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A Different Cinderella

Massenet’s Cendrillon and the Dreams of the Lonely

by Roger Brunyate

Cendrillon at Peabody, November 18–21, 2004

Growing up in Britain as a boy, I came to know the Cinderella story as a popular subject for annual Christmas pantomimes. American kids would have seen the Disney movie or the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Italian bambini with music-loving parents might have been taken to the Rossini opera. And children everywhere would have read or been read one of the many stories deriving from Charles Perrault’s original fairytale of 1697. In all these versions of the story, the despised step-daughter becomes the belle of the ball and marries the handsome prince. But Jules Massenet’s 1899 operatic version of the story is distinctly different in tone. While Rossini’s La Cenerentola, like the British pantomimes or the Disney movie, is essentially a comedy with romantic interludes, Massenet’s Cendrillon is a romance with moments of comedy.

Dore engraving of ball scene in Cendrillon
The Traditional Treatment of Cinderella
The climax of Perrault’s tale in an engraving by Gustave Doré

All versions treat Cinderella as a virtual orphan in her own household, but traditionally the Prince, as the richest and most eligible bachelor in the kingdom, is set in contrast to her. By marrying her, the Prince raises Cinderella to his level, leading to betrothal full of pomp and panoply which produces a suitably grand finale. But Massenet treats Prince Charming as Cinderella’s alter ego, rather than her polar opposite. Massenet’s Prince is just as alienated from his environment as Cendrillon is from hers. He too is a virtual orphan, and when they come together it is no longer a question of his raising her to his level (a world which he has already declared to be meaningless), but of joining her in a world of romance created by their shared imagination. Two lost children, they are united in one another’s dreams and draw the audience in with them.

Prince Charming and Cinderella in the premiere of the opera  
The Prince and Cendrillon
Photograph of the premiere production in 1899
The best-known commercial recording of Cendrillon, featuring Frederica von Stade in the title role, casts the role of the Prince with a tenor, Nicolai Gedda. It is a beautiful recording, but the opera’s unique quality is lost. For Massenet did not write the role of the Prince for a man at all, but for what the French call a falcon: a soprano with a strong middle voice who is also capable of high notes. Indeed, the vocal ranges of Cendrillon and the Prince are virtually identical, and both call for singers who can combine qualities of the soprano and mezzo-soprano voice alike. There was a celebrated production in Chicago in 1911 which featured the British soprano Maggie Teyte in the title role and the American Mary Garden as the Prince, singers who had previously been chosen by Claude Debussy as his first two Mélisandes, and would therefore have had very similar vocal personae. Essentially, therefore, the two roles are musical mirror-images.

The Perrault story and most later versions of the tale alternate scenes set in Cinderella’s house with those in the royal palace. Perrault has Cinderella appearing at the ball on two consecutive nights (on the second of which she loses her glass slipper), thus enabling her to spend more time in the Prince’s company. But Massenet and his usual librettist Henri Cain treat the palace setting in a markedly ambiguous fashion. Furthermore, they introduce a third locale — the Fairy Oak in the forest — for the second meeting between the lovers, who flee from their respective homes to escape their miseries, and handle it in a such a way that the two can share each other’s thoughts but not actually see one another.

This one scene in the forest is thus set against the two architectural settings in a way which makes the natural world the visual equivalent of the magical or dream element which runs through the story. Erhard Rom, the designer of the Peabody production (he also designed The Abduction from the Seraglio last season), has come up with the idea of setting the action in the style of art nouveau, which was at its height at the time that Massenet was writing, as the poster for the original production attests. A style in which root, stem, and leaf forms can as easily be used for architectural structures as they can for the natural world allows different kinds of realities to merge together in a language of forms that can encompass all of them, and reality itself to dissolve into the fantasy world of the imagination. The central element in Rom’s set will be a huge walk-in fireplace, based on one that Louis Comfort Tiffany designed for his own home. By swinging around, by becoming transparent, by changes in lighting, and by the addition of oversized vine and flower elements, this unit can not only serve in turn as fireplace, throne-canopy, and tree, but can act as locus for the magic that finds its way into virtually every scene.

