Once upon a time . . . Jules Massenet wrote operas in which great singers were given beautiful scenes to show off both their voices and their acting talents: "Thais," "Manon," "Werther," "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame," "Herodiade," "La Navarraise" . . . and "Cendrillon." Translate that last one from the French and you get Cinderella.
During the past three or four decades, almost every one of those operas came close to extinction on opera stages outside of France, except for the hardy perennial "Manon." And, while it may be a question of the chicken or the egg, it was also true that during much of that time record companies paid equally little attention to Massenet. However, recent years have seen some surprising revivals of his highly viable scores: "Esclarmonde," with Joan Sutherland, in San Francisco and the Metropolitan; a concert performance of "Le Cid" by the American Opera Company in New York City, with Grace Bumbry and Placido Domingo; and in a number of cities, including Washington, "Werther" and "Thais," in addition to the enduring "Manon." And where Massenet has returned to opera stages, the record companies have taken the hint. Current catalogues list nine Massenet opera recordings.
Next Saturday night the Washington Opera will open its season with "Cendrillon," and high time too! This French Cinderella was once sung in Chicago -- it was in the season of 1911-12 and the succeeding season -- with both Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte in the cast. That is like the upcoming "Fledermaus" in San Diego, in which Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland will join forces. Mary Garden was the incomparable singer of Melisande, Thais, Louise, and a dozen other French roles for over two decades. Teyte, who like Garden, had studied Melisande with Debussy, was an exquisite artist in Mozart and the lighter Italian roles.
In Chicago, Teyte sang the title role of Cendrillon while Garden was the Prince Charming. Massenet wrote the prince's role for a soprano because he wanted certain textures -- it's a bit like Mozart and his Cherubino or Richard Strauss and his Octavian -- and certain specific graceful qualities in the Prince which he, like Strauss with regard to Octavian, was positive could not be supplied by your average operatic tenor.
One of the reasons often correctly advanced for the decline in the amount of French opera sung outside of France is the generally poor quality of French enunciation by most non-French singers. (Inside France the reason is usually the poor quality of most French singing these days.) For a variety of reasons, however, the coming production of "Cendrillon" should offer both fine singing and excellent French. The strong cast is headed by Frederica von Stade in the title role, with Maureen Forrester as the historically unpleasant stepmother and John Reardon as her long-suffering husband. All three of these artists are notable for their sensitive, exquisitely sung French. With them in the cast are Ruth Welting in the coloratura role of the Fairy Godmother, who is the central attraction in some of the opera's most beautiful music as well as in several of its most spectacular scenes.
What those scenes may prove to be visually in the Kennedy Center's Opera House is not yet known, but the production is being brought down from the National Arts Center in Ottawa, where it has been much admired. The conductor is Mario Bernardi of that center.
The Prince Charming will be sung by Delia Wallis, who is not the soprano Massenet had in mind, but a mezzo, as, indeed, is Von Stade, the Cendrillon. It is tantalizing to think of performances of operas with the kinds of voices their composers specified, as they so often did in great detail.
The two stepsisters, whose names in Massenet are Noemie and Dorothee, will be sung by Elizabeth Pruett and Judith Christin, with Michael Terry as Master of Ceremonies, Richard Vernon as Prime Minister, and Andrew Taylor as the King.
Massenet leaves his opera story very much as it is known in the most familiar version of the Perrault fairy tale: Cinderella the picked-on, her haughty stepmother and stepsisters as bitchy as ever: "What an outlandish little creature! It is she who will be our future queen? We'll not meet her!" (No one in the opera recognizes Cendrillon in her gorgeous finery at the ball -- no one is supposed to.)
The Fairy Godmother's transformation works as magically as ever, glass slipper and all, and the prince and Cinderella, after long love scenes, are united forever. (Did you know that it was all a mistake, calling her slipper "glass?" Perrault's original word was vair, which means "fur." But it was mistranslated or misspelled verre, which of course means "glass," and that is how that got started.)
Massenet and his librettist, Henri Cain, did add a lovely touch midway through the third of the opera's four acts. Pandolfe, Cinderella's father, having lamented the death of his first wife and his ghastly mistake in having married his second, the mother of those horrid daughters, comes up with an unexpected burst of masculine assertiveness: he drives the three from the room with the fervent hope that the devil will take care of them.
Both the court scenes and the finale of Act III, in the home of the Fairy Godmother, gave Massenet opportunities for choral writing of striking contrasts, combined with unusual orchestral effects. He wrote with the imagination and hand of a man who had already become one of the world's most popular opera composers. It should be a great treat.
The performances of "Cendrillon" will be given on Sept. 15, 19, 21 and 23 -- evenings at 8, the Sunday matinee at 2.
Meanwhile, on Saturday night, Sept. 22, the Washington Opera will open its "Traviata" production, one designed recently by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for the Houston Opera. "Traviata" is often given with various cuts, some longer, some shorter. Few tenors are ever permitted to sing the cabaletta in Act II, and there have been many evenings in which even the most popular arias of Violetta and the elder Germont have been shaved to one verse instead of two. The Washington Opera will present every note Verdi wrote.
The cast, conducted by Theo Alcantara, is headed by Catherine Malfitano, with Benjamino Prior as Alfredo and Brent Ellis as his father. The stage direction is by David Gately. Performances will be on Sept. 22, 26, 28 and a matinee on the 30.