An important part of Washington's burgeoning opera scene, the Summer Opera Theatre Company opened its two-month season Sunday with the spectacular premiere of its updated "Cendrillon," the Cinderella story set by Jules Massenet. Deriving his Cinderella from Charles Perrault's classic, Massenet's librettist, Henri Cain, kept to a rather straight account of the fairy tale: Reduced to menial servanthood by her wicked stepmother and bossy stepsisters, Cinderella wins the ultimate makeover when transformed into a lavishly attired princess by her angelic fairy godmother and eventually wins her Prince Charming.
Massenet gives his all's-well-that-ends-well story a twist, casting it as a comedy of the absurd, gently mocking the magical events with scenes of rudely intruding reality, yet keeping Cinderella's plight dead serious. Summer Opera took it further by transferring the French belle epoque setting to present-day Washington, with Pandolfe (Cinderella's father) recast as a diplomat and Prince Charming transformed into the president's son.
David Grindle's smartly timed staging underlined the comical aspects of the production, which is at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre; all characters are kept busily involved in the story's ridiculous machinations and make-believe episodes. Soloists and chorus members deserve high marks for persuasive acting. H. Teri Murai led the excellent orchestra (with a terrific English horn player) at a tempo highlighting Massenet's often lush, inventive melodies. Christopher Ash's sets emphasized the opera's sparkling comic action with brilliant reds and oranges balancing brightly contrasting costumes, and Donald Edmund Thomas contrived clever lighting effects.
In the title role, Maureen Francis sang with fresh radiance. Rolando-Michael Sanz wooed Cinderella with a marvelous tenor, luminous and amply rounded. Baritone Eugene Galvin portrayed the henpecked Pandolfe with dramatic vigor. Laura Zuiderveen was a believably haughty stepmother with a generous sonority to match. Jennifer Jellings and Kristin Green suited their stereotyped stepsister images to a T with voices of broad scope and a fluidity edged with shrewish cackles. Hilary Ryon managed her fairy godmother role with sparkling Queen-of-the-Night coloratura. Brian Cali was a commanding president. The chorus handled its prominent role with precise ensembles and skillfully humorous byplay.
Performed in French with English surtitles, "Cendrillon" continues tomorrow, Friday and Sunday. Verdi's "Rigoletto" follows in July.