We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Julia Bullock, Lacey Jo Benter, Elizabeth Sutphen (photo by Nan Melville)

It was a triumph of casting, staging and performance last night as Juilliard Opera presented Jules Massenet's 1899 opera Cendrillon.  Although updated to post-World War II Paris, the spirit of la belle époque shone through in the charming melodies and romantic sentiment.  If you did not smile from ear to ear when Lucette was reunited with her Prince Charming then you are immune to joy.

The libretto by Henri Cain hews closely to the Perrault fairy tale, as Rossini's Cenerentola (seen across the plaza at The Metropolitan Opera) does not.  The starring role was wisely given to the incomparable soprano Julia Bullock who is currently rocking the opera world with her gorgeous voice, stage presence and dramatic skills.

Here, she has created a truly lovable character who is not quite downtrodden, just neglected.  Her role gave her a chance to portray effectively a wide range of emotions, including terror.  Her opening aria showed her nobility of character.  Her duets with Prince Charming and with Pandolfe were equally memorable.

Poor Papa Pandolfe (the fine baritone Szymon Komasa) is the ultimate henpecked husband of the imperious and unpleasant Madame de la Haltière, brought to vivid life by the superb mezzo Avery Amereau.  Clearly, this character in this production gets by on the basis of stunning good looks and an acute sense of fashion!

Her daughters Noémie and Dorothée (here performed respectively by the excellent soprano Lilla Heinrich Szász and the fine mezzo Marguerite Jones) are neither vicious nor ridiculous, only privileged and controlled by their helicopter mother.  Indeed, one might say the story unreels as a domestic drama about a dysfunctional family.

But then, there is the magic of the fairy-tale component, so inextricably woven together with the reality.  And oh, what a piece of magic is soprano Elizabeth Sutphen whose thrilling coloratura nailed the florid trills and turns and runs of the Fairy Godmother. 

In the travesti role of Prince Charming, Lacey Jo Benter was completely believable as the bored and lonely prince whose father (the excellent bass Önay Köse) wants him to marry.  Ms. Benter sang with a warm tone, lovely phrasing and nearly perfect French diction (confirmed by our native French-speaking companion), obviating the need to look at the sur-titles.  Come to think of it, that was true for the rest of the cast as well.  What a treat it was to just sit and listen without reading!
 In the roles of the Prince's staff, we enjoyed tenor James Edgar Knight and baritones Kurt Kanazawa and Joe Eletto.  We couldn't imagine better casting.

The Juilliard Orchestra, always excellent, responded to the lively conducting of Emmanuel Villaume, who also addressed the audience in the persona of Charles de Gaulle, a fine touch.  The music ranges from sweet gentle love melodies to the rapid-fire and energetic music of the bickering family, while the fairy music has an other-worldly feel.  All were effectively communicated.

A fine directorial hand was shown by Peter Kazaras.  It was an interesting choice to set the piece in 1947, the only anachronism being the presence of a king and a prince.  However, the directorial choice allowed for some interesting sets and costumes.  Sadly, the extensive ballet was cut.

Scenic Designer Donald Eastman created a very authentic appearing bistrot, complete with Thonet chairs.  Lucette's step-mother was the proprietress with Papa being the barman.  When the fairy godmother gets Lucette and the Prince together, it is not in a garden but in a cinema.

Costumes were witty and accurate to the period with Lucette's ball gown evoking Dior's "New Look" in Schiaparelli pink--simply gorgeous.  The Fairy Godmother looked rather prim with eyeglasses and a tailored suit.  Her six helpers were dressed like bellboys; think vintage Philip Morris advertisements.  In a stroke of luxury casting, we heard Kelsey Lauritano, Nicolette Mavroleon, Hannah McDermott, Mary-Elizabeth O'Neill, Kara Sainz and Angela Vallone.  We heard them but we would never have recognized them in those costumes and wigs.

We have only seen this opera once before, in Santa Fe about 8 years ago.  Joyce DiDonato sang the lead, Eglise Gutierrez sang the Fairy Godmother and Jennifer Holloway sang the Prince.  Our notes read (verbatim) "Best opera of the Santa Fe season.  Original costumes, colorful and outlandish".  Now we have two stellar productions to hold in our memory.

© meche kroop

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