This past weekend I had the thrill of singing La Fée with soprano Laura Mitchell as my Cendrillon. We both did our undergraduate degrees in San Diego, and it was such a pleasure to be reunited and to sing together.
Having the opportunity to learn the rest of the role and revisit La Fée’s coloratura-filled aria and eyebrow-raising Act 3 scene was immensely rewarding and validating. After getting through the initial bumps in the note-learning and muscle-coordinating processes, I found that the less I stressed about the hard parts, the more easily and cleanly they came. A year and a half ago the vocal demands of La Fée had left me feeling a bit beat-up, but this year I came away from the performance feeling confident and quite happy.
My moment of personal triumph seems to be part of a larger Cinderella comeback. In the opera world, Massenet’s Cendrillon has taken a back seat to Rossini’s La Cenerentola for years. According to Operabase.com, La Cenerentola is #28 on the list of most programmed operas; Cendrillon is trailing almost 150 spots behind at #176.
Massenet embraces the magic of the original story — the opera is sub-titled conte de fées (fairy tale), and not only does he give the fairy godmother a highly visible and vocally flashy part, but he also includes a chorus of fairies as back-up. Rossini, on the other hands, grounds the drama firmly in reality — the fairy godmother is replaced by a wise tutor, and instead of a magical glass slipper, Rossini uses a more practical bracelet to reunite the lovers.
As fascinating as these differences are and as tempting as it may be to arrive at conclusions about audience preference, I think the neglect endured by Cendrillon has less to do with Massenet’s opera and more to do with Massenet’s popularity in general. Here are some more statistics from Operabase to put things into perspective:
- Of the 30+ operas Massenet composed, only 13 have made it into Operabase’s data of performances by professional companies.
- Massenet is #20 on the composer popularity list, with his operas being programmed a total of 188 times. In comparison, Rossini is #5 in popularity and his operas have been programmed 878 times. Verdi is the #1 most popular composer — his operas have been programmed a total of 2,586 times.
- Massenet’s most popular opera, Werther, showed up in 63 season programs. Manon is his second most popular and was programmed 47 times. Cendrillon as his fifth most popular opera was only programmed 17 times.
- There’s a chance you’ve heard of Massenet’s third and fourth most popular operas – Don Quichotte and Thaïs, respectively. But have you heard of the other eight: La Navarraise, Cléopâtre, Thérèse, Le Cid, Hérodiade, Esclarmonde, Cherubin, Le Mage? Each of these was programmed less than 5 times.
In any case, I think Massenet’s Cendrillon is regaining some ground, in large part thanks to super star Joyce DiDonato who sang the title role at Covent Garden, Barcelona, and Santa Fe.
A DVD of the Covent Garden production means the number of recordings of Cendrillon has doubled; the only other in existence was the 1978 recording conducted by Julius Rudel featuring Frederica von Stade as Cendrillon, Nicolai Gedda as the Prince, and Ruth Welting as La Fée. I dearly love this recording (and Ruth Welting is likely my favorite fairy godmother), but it’s nice to have another recording out in the universe. The singers are divine, the production is a visually stunning one to experience, and, perhaps more significantly, Massenet wrote the Prince as a pants role. (For those who would like to learn more: this wonderful review of Covent Garden’s 2011 production touches on why a mezzo ought to be cast as the Prince rather than a tenor.)
I peruse YapTracker and I see quite a few schools/companies/programs list Cendrillon in their upcoming seasons. And as further evidence that this music is becoming more standard: I have two — yes two! — mezzo-friend using Cendrillon’s aria “Enfin, je suis ici” for auditions.
Cinderella’s comeback isn’t just in the opera world either. 65 years after the original animated Disney movie, a new Disney movie is scheduled for 2015. Although there probably won’t be any singing mice, I have high hopes for this movie anyway. Just look at this cast list from IMDB:
- Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother – she’s going to be amazing. As always.
- Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s stepmother — as will she…
- Lily James, trouble-maker Rose from Downton Abbey, as Cinderella — didn’t care much for Rose, but Downton is one of my favorite shows.
- Richard Madden, Rob from Game of Thrones, as Prince Charming — I hope Baritone Boy doesn’t mind how pleased I am by this.
So here’s to beautiful music getting more play, more ears enjoying Massenet’s fairy-tale writing, and the spirit of being true to yourself and never giving up on your dreams.