Attention, unabashed romantic slobs: They're playing your song in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Whatever the average Washington power-monger may think of Jules Massenet's spun-sugar "Cendrillon," anyone with a musical sweet tooth will be delighted by the Washington Opera's strong production.
If it weren't quite so funny, "Cendrillon" might be a bit monochromatic for the average taste -- at least in a city as bloody-minded as election-year Washington. Thank heaven (and Massenet) for a wicked stepmother and two bratty stepsisters. There will be five more performances through March 13, with Frederica von Stade (this generation's definitive Cendrillon) in the title role, and a well-chosen supporting cast.
The production ends the season as it began, on a note of French high romanticism. But besides having a happy ending (in fact, the archetypal "happily-ever-after" ending), "Cendrillon" is a more carefully crafted opera than Gounod's "Rome'o et Juliette," with which the season opened. Instead of being built around a few show-stopping arias, "Cendrillon" displays a texture highly varied but almost seamless in its continuity, with all its elements integrated and focused for a unified effect.
The opera's special qualities are well served in this production by Canadian director/choreographer Brian Macdonald (who also directed the dazzling "HMS Pinafore" seen here recently) and conductor Mario Bernardi, who may be better acquainted with the score than any other man alive. The orchestra sounded extraordinarily good -- a tribute to Massenet's technical expertise as well as Bernardi's. Macdonald's experience in dance as well as theater served well in this work, which merges both forms so frequently. He is a well-rounded theatrical talent, and more of his work would be welcome here, whether the opera includes dance or not.
"Cendrillon" is the familiar story of Cinderella, complete with a fairy godmother, a glass slipper and a platoon of elves and sprites, though it omits mice and pumpkins. A high proportion of the music deals with the idyllic joys of an impossibly perfect love. And when not rhapsodizing vocally, the people on stage are apt to be involved in ballet sequences drenched in the flavor of dreams and magic.
The role of Prince Charming is sung by a woman (Susanne Mentzer), which gives a special, ethereal flavor to the closely matched voices in the love duets. It also makes this opera, as much as Puccini's "Suor Angelica" or Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carme'lites," a tribute to the special power and flavor of women's voices, solo and in ensembles.
There is only one prominent male role (the father, Pandolfe) to balance the six women who dominate the stage: Cinderella (whose real name is Lucette), the stepmother and two stepsisters, the fairy godmother and the prince. The fairy godmother (who comes on like a rather benign Queen of the Night) also has six attendants, all women, who produce a glorious treble sound.
For the romantic moments, von Stade and Mentzer sing beautifully, solo and together. Von Stade has mastered every nuance of the role, and is particularly effective in catching its special wistfulness. The pathos with which she sings, "Re'signe-toi, Cendrillon" ("Resign yourself, Cinderella") makes you want to run onstage, pat her shoulder and tell her everything will be all right. She makes the character totally real, not only in sadness but in the childlike delight in her dress, the coach, the royal ball and above all the discovery of love. The effect of this opera hangs almost entirely on the ability of this character to win your heart. And with von Stade adding strong acting ability to one of the world's great voices, it works perfectly. Mentzer has an easier assignment theatrically and sings well.
As the Fairy Godmother, Tracy Dahl showed a well-controlled, almost flawless coloratura, which is all that the role requires.
The element of contrast is in the capable hands of Madame de la Haltie`re, the stepmother (Joyce Castle), and her two brattish daughters Noe'mie (Carol Sparrow) and Dorothe'e (Luretta Bybee), who henpeck poor daddy (Jan Opalach), scorn and ignore Cinderella and make hilariously comic efforts to ensnare Prince Charming.
As the stepsisters, Sparrow and Bybee prance and flounce, simper and whimper, make faces and lurch with exactly the right level of awkwardness to neutralize their natural beauty for their comic roles. Opalach confirms the splendid impression he made earlier this season in "L'Italiana in Algeri." The richness of his voice has been familiar in Washington for a long time, but his theatrical talent is still a new discovery and a splendid one. He is a model of paternal concern throughout; he plays the mild-mannered victim of a shrewish wife superbly in Act 1, and when he finally turns on his wife in Act 3, with a single word: "Sortez!" ("Get out!"), the effect is electrifying.
Castle, who will be remembered for her portrayal of the formidable Marquise de Birkenfield in "The Daughter of the Regiment," sails through "Cendrillon" like a battleship with all guns blazing. She wants one of her daughters to marry Prince Charming, not so that she can find happiness but to enhance family bloodlines that already include "four chief justices, a doge ... a dozen archbishops, an admiral, a cardinal, six abbesses and 13 nuns, two or three mistresses of kings who both or all three practically wore crowns ..."
She also has a vocabulary of invective for her husband that any top-sergeant or mule-skinner might envy, and enough zestful hypocrisy to applaud. At the end, after Cinderella has won her Prince, she has a last-minute change of heart. "Grands dieux!" she cries, pushing her husband aside as she rushes to embrace the future queen, "C'est ma fille! Lucette que j'adore!" ("Good God! It's my daughter. Lucette, whom I adore!")