Massenet’s Cendrillon offers more than a fairy tale, Friday and Sunday at Macky
By Peter Alexander March 16 at 4 p.m.
“She is a sweet girl with a lot of backbone.”
Leigh Holman, director of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, is talking about Cendrillon—real name Lucette—who is the Cinderella character in Jules Massenet’s opera based on the familiar Charles Perrault fairy tale. But if you only know the Disney version of Cinderella, you will meet some deeper characters in Massanet’s opera.
The Eklund Opera’s production of Cendrillon will be performed Friday and Sunday (March 17 and 19; details below) at Macky Auditorium. The cast of CU students will be stage directed by Holman; CU faculty member Nicholas Carthy will conduct the performances. Set deign is by Peter Dean Beck, costumes by Ann Piano.
In general outline, the story is the same that everyone is familiar with: after her mother’s death, Cinderella’s father remarried, and her stepmother and two stepsisters mistreat her. There is a fairy godmother, a Prince, and a ball, and Cinderella has to leave at midnight. She and the Prince fall in love and are eventually reunited. That much is familiar.
But there are important differences, too. “This is not our usual fluffy fairy story,” Carthy says. “There is great depth in what happens.” For one thing, Cinderella is a stronger character; when she comes home from the ball and hears her stepsisters gossiping about the mysterious girl at the ball, she resolves to run away and she contemplates suicide. That of course raises the emotional stakes well above the Disney version with its cartoon birds and mice.
The Prince is introduced before the ball. Like Cinderella, he is morose and depressed. Life at court is boring and he’s not interested in his father’s insistence that he select a mate. He also thinks about ending it all to escape his situation. And it does not take a glass slipper for Cinderella to be found; when she and the Prince meet again, they realistically recognize each other right away
Another critical difference is the character of Cinderella’s father. He overhears the stepsisters and realizes how badly they are treating his daughter. “He decides we’re not going to put up with this any more, and I’m going to take you away,” Holman explains. “We’re gong to go back to our farm [where they lived before he remarried], and they have a beautiful duet about that. It’s really gorgeous music.”
For Holman the critical point in the Perrault version of the story, and one that resonates with her personally, is that fact that Cinderella has lost her mother. “Something a lot of productions bring out, and I do, is the fact that Cinderella misses her mom so much. She sings some beautiful music about her mom and how much she misses her.
“And the Prince grew up alone—his mom’s gone, too. So the first time they meet, it’s more than physical attraction; they see themselves in each other. I don’t know if they got married nor not [since that’s not explicitly in the opera], but the great thing that Cinderella gets out of this is that they find each other. So I see Cinderella going from being very lonely, the Prince going from very lonely, to being surrounded by people that love them.”
Holman says that the two students cast in the role of Lucette/Cinderella both embraced the notion of a stronger character than they had known before. “We talked about it from the very beginning,” she says. “We had a long talk about that, and both women have addressed it in different ways, but they carried that into their character.”
Holman sees Cinderella’s dilemma in stark terms. “She’s living in a horrible, violent house, she misses her mother, she misses her former life, and so when she runs away in the woods, it’s not just because she overheard [the stepsisters]. It’s just one thing piled on top of another, and that’s what broke the camel’s back.”
The music is in the lush, romantic style of the late 19th century, with some Wagner influences thrown in. “There are lots of little Wagnerian moments,” Carthy says. “But they are lightened up. They don’t have the same sort of grimness that Wagner tends to have.”
We don’t remember him so much today, but in his time Massenet was massively popular. Carthy sees him as “the Andrew Lloyd Weber of his day,” but in a good way. “Andrew Lloyd Weber steals from everybody, and so did Massenet,” he says. “But the idea of saying that is just the importance that he had. People were all whistling his tunes and there were great Massenet aficionados who went to all of his performances.”
One final important point Holman stresses is that there is more than the usual “happily ever after” in the ending. It’s two people discovering each other in a world that has been hostile. As she explains, “all the women who were trying to get the prince to marry them see the love that they have for each other, and they all become joyful.
“There is a ‘happily every after’ in that, and not just because she found a prince.”
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Libretto by Henri Caïn
CU Eklund Opera
Sung in French with English supertitles
Nicholas Carthy, conductor, and Leigh Holman, stage director
7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17
2 p.m. Sunday, March 19
Correction (7 p.m. 3/16): In the original version of the story, the composer Massenet was misspelled as Massanet. Massenet is the correct spelling.