Erhard Rom's set design for the opening scene
Cendrillon at Home
Preliminary set model by Erhard Rom

Massenet’s opening scene takes the traditional form. Pandemonium reigns at the house of Cendrillon’s father, Pandolfe, and his overbearing second wife, Madame de la Haltière. The servants complain of overwork and intolerable treatment; Pandolfe regrets having married such a harridan; and the women make much ado of dressing for the Prince’s ball. All, that is, except Cendrillon, who is left behind to sweep the fireplace. She falls asleep and the Fairy arrives — no aged godmother, but a brilliant coloratura soprano accompanied by six of her Sprites. Cendrillon wakes to find herself dressed in lavish clothing with the Sprites waiting to carry her on insect wings to the ball; the usual details of the pumpkin coach and the mouse coachmen are omitted from this version.

Massenet’s second act (which we shall be performing without intermission) opens with grand orchestral pomp, presumably heralding a setting of much magnificence. But the curtain rises to reveal the Prince alone and disconsolate, accompanied only by a chamber trio of flute, harp, and viol. Though raised in privilege, surrounded by wealth, and about to meet the finest princesses in the land, he feels alone and alienated, lacking that one other person who might share the yearning of his soul. Eventually, the full court enters with due ceremony (the original production here inserted a six-movement ballet), and the Haltière women make their hilarious arrival. But Cendrillon’s appearance stops all this activity cold. From the moment that she reaches the Prince, it is as though nobody else on the stage existed; they simply fade into immobility as the two join in the first of their rapturous duets. This is broken only by the striking of the clock and Cendrillon’s rapid departure, leaving the Prince once more alone.

Erhard Rom's set design for the ball scene
The Prince's Ball
Preliminary set model by Erhard Rom

The dreamlike world in which reality fades and time is suspended now becomes the pervasive mode in the second half of the opera. Henri Cain’s libretto, it is true, offers third and fourth acts with two scenes in each, but they are concerned less with establishing a narrative sequence than with following the emotional journey of the title character. For even after Cendrillon gets home, she is still beset with the nightmare of her escape from the palace while the clock is striking, feeling that the court, the servants, and even the statues in the garden are jeering at her. The scene returns to normality as the Haltières come back to lord it over her once again, but it this is followed by a tender duet between Cendrillon and her father, dreaming of a simpler life. They arrange to flee the house together, and Pandolfe goes to gather his things; but Cendrillon, reluctant to bring such exile upon her father, slips out quietly into the night alone.

  The original poster for the opera
Poster for the First Production
Wandering through the forest, she comes upon the Fairy Oak, where magic rules. The lonely Prince also arrives, having fled the palace too. The Fairy arranges that neither shall be able to see the other, although each can dream of the other’s voice and join once more in a duet. At the end of the act, they have fallen asleep in the moonlight, side by side but not touching, evoking powerful images from Hansel and Gretel or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Pandolfe, meanwhile, runs desperately through the night in search of his daughter, to find her frozen and unconscious in the heart of the forest. Carrying her home, he nurses her through an extended coma, broken only by the arrival of Spring. Cendrillon is still beset by memories of her Prince, but assumes they were only a dream. When the royal herald is heard announcing the Prince’s search for the unknown woman who attended the ball, she realizes that her dream might be true after all, and — without even changing out of her simple clothes — rushes off to the palace.

Drawing of Jules Massenet  
Jules Massenet
Once more, Massenet introduces the musical panoply of the court. Once more, he isolates the Prince, who cradles the glass slipper in his hands like a relic in its shrine. Massenet also omits the usual business of trying on the slipper on the other sisters, because this Prince has no need to do so; he knows that he will recognize its true wearer without recourse to physical means. And so it proves, even though Cendrillon (in this production) will be half hiding in her everyday clothes. They need only exchange only a few lines, and the story is over.

But here Massenet, I fear, made a miscalculation. Originally, he had prefaced the opera with a prologue in which the various characters come forward to introduce themselves to the audience, and ended it with an epilogue in which they express the hope that we have enjoyed their tale. Massenet was persuaded to cut the prologue on the very day of the dress rehearsal, but the jarring epilogue remains. In our production, however, we will take the liberty of cutting it also. Instead, we shall return to the music where Cendrillon, by the fireplace, had first fallen into the magic dream which will suffuse the rest of her story. And so, as the opera ends with the lovers isolated in a pool of light, bending towards each other for their first and never-ending kiss, it will be up to the audience to determine what is reality and what still a continuation of that dream….

Artist's impression of the finale
The Closing Moments of the Opera
Preliminary set model by Erhard Rom

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