Cendrillon

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 14 November

Some folk- and fairy-tale characters have the images of our first encounters with them so firmly fixed in our minds that it is difficult to imagine them otherwise. In Britain, generations of pantomime productions have further reinforced this glue.

Operatically speaking, Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola with its philosopher-tutor as the deus ex machina, has been permitted to enter the charmed world of this acceptance. Now the Glyndebourne Tour suggests that Massenet’s 1889 Cendrillon attempts to prise the gates wider open.

If you’ve never seen the opera before, which is almost certainly true of most of us in this country, Fiona Shaw’s production creates something of a bewildering introduction. Set designer Jon Bausor makes the staging a matter of deceptive mirrors (not always helped by Anna Watson’s lighting).

Massenet was a supreme master of lush lyricism – the audible equivalent of art nouveau. The sound swirls around us, both from the orchestra pit under Duncan Ward and the large cast on stage. At times the action (including Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes) is overly distracting.

Lucette, the Cinderella of the title, was sung at the Norwich first night by understudy Jennifer Witton, who thoroughly deserved her curtain applause. Another stand-out performance is that of Caroline Wettergreen as the glinting grey-furred Fairy, tossing off her vocalise in steely Queen of the Night fashion.

Pandolfe is Lucette’s loving but basically ineffectual father, and William Dazeley conveys both aspects of the man, especially in his Act Four scenes with his daughter. A battle-axe guaranteed to slice fierce and hard sums up Agnes Zwierko’s stepmother Mme de la Haltière; she sings as well as she acts.

Librettist Henri Cain and Massenet makes the Prince a breeches role; Eléonore Pancrazi takes us effortlessly into his rôle-seeking teenage world where the boundaries between everyday reality (even for royalty) and scarce-perceived yearning extend yet crumble.

The chorus and the dancers blend seamlessly together, thanks to Sarah Fahie’s inventive choreography. Massenet’s skill is in wrapping a diaphanous web of sound around us. I’m not sure that we also need its mirrored reflexion.

Four star rating.

Cendrillon has another performance at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 17 November and is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre on 28 November and 1 December. It plays in repertoire with La traviata (Norwich on 16 November, Milton Keynes on 27 and 30 November).

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