles **

24, 28: Toi qui m’es apparue/Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant The Prince has just fallen for Cinders *** and expresses his love in a lovely arioso. Cinders responds in kind in an equally lovely arioso *** and then they embark on a full fledged duet, equally amazing. Midnight strikes and she flees amid the confession. A grand scene. 

ACT 3: (41.5 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1.

0: Enfin, je suis ici Cinders rushes on, grateful that she has made it home without being discovered ***. She thanks the Fairy Godmother, but realizes she has lost one of her glass slippers (the Prince has it). She fantasizes about how wonderful the ball was.

6, 10: C’est vrai!/Une intrigante, une inconnue Madame et filles with Pandolfe return from the ball **. The women are infuriated: it is obvious that the Prince only wants the mysterious stranger lady. They express their rage as in a flighty ensemble in which the women claim that the Prince could not possibly be seriously interested in the mysterious lady and Pandolfe grows some balls for once and orders them out so he can talk to Cinders alone ***.

14: Viens ! nous quitterons cette ville Pandolfe tells his daughter that they have suffered enough, they will both go back to the country house, this time for good *** (Massenet uses lovely woodwind contrasts to depict the rural ideal). This turns into a duet with Cinders before he leaves. 

17: Seule, je partirai At this point the plot takes a very strange turn: Cinders decides that moving back to the country will remind her father of her dead mother and so she decides unilaterally to run away from home and die in the streets (why?) It is a pretty nice aria with a very rich orchestral accompaniment ** but what is her rationale (or that of the librettist) other than to create more drama at this juncture in the plot? The gong, at least, provides for a rather grand effect.

Scene 2: The Faerie Oak.

23: Fugitives chimères Although dramatically pointless, the encounter between Cinders, the Prince, and the Fairy Godmother (who has somehow turned evil or something) is musically ingenious *** with coloratura flourishes, exotic orchestration and choral writing, and romantic conflict. 

31: A deux genou The lovers come on ***, able to hear but not see each other, being separated by a brier of flowers. Eventually the power of love wins and the couple embraces under the oak in what I presume is a dream.

ACT 4: (22 minutes)

Scene 1: A terraced balcony in the home of Mme. de la Haltière.

0: To a gentle Debussy-ish orchestral backing **, Pandolfe tells us that Cinders attempted to drown herself months ago and hasn’t completely recovered yet. Cinders tries to talk to him about what has happened earlier but he tells her it was just a dream. Distant voice (accompanied by the Shepherds music from Tannhauser?) pop in and order that the door of the chateau be opened.

8: Avancez! Mme. de la Haltière thinks one of her daughters (bio that is) has been chosen as the new bride **, she is frustrated by the Royal Harold who announces that it is Cinders that the Prince wants (or rather specifically the unknown lady, which is of course Cinders). Cinders runs off in joy to the palace and stepmummy does not know what to do.

Scene 2: Great Hall of the Palace.

12: The scene transitions with a Marche des Princesses **.

16: Posez dans son écrin The Prince is worried before Cinders claims the glass slipper as her own before the court, the Prince embraces his bride, and general rejoicing ensues ***. 

COMMENTS:

This is perhaps the score where Massenet got everything right: the sympathetic Verdi baritone father role, the bossy contralto stepmother, the fairy-music exemplified by the coloratura soprano Fairy Godmother, the lovers music, the witty pseudo-Baroque pastiche, it all falls into place. Massenet also succeeds in combining Wagnerian orchestral techniques with Rossinian vocal techniques (a win-win for me), although the influences of Meyerbeer and Debussy (never thought that would happen in one go!) are also detectable.

Does anyone other than me notice that le Prince Charmant is accompanied by the same music in the upper strings that Roland is in Esclarmonde? 

The New Penguin Opera Guide claims that this is a neglected work (although it actually has a stronger performance history than most Massenet operas) that should be seen on par with Hansel und Gretel. I disagree, it is better than the Humperdinck opera! The Guide is correct, however, that it is not popular enough, especially in comparison to Werther and Manon which are probably performed too frequently, well Werther is performed more frequently. Its modern rarity is somewhat shocking given how well known the fairy tale is and it is actually shorter than the Rossini non-fantasy version which almost everyone has heard.

Well there is a reason why it is currently the most performed opera in the United Kingdom (where it is interestingly the only Massenet performed) and 50th globally!

An alpha plus.

 

9 thoughts on “Jules Massenet: Cendrillon (1899)

    1. No I did not see the Met broadcast. I just looked it up and this opera does seem to be getting more press lately. The guide I used claimed that it is a rarity, and it probably was twenty years ago, but now it is number 1 in the UK, 50th globally, and 2nd amongst Massenet only to Werther. Essentially it alone requires a rewrite of all the opera books!

      I feel bad now that I waited so long, wrote it rather quickly (it took me about three hours which for an over two hour opera is not long), and it is one of my shortest reviews, less than 1500 words! I saw it years ago, but just never thought to review it. I guess now that I got the review out, I can just enjoy it for its own sake.

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      1. Janacek’s been popular in the U.K for a long time now. Czech opera’s really taken off there.

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  1. Glad you’d like it, rare for you to gave a work an aplha plus, only happened a few times I think. I’m curious why you took the Thais review down, not happy with it?

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