I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
The Prince, Cinderella and the Showgirls
The Cinderella story is as ubiquitous in December as mince pies. An advert for a leading department store at the bus stop outside the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) has the tag lines 'Find your fairy tale' and 'You shall'. The challenge for this new RNCM production was to bring something fresh to a well-known tale.
As someone who is reasonably familiar with opera titles, I had not heard of Cinderella (Cendrillon) by Jules Massenet, with a libretto by Henri Cain. It is based on the story by Charles Perrault, in 1697, rather than the Brothers Grimm nineteenth century version.
Eliza Boom, Rebecca Barry and Lucy Vallis. Photo by Robert Workman.
The opera was premiered in Paris in 1899 – 110 years after the French revolution. However, the flamboyant set and costume design by Yannis Thavoris had a strong sense of the ancien régime about it. It was like a glorious hybrid of the BBC series Versailles, with a colour scheme by the late Dame Barbara Cartland.
The use of mirrors was a masterstroke because it made the large cast seem even bigger on the stage.
Fiona Finsbury (a postgraduate student) convincingly negotiated the challenge of playing an archetypal character who the audience also had to empathise with. In her early scenes, she was alone on stage for sustained periods.
Cinderella is the victim of emotional cruelty by her wicked stepmother - Madame de la Haltière, and her daughters. Rebecca Barry was wonderfully over the top as the world's pushiest mother, to Noémie (Eliza Boom) and Dorothée (Lucy Vallis).
Michael Gibson played Le Prince Charmant (Prince Charming) as an ashen-faced lovesick would-be Romeo. There were skulls amongst the heraldic symbols of his bedroom wallpaper. His discontent and idealism complemented that of Cinderella, who he had yet to meet.
Daniella Sicari (another postgraduate soprano) as La Fée (the Fairy Godmother), was in danger of shattering the chandeliers as she hit one high note after another. She was accompanied by her Sprites (spirits) who, in the second half, roller-skated around the stage in costumes familiar to anyone who saw the Channel 4 series The Handmaid's Tale.
Daniella Sicari and Fiona Finsbury. Photo by Robert Workman.
The production was sung in French with surtitles above the stage, by Anthony Legge. They were distracting at times but enabled us to read some powerfully poetic lines. The Prince complained: "My heart is like spring without roses." And Cinderella told us of her childhood home where nightingales sing in the woods.
Photo by Robert Workman.
The second half of the four act opera took a detour into emotionally darker territory – set in a hospital ward. But the tempo and colour soon exploded again as the story moved to its inevitable and mercifully not-drawn-out conclusion.
Michael Gibson and Fiona Finsbury. Photo by Robert Workman.
There are no particular memorable arias in the opera but its musical range and changes of tempo kept the action moving at a nimble pace. This version of Cinderella, directed by Olivia Fuchs is great fun and a classy choice of entertainment for the Christmas month.
However, it also contained moments of psychological insight and complexity. There were meditations on the dangers and comforts of fantasy and the line between dreams and reality. It would be great to see a contemporary Jules Massenet pick up these aspects and dance with them.
Poster announcing the premiere performance in 1899. Émile Bertrand (1842—1912). Restoration: Adam Cuerden.https://commons.wikimedia.org/