French director Laurent Pelly’s charming production of Massenet’s Cinderella opera, which unfolds — literally — out of the pages of a giant storybook, has been enchanting audiences around the world since it first showed up at the Santa Fe Opera in 2006. But in no city does this long-awaited “Cendrillon” have the special resonance that it does in Chicago, where the Lyric Opera is delightfully holding forth with a tale everyone knows, to music that deserves never again to be so long forgotten.
Although the Lyric has never done “Cendrillon” before, Chicago was able to experience Massenet’s opera back in 1911, only a dozen years after its Paris birth, with the fearless Scottish singing-actress Mary Garden, star of France’s Opéra-Comique, as Cinderella’s Prince Charming. Garden made Chicago go mad for opera. She was a leading soprano in the Windy City for more than 20 years and a champion of opera’s scandalously clad fatal women, but she also diverted herself by doing so-called young men’s “trouser” roles such as Massenet’s prince.
Lyric Opera of Chicago
When: 2 p.m. Dec. 5 and Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8; 7 p.m. Jan. 11 and 17
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
This time the prince is portrayed by the astonishing mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, a modern master of such breeches parts. She has done the Pelly production several times before, and in Chicago she endowed Massenet’s regal young man with a marvelous dose of failure-to-launch torment. Of course, Coote’s Prince leaves foot-dragging ambivalence aside the moment he spots the one whom fate intended: in this case the pure-voiced Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, an eye-catching and dramatically lovable cinder girl in her very welcome American debut.
Their huge scene together, at the end of the first half as the Lyric does it, has music director Andrew Davis and the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra churning out diaphanous enchantment while the Fairy Godmother (Marie-Eve Munger) — offering a sparkle of coloratura fairy-dust — helps the two chaste lovers encounter each other in a dreamlike state, without seeing or touching.
It’s musically ravishing eroticism that puts one in mind of Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” and as such it leaves thoughts of Disney well behind for those old enough to understand. Yet lovers of comedic delights such as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” will want to find a place for Massenet’s opera also; it’s full of pageant, mischief, wish fulfillment and beguiling tenderness that is entirely suitable for families, and perfect in the company’s holiday rotation.
So why did this opera and much other Massenet disappear from the repertoire? Massenet was almost too popular in his heyday, provoking backlash from rivals if not merely falling out of fashion as the young guns, who took their cues from Wagner and Debussy, became ascendant. Europe, ravaged by two world wars, left romanticism behind. Yet it seems incomprehensible that Massenet’s comic opera is not embraced as part of the continuum that goes from Mozart and Rossini right through to Richard Strauss. We’re seeing that correction now.
“Cendrillon” is riddled with aristocratic send-ups, prancing servants and other deftly drawn characters that emerge from Massenet’s seemingly effortless pen. They also step out of the “pages” of Barbara de Limburg’s cleverly designed open-book set. Director Pelly took responsibility for the costumes himself, and they are masterfully bulbous wonders, particularly so in the case of the scheming stepmother (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop) and her clumsy daughters (Emily Pogorelc and Kayleigh Decker having fun). They listen opaquely as their mother lays out the upcoming ball as nothing less than a military operation. All the performers, including the chorus, 10 solo dancers and a handful of non-singing actors, helped these deliciously droll scenes unfold.
Stagg won hearts early with Cinderella’s self-comforting soliloquy, “Reste au foyer, petit grillon,” (Rest here by the fire, little cricket) — all grace and humility, laying no blame on her widowed father, who, it is fair to say, remarried badly. Pandolfe is his name; the soaring bass-baritone Derek Welton played him with more bravado and less self-deprecating befuddlement than one might have wished in the first scenes. But his consolation scene with Cinderella, when all seemed headed for the worst possible end for them both, was stunning in its deep expression of father-daughter love.
Moments to watch for include the arrival of the “horse-drawn” carriage led by four men in equine headgear with a talent for paw and whinny, and the limping march of the hopeful princesses, with one foot bare and a shoe in hand. You know how that part goes.