Once upon a time, a sunny, sweet American diva brought an opera back from the dead.
“Cendrillon,” Massenet’s fairy-dusted take on the Cinderella tale, was a hit when it opened in Paris in 1899, but over the decades it drifted into a neglect as profound as that of its protagonist. Then came the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade: “the perfect Cendrillon,” The New York Times called her in 1979.
The similarities between Ms. von Stade and Joyce DiDonato, a sunny, sweet American mezzo-soprano a generation younger, were clear as Ms. DiDonato rose to fame in the early 2000s. So it was no surprise when, in 2006, Ms. DiDonato tried on the glass slippers in “Cendrillon.”
She did so in Santa Fe, N.M., in a bright, airy production by Laurent Pelly that on Thursday — 12 years later, by way of stops in London; Brussels; Barcelona; and Lille, France — brought the work to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time, a 21st-century exclamation point on its 20th-century rediscovery. Running through May 11, it is a delightful show, if one that offers more charm than enchantment.
Ms. DiDonato’s characteristically American balance of spunk and aw-shucks earnestness, of radiance and gumption, has served her well as Cinderella. She had early success as the ill-treated Angelina in Rossini’s more famous, notably magic-free version of the story, “La Cenerentola,” which ends in a blaze of joyful coloratura.
In “Cendrillon,” Ms. DiDonato occupies a musical landscape more varied, reflective and rapturous. Massenet obviously had fun with the score: doing his best impression of Baroque dances, conjuring an ethereal world out of Mendelssohn for the realm of the fairies, whipping duetting lovers to Wagnerian heights.
He created a credibly loving, yet haplessly passive father; a jovially villainous stepmother; a lonely, melancholy prince; a fairy godmother weaving sinuous Art Nouveau lines in the vocal stratosphere; and a gently courageous Cendrillon — Lucette is her given name — never quite sure whether she is dreaming or awake.
Ms. DiDonato does sincerity better than anyone since Ms. von Stade. At 49, she can still step on stage and, with modest gestures and mellow sound, persuade you she’s a put-upon girl. She experiences the story with an open face and endearing ingenuousness, a sense of wonder that never turns saccharine. In soft-grained passages, she is often simply lovely.
Yet her voice is not what it was 12 years ago — or even seven, when I heard her sing the role in London. While her basic sound retains its sensual silkiness, her tone has taken on a noticeable beat, and as the line rises, the pitch grows uncertain. Soft high notes waver; loud ones seem to harden in the air.
Committed as an actress and savvy in her musicality, Ms. DiDonato puts her changing vocal resources to work, adding to your perception of the character as vulnerable. But Massenet’s soaring blooms, his evocation of supernatural transcendence and impulsive youthfulness, are now missing.
Ms. DiDonato is not helped by her Prince Charmant, a part written for what Massenet poetically called a “soprano de sentiment” and sung here (as in London and Barcelona) by the mezzo Alice Coote. Her voice is too blunt to expand over the score’s long lines, and her crucial duets with Cendrillon are not ecstatic climaxes but trouble spots for both singers to negotiate rather than luxuriate in.
Also uneven in intonation, but far more delicious in effect, is a third mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, as the wicked stepmother, the imperious Madame de la Haltière. Her voice enormous and rich, Ms. Blythe wields it with palpable joy and considerable wit. Through sheer force of personality, her Haltière takes on almost shocking humanity without stinting cartoonish glee.
Kathleen Kim, a veteran of super-high soprano roles like Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’s Zerbinetta, ascends lucidly to the heights as La Fée, Cendrillon’s fairy godmother. The tender bass-baritone Laurent Naori is Pandolfe, who married Madame de la Haltière for her status and has gotten from it far less than nothing.
Bertrand de Billy leads the orchestra in a sumptuous performance that pivots from a robust start to ethereal accompaniment under Cendrillon’s forlorn opening monologue. Never rushed, his pacing keeps the energy up; never insubstantial in texture, the playing maintains a fizzy lightness.
As father and daughter plan their escape from the city in the third act, the orchestra blossoms in sympathy with the pastoral scene they dream of. Gradually awakening along with Cendrillon at the start of Act IV, the playing, nearly at the end of a long season, is as fresh as it was in the fall.
Not unlike Cesare Lievi’s Magritte-inspired production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” at the Met, this “Cendrillon” is boldly stylized; elegant yet winking; straightforward but with an aura of extravagance, particularly in the artfully over-the-top costumes (designed by Mr. Pelly, who took his curtain call on Thursday in a red velvet suit that matched them). Even incidental action, like lifting a selfish stepsister into shoes for the prince’s ball, is pertly, smilingly choreographed by Laura Scozzi.
Appropriately for a work that ends with the characters informing the audience in direct address that the piece is over, Mr. Pelly takes storytelling as his concept. The written word, comically stretched and squeezed, is everywhere in the set, designed by Barbara de Limburg. Cendrillon’s carriage is cutely constructed from the letters of “carosse,” the old French term for a royal coach.
The French text of the opera’s source material, Charles Perrault’s classic telling of the story, is plastered over wall after wall. After wall after wall: As in other stagings by Mr. Pelly, the sugar-high cleverness of his “Cendrillon,” which travels to the Lyric Opera of Chicago next season, can grow a little dizzying. But more often, the production is as lovable as its heroine.
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