The words are in French but still familiar – “Once upon a time….” – and the story which follows, Cendrillon (that’s Cinderella to you and me), is writ large across the surfaces of Barbara de Limburg’s set, opening like a pop-up book of fairytales whose sliding panels have our eyes hanging on to every word. Even Cendrillon’s magic coach is fashioned from the letters spelling “Carosse”. So the tale’s the thing alight, and Massenet’s version of it – staged here for the first time at the Royal Opera House – is all about seeking to inhabit that magical place on the threshold of dreams where things are too good to be true – until they are not.
The director Laurent Pelly – the man with the magic wand – understands that everything centres on the dizzying rapture of the duets between Lucette (Cendrillon) and her Prince Charming and with the Royal Opera casting at strength – Joyce Didonato (Cendrillon) and Alice Coote (Prince Charmant) – that dynamic was at the heart of the evening’s success. It was interesting hearing Didonato inhabiting the top end, the soprano register, of her wide vocal compass (she’s essentially a mezzo with reach) and there were moments in piano above the stave where the voice was initially reluctant to “speak”. Was she a little under the weather, perhaps, or is this role borderline high for her in the softer dynamics? The full voice – so solid in the middle range – was as exciting as ever, bolstered and enriched by her winning personality. Even where Cinderella’s heart was heavy the singing was not.
At first glimpse of Prince Charming you might think that they’ve bucked convention and cast a male alto in the role. Alice Coote looks and sounds so dashing, so virile (another mezzo with a terrific top), so male, that disbelief is not just suspended but vanquished.
Much of Pelly’s wit is exhibited here in his own costume designs. Red is the colour of choice for the would-be princesses, paraded like so much tasteless confectionery, and Cendrillon’s indomitable stepmother is done up like a monster bon-bon in a hall of distorting mirrors. She is none other than the legendary Polish contralto Ewa Podles who now uses the break into her chest register like a weapon of mass destruction.
And, of course, there’s the Fairy Godmother – Eglise Gutiérrez – dispensing her stratospheric coloratura like fairy-dust from her place among the chimney stacks. Down in the pit, Bertrand de Billy keeps the souflé rising.