Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Komische Oper appears gentle and heartfelt, but underneath lies something tough. Set in a snake pit disguised as a fairy tale wonderland—that is, a ballet school—it’s a very clever concept that mostly works, and benefits from a winning cast.
Massenet, Cendrillon. Komische Oper Berlin, 7/2/2016. Production by Damiano Michieletto, choreography by Sabine Franz, sets by Paolo Fantin, costumes by Klaus Burns, dramaturgy by Simon Berger, lights by Alessandro Carletti. Conducted by Henrik Nánási with Nadja Mchantaf (Lucette/Cendrillon), Agnes Zwierko (Madame de la Haltière), Karolina Gumos (Prince Charming), Werner Van Mechelen (Pandolfe [father]), Caroline Wettergreen (La Fee)
I must admit that this Cinderella opera is new to me. Where Rossini’s manic Cenerentola libretto adds plot and more plot, Massenet’s 1899 version pares down the action to the bare minimum, giving the composer more time to luxuriate in long solos and duets. The musical style is Werther-adjacent (with some sprightly opéra-comique like ensembles for the sisters and stepmother), and also has enough of the sweep and sprightliness to be a plausible fit for late 19th-century ballet music. It would all be too sweet if it weren’t for its tinge of belle époque languor and the intense depth of emotion Massenet gives to Lucette, the Cinderella character. When I watched the ROH DVD, it seemed like an absolutely delightful piece that was half an hour or maybe even 45 minutes too long. This performance, however, didn’t drag at all, which I’m going to attribute to a dynamic production but also, I believe, to some cuts (particularly in the long entrée section in Act 1).
Michieletto’s dancing school concept recalls a slew of dance fictions (from Ballet Shoes to The Red Shoes to Center Stage to Black Swan). Stepmother Madame de la Haltière (Agnes Zwierko) is a ballet mistress at a dance school, and the prince’s ball is that fixture of any dance fiction: the big audition. Lucette is an injured ballerina confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg; the stepsisters are less talented but favored dancers. In the abstract, I think this idea is quite brilliant: ballet takes the role of fairy tale romance, but one with a dark underbelly of competition, injury, and disposability.
The problem is the execution is quite tricky and it takes almost the whole first half to settle in. The unit set is a rehearsal room, watched over by an elderly former dancer (Michieletto’s consistent staging of old age is endearing and sympathetic, but this lady made his Konzept runneth over a bit). The students at the ballet school are the Komische Oper chorus, who in the opening scene do their best to look like a bunch of dancers in a class. They even dance through a whole chorus! But even with my superficial knowledge of ballet and what I think is a strong ability to suspend disbelief, they aren’t able to move or look like dancers in the least and the effect is very awkward. All the running around also has a seriously detrimental effect on their singing, leading to a ragged and underpowered first act. Points for effort, but this was probably better on paper than on stage.
But after this Michieletto turns to other methods. (Cynically, I wondered if this was because you only get so much chorus rehearsal time, and that first scene must have taken forever.) The fairy godmother is one the onstage old lady’s many colleages. She restore to injured Lucette her dancing legs and dancer outfit. Nadja Mchantaf, the soprano singing Lucette, is obviously a trained ballet dancer and pulls this off way better than anyone else in the cast, doing a pretty credible solo including singing while on pointe. (Good luck casting your revival five years from now, KOB!) The beginning of the ball, an audition scene, has more dancing by the gentlemen of the chorus, who are for unclear reasons in tutus (perhaps a preview for the Trocks’ upcoming engagement at the KOB) and is for comic rather than realistic effect.
The prince is a morose male dancer looking for the perfect partner (here cast as a trousers role and sung by mezzo Karolina Gumos), and he and Lucette enjoy a semi-pas de deux duet, ending with her flight at the stroke of midnight. The second act continues to move away from the dancing chorus. In a smart move, the next big Prince-Lucette duet is done as a kind of ballet dream sequence for Lucette in which both she and the Prince are doubled by actual ballet dancers (Ana Dordevic and Michael Ihnow). Sometimes the Prince dances with the female dancer, sometimes the male dancer tries to dance with Lucette and she falls over because her leg is back to being broken. Without her fairy godmother, Lucette can’t return to a ballet fantasy. It’s a really lovely, inventive staging of a pretty but static and plot-extraneous scene that otherwise could seem like dead space.
The following scene, with Lucette and her father, is really touching and a kind of psychological realism that you don’t get in most fairy tale operas: he tells her she’s been talking about the Prince in her sleep but has never met him. Since both her scenes with the prince were very clearly placed in a frame, we, like her, are left wondering if it was all a dream. Of course it wasn’t, and after some more comic business the opera comes to an abrupt end. The staging of the very end, however, ties the concept up unusually neatly: at first, the recognized Lucette gets an audition number slapped on her like everyone else, then, when her broken leg is revealed, she is mocked by all the ballet people around her. Is her happy end ruined? No, in response she throws her ballet shoes away and runs off with the prince, who evidently doesn’t care if she can dance or not. I wasn’t sure if it was going to end happily, but I was glad it did.
While the cast has a lot of personality, musically things were rough at times. Henrik Nánási’s conducting was loud and bombastic, and a more delicate touch would have been welcome throughout the score. As well as a somewhat underpowered (dancing) chorus, the orchestra wasn’t entirely together in the fast stuff in Act 1 either. Nánási was, however, sensitive to the solo singers, who generally sounded good. Nadja Mchantaf made a sympathetic, very well acted Lucette. She has an interesting voice, both delicate and dark, with a kind of hooded smokiness. At first, though, she failed to project much at all, even before she started dancing. I’m not sure if she has her vocal technique entirely sorted out (she wasn’t entirely musically consistent, either), but her voice gained in volume in the second half. Karolina Gumos’s tangy, slightly metallic mezzo is a much more reliable if less interesting sound, and she made an earnest, Octavian-like prince.
As La Fée, Caroline Wettergreen didn’t get a chance to act much (as a little old lady, she was confined to the background) but she sang with bright, very finely defined coloratura. She went a bit out of tune once or twice, but handled the high stuff well. Agnes Zwierko made an amusingly nasty dance mom and was funny without being a caricature. She’s got an imposing, dark sound, though it seemed like it might be low for her. This is a really female-heavy opera, isn’t it? (You might also teach at a women’s college if it took you a really long time to notice this.) The only important dude in this opera , Werner Van Mechelen, was a warm-voiced Pandolfe with very little French style.
About that: hearing French at the Komische Oper, the house where I learned a lot of German by seeing Traviata and Don Giovanni in German, which has only recently started doing non-German original language productions, is weird. It doesn’t sound quite idiomatic for much of the cast, though there are plenty of other opera houses where I could say that too. I did wonder WWWFS? (What Would Walter Felsenstein Say?) But even though his bust still occupies a prominent place at the top of the main staircase, he never experienced today’s surtitles (the Komische Oper has the Met-style individual screens now) either.
So if you get a chance to see this Cendrillon, I recommend it. It’s a good starter Regie for people who consider themselves averse to such things. The setting isn’t obvious but makes a lot of sense with the libretto, and the displacement of fairy tale magic into the world of ballet is really interesting. On a personal note, I think I would have found its generosity a much more fitting follow-up to Stefan Herheim’s human, vulnerable Queen of Spades–I really wasn’t in the mood for that Bieito Mahagonny. Good luck reviving this, Komische Oper!
Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus