Opera in four acts (one interval). Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes.
A couple of years ago I was watching 60 Minutes, and they had an article on this girl who wrote an opera….
This is really weird: not only is this composer alive, she is also nearly fifteen years younger than me! Alma Deutscher is a British-Israeli child prodigy who debuted at the age of six as a violinist. By the age of twelve she had composed this opera, and now, age fourteen, she has been inducted as a reviewed composer on Phil’s Opera World (probably the most minor of her achievements so far). She is also only the third female composer I have reviewed, and by far the youngest.
I might be knit-picking because this has spoken dialogue, but for a fourteen year old this is a rather amazing vehicle! The score seems to be invoking every genre since Mozart with everything including piano accompanied recitatives, spoken dialogue, piano accompanied parlando, orchestral intermezzos, full on furious arias and ensembles in the styles of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Donizetti, Johann Strauss, even Ponchielli I think! The plot is to some extent a reversed Meistersinger in which the ball is a masque involving a song contest, the winner of which will hypothetically win the hand of the Prince, although this part of the plot seems to be more of a joke to provide filler. The score was also originally written in English, as it is generally performed.
SETTING: Transylvania, 18th century (?). This one has a backstory! Apparently Cinderella is Hungarian or Romanian and the daughter of a now deceased opera house owner who married an aging coloratura soprano prima donna with two daughters (one a soprano, the other a contralto). An old woman named Emeline (contralto) is the agent who helps Cinders and the Prince unite.
LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The eight minute long overture ** appears to be a synthesis of Wagner (the opening is close to the high harmonies of the prelude to Lohengrin, a theme that will return later in the opera) before turning to a more Verdian (a waltz tune resembling the prelude to La Traviata) and even French influence (Gounod perhaps?) as well as Wallace possibly(?). The composer demonstrates a mastery of the violins, but it is especially in the way the other sections (brass, woodwinds) are selected that is truly eclectic. Overall it has the feel of a composition from the 1880s or 90s. The only thing I can say about it that might be a criticism is that it mimics rather a few late-19th century composers, but what do you expect from a twelve year old! The piece does manage to sustain interest for a rather long time (eight-minute overtures are hardly a common occurrence these days).
ACT 1: (55 minutes, including overture)
8: Note after Note Cinderella has her first bit ** rather quickly as she copies out orchestral parts (specifically a double-bass which Deutscher fittingly uses as a solo accompany to the vocal line. One can not help but feel that the composer is being a little autobiographical (although the influence seems to be Johann Strauss).
14: Darling little Cinderella The step-sisters arrive (both are apparently opera singers) and they harass Cinders in a duet out of Offenbach *.
15: You haven’t finished the task! This is quickly silenced by the arrival of the formidable Step-Mother *** which sounds like the Queen of the Night made it into the late-19th century. Cinderella breaks into a patch of Ponchielli but the Queen comes back with a vengeance. She orders Cinders into the woods to pick berries or something.
Scene 2: A room in the palace.
21: My son I love you very dearly This duet (which I sort of wish was a patter trio with the Chancellor), is just brilliant ***. It has a single dominate and repeated tune, but otherwise the influences range from Mozart to Puccini (especially Verdi, Ponchielli, and at times Wagner).
Scene 3: A forest clearing.
27: In my hands they will place a septur A furious interlude, the Prince arrives not wanting to live a life without love and planning on destroying his book of poems he has written **.
29: Its cold and wet in the woods He offers the book to the Old Woman (who is the Fairy Godmother in disguise) so she can burn it for fire kindling. They embark on a marvellous duet in which the Prince is passionate and the Godmother is like the rock of Gibraltar ***. He leaves and then Cinders arrives and gives her shoes to the barefooted Old Woman.
Scene 4: Same as Scene 1.
37: Its such an incredible chance! Everything gets topped by this insane number *** in which the Step-sisters convince their mother that a list of prescriptions for the King (listing all of his many diseases) is actually a poem written by the Prince that the sisters much sing at the ball! They then embark on setting it to music, but mostly just come up with modulations.
45: Down by the Brook, I wander Cinders embarks on setting the poem which was actually written by the Prince to music in a lovely if subdued number **. She falls asleep. The Stepmother finds the composition and steals it.
49: I must get rid of her! The stepmother has yet another furious aria **.
52: I dreamed a dream of Dancing Cinders wakes up and fails to get the Stepmother to let her go to the Ball. Meanwhile Prima Donna wants to get rid of Cinders, but how? Savage duetting ends the act **.
ACT 2: (20 minutes)
Scene 1: Same as the previous scene, but the day of the ball. (20 minutes)
0: I am pretty, and so witty The act opens with a duet for the step-sisters which could have been written by Donizetti **. The scene fades out.
5: When the day falls into darkness Now we hit Bellinissimo! The orchestral part of this number, a long aria for Cinders, could have been produced by Vincenzo himself ***.
Scene 2: Same as Scene 2 of Act 1.
11: Darkness is Falling The Prince fantasizes about what woman will take him ** in a Rossini-esque arietta which rapidly turns into an ensemble as the King arrives preparing for the ball, it turns into a duet. The Prince and Chancellor have a brief dialogue, and I get annoyed that the Chancellor has nothing to sing (the scene ends in a fade out).
Scene 3: Same as Scene 1.
17: High over the Darkness After a lovely little interlude, The Old Woman, Emeline returns the shoes Cinders gave her. The two women embark on a beautiful duet ***.
ACT 3: (24 minutes)
Scene 1: The Ball.
0: The act begins with a choral number (!) set to a melody akin to that of the previous duet **. The female couriers are all determined, even before Stepmommy arrives with her idiot daughters.
7: There is a land of ancient tales The King arrives and everyone embarks on the apparent Transylvanian National Anthem **. The Prince and Cinders meet cute when she loses her glass slipper for the first time and asks her to dance with him.
9: I dreamed a dream of Dancing The Dance *** is a brilliant duet number. The intensity is to the level any adult composer would have produced.
14: Aspirin in suspension The stepsisters embark on their concert numbers **. Cinders goes crazy (the score almost loses tonality.
Scene 2: The Palace Garden.
17: Down by the brook The Prince follows Cinders and begs her to sing the song she wrote which is set to his poem ***.
22: The Poem am I! The act finale ***. The Prince reveals that he is the poet and removes his mask. Cinders refuses to reveal her identity believing she is unworthy, midnight comes and she flees as the stepmother and sisters show up, Prince finds glass slipper, fade out. A rather effective, if subtle, ending to the act.
ACT 4: (49 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the palace.
0: We return to the theme which opened the opera, the high string harmony in a entr’acte **, as with the overture, the handling of the strings is flawless, the woodwinds are deployed effectively. We come upon the Prince who does not understand why the mystery girl disappeared. This is the first time one of the male characters really gets a chance for a well drawn scena, but the King shows up intoxicated and very crudely tells his son that he can marry any other girl or he will choose one for him the next day, but not this apparent low-life he has fallen for at the ball. The Prince realizes that the only way he will find Cinders is through her song. The Chancellor gets yet another fade out.
Scene 2: The Opera House.
10: I tell you this dress is too tight! The step-sisters return, complaining as usual **. The Stepmother figures most of the situation out and condemns Cinders to the theatre cellar from that point on.
Scene 3: The forest as in Act 1 Scene 3.
15: A furious interlude ** as the Prince searches for Cinders. He encounters Emeline.
18: High over the darkness Emeline attempts to help the Prince with a reprise of her song **.
Scene 3: Same as scene 1.
23: If only I could convince The step-sisters are still furious and embark on a weird, brief, and chromatic duet * before the Prince arrives searching for Cinders. The scene starts to collapse as the step-sisters make idiots of them selves but Cinders salvages things by providing the end of the song and the orchestra comes on. But first, the slipper: this is done over a piano accompaniment.
29: Hand and Hand, Heart and Heart The love duet ** is at its core Rossini.
Scene 4: The royal chapel, apparently of Unitarian denomination (?).
32: An organ solo prelude opens the scene **
35: There is a land of ancient tales The finale *** is a cantata in two parts. Step-mother and sisters come on in minor rebellion only to get pixy-dusted by Emeline and their personalities are altered.
The only flaw I can see in this opera is the imbalance between the female and male characterizations. The male characters are poorly drawn in comparison to the far more animated females. The work is intending to be feminist, and I have no problem with that, but not when it infantilizes the male characters and only the Prince himself is truly three-dimensional. The Chancellor is the worst offender, surely in a bel canto era work he would have gotten at least an aria, no? Yet this is more the fault of the librettist than the composer.
Interestingly the opera is philosophically, although not structurally, Wagnerian. It is not through-composed, but Deutscher attempts to do exactly what Wagner did : she is using a fairy tale to demonstrate perfection through the combination of verse and melody in her characters of the Prince and Cinders. Basically, this is Capriccio with a much better storyline (and music)! The periods of dialogue and piano accompanied parlando can be a little annoyingly operetta-ish, but when the orchestra is allowed to flower, the effect is remarkable for such a modern work. Her idiom is, for most of the score, well within the realm of mid-19th century grand opera with straightforward melodies without fear of adding in some coloratura (particularly in the soprano parts, although I would have loved some tenor or even bass coloratura for a change), although she does apply chromaticism in the last two acts, mostly to delineate periods of mental distress.
I hope that the composer will write more operas, utilizing her style (something that is missing in an era of operatic history in which Minimalism or atonal mindlessness have dominated) for less familiar and even adult storylines in the future. An alpha.