DiDonato Soars in ‘Cendrillon’; Schoolboy Dominatrix: Review

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Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

Joyce DiDonato in "Cendrillon" by Massenet at the Royal Opera House. The production, by Laurent Pelly, was seen previously at Santa Fe in 2006.

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Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

Joyce DiDonato in "Cendrillon" by Massenet at the Royal Opera House. The production, by Laurent Pelly, was seen previously at Santa Fe in 2006. Close

Joyce DiDonato in "Cendrillon" by Massenet at the Royal Opera House. The production, by Laurent Pelly, was seen... Read More

Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

Actors from left, Kai Ruutel (Dorothee), Ewa Podles (Madame de la Haltiere) and Madeleine Pierard (Noemie) in "Cendrillon," by Massenet, at the Royal Opera House in London. The costume designs are by Laurent Pelly. Close

Actors from left, Kai Ruutel (Dorothee), Ewa Podles (Madame de la Haltiere) and Madeleine Pierard (Noemie) in... Read More

Luca Pisaroni and Brenda Rae in "Rinaldo" by Handel at Glyndebourne. The villains Argante and Armida are presented as vicious schoolteachers. Photograph: Bill Cooper/Glyndebourne via Bloomberg Close

Luca Pisaroni and Brenda Rae in "Rinaldo" by Handel at Glyndebourne. The villains Argante and Armida are presented as... Read More

Anett Fritsch (Almirena) in "Rinaldo" by Handel at Glyndebourne. Director Robert Carsen sets the action in an old-fashioned school. Photograph: Bill Cooper/Glyndebourne via Bloomberg Close

Anett Fritsch (Almirena) in "Rinaldo" by Handel at Glyndebourne. Director Robert Carsen sets the action in an... Read More

When a little-known opera is staged as a vehicle for a superstar, that singer had better be worth the ticket. Kansas-born mezzo Joyce DiDonato proves every inch a box-office draw at London’s Royal Opera House.

The company is presenting “Cendrillon,” Massenet’s 1899 reworking of the Cinderella fairytale, with DiDonato in the title role. It has ravishing Gallic melodies, sumptuous passages of 18th-century pastiche, and a terrific role for a boomy mezzo as the domineering stepmother. It also has some dramatic troughs, and they’re probably the reason why it’s not as popular as the composer’s “Manon” or “Werther.”

If anyone can make a convincing case for it, it’s DiDonato. The role is written for a mezzo with good high notes, and she soars to them without compromising her rich lower register. Her acting is charming, and she does naivety without toppling into sentimentality. No doormat, she.

DiDonato herself requested Laurent Pelly’s production, not seen since its first outing at Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2006. It’s a charming affair that employs some laugh-out-loud exaggerated fin-de-siecle costumes for the women who are out to bag the prince. It’s beautifully choreographed too, with grumpy angular gestures for the stepsisters and little jumps and skips for the periwigged courtiers.

Sometimes the magic fails. Pelly stages a scene supposed to be set in an enchanted wood among soot-covered chimney tops. The atmosphere pops like a balloon.

Amorous Duet

This is where Cinderella and the prince (Alice Coote, in wonderful form) get their big love duet, a musically ravishing affair. Since there’s some way to go before the prince puts the slipper on the fair incognita’s foot, it’s also a bolt that Massenet shoots too soon. Everything after the duet feels like padding.

There’s also padding -- of a more amusing variety -- in the hilarious hourglass-figure costume for the stepmother. Ewa Podles makes the most of this old dragon, and shoots out some terrifically low and comical baritonal notes. Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutierrez trills and chirrups prettily through the coloratura showpiece role of the fairy godmother.

Conductor Bertrand de Billy proves once again what a nonpareil he is in French music. There’s no over-emotionalism here, no full-on outpouring. Restraint, elegance and clarity are the order of the day.

A masterpiece, it’s not. As a vehicle for a star, it’s a delight. Rating: ***.

Boys and Girls

Director Robert Carsen clearly thinks “Rinaldo” is no masterpiece. His new production at Glyndebourne treats it as an excuse for wearisome schoolboy jokes and lead-balloon frivolity. Emotional engagement? Nada.

Handel’s 1711 opera is about a Christian crusader who rescues his beloved Almirena from her Saracen abductors. Plenty to chew on there, you might think.

Carsen sets it in a boys’ school. Rinaldo is a gawky youth who dreams of chivalric deeds and derring-do. The action of the opera is presented as his schoolboy fantasy world.

He meets Almirena by the bike sheds. The Saracens lock up their captive in a girls’ dormitory. There are chemistry labs, lockers, football matches and plenty of other jokey details of school life. The Saracen queen Armida (an underpowered Brenda Rae) is a cane-wielding dominatrix figure who sports a rubber fetish skirt. She’s just a schoolboy fantasy, you see. Yawn.

The problem is that all this has diddly squat to do with Handel’s music, which creates moments of real vigor and pathos. With Carsen’s cardboard cutout approach to characterization, it’s hard to care when the pigtailed schoolgirl heroine sings her famous lament “Lascia, ch’io pianga” (Let me weep), even when it’s performed as beautifully as by Anett Fritsch.

Vocally, she brings more to the table than Sonia Prina (Rinaldo), who has an alarming tendency to speed up during her coloratura flourishes. She leaves conductor Ottavio Dantone struggling to keep up in the pit.

Meanwhile, although there’s some attractive singing from Luca Pisaroni and Varduhi Abrahamyan, the rest of us were struggling to stay awake. Rating: **.

“Cendrillon” is in repertory at the Royal Opera through July 16. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

“Rinaldo” is in repertory at Glyndebourne until Aug. 22. Information: http://www.glyndebourne.com or +44-1273-813813.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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