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Refreshing innocence

Tonight is the opening of Massenet’s Cendrillon here at the Royal Opera House. It will be the first time this opera has ever appeared on this distinguished stage, which is quite a moment in operatic history, and to say I’m exuberant is an understatement, for this is a role, amidst a most favorite production, that I simply adore.

I first met “Lucette” in 2006 with the Santa Fe Opera, and it truly was love at first reading. I remember opening

Laurent Pelly, our gifted and generous Stage Director

the piano score and playing the simple orchestral passage that introduces her, and my heart melted a bit.  Little did I know how well Laurent Pelly, our stage director, would capture that moment, as he first introduces Cendrillon peeking through a tiny cut-out door fit only for a mouse, immediately conveying to the audience who she is, and what fate awaits her.  (I’ve reveled in Laurent’s imagination as he expertly crafts the perfect entrance and exit for each character in this piece – each a brilliant device to punctuate who each person is: watch for the carriage’s entrance, the Mother gliding in on her own kind of thrown, the sisters showing their “ass~ets” on their first entrance, the Fairy Godmother sauntering victoriously off with her back to the audience while floating the highest of notes, the Prince stowed away, cowering in his misery.)

My joy in returning to this piece has been solidified during the rehearsal process as I watched my fellow cast members start to fall one by one for the magic of it! I bounded into the first day of rehearsal bursting at the seams, and the rest of the cast looked at me as if I was perhaps a bit mental.  That’s not necessarily an unusual reaction for me, but I hoped in this case I would be proven most sane by the end, and sure enough – through the course of stagings and orchestral rehearsals, they have each been transported into this Fairy Tale of innocence and charm.  I remember the first day Alice Coote, our fabulous Prince Charming, uttered, “I can’t stand this – it’s all too beautiful! WHERE has this piece been?!?!”  There’s been no turning back.

Alice and Laurent discuss

Cendrillon's "Carosse"

The thing is, this is not a perfect opera, by any stretch of the imagination.  There is probably a reason that it hasn’t entered the standard repertoire, although all of Massenet’s pieces have struggled to take hold ~ even his masterpiece Werther can’t QUITE claim to be standard rep.  Massenet is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, and seems to fall into the category of being “too French”, whatever that means.  But that’s the PRECISE reason I adore it.

In rehearsals the words “innocent” and “charming” and “naive” kept creeping into our conversations: “This duet is so PURE and INNOCENT”, for when the Prince and Cendrillon first meet at the ball, she says things like “I want to consecrate my life to you”, and most simply of all, “You are my Prince Charming.”  There are no curses, no murders, no leaping off tall buildings.  Not a single army jacket or combat boot to be found. Instead, Laurent wisely chose to let the piece be simply what it is: a fairy tale.  A gossamer fairy tale, in both story and MUSIC.  And honestly? I find it unabashedly refreshing right about now!!

I think there was a reason the Busby Berkeley Musical’s were so popular during WWII and the Depression Era, as people longed to be transported out of their every day misery and struggle.

I’m not so sure that we’re in such different times at the moment. Lots of questions hover around us at the moment: what

The Book of Fairy Tales serves as the foundation of this production

value do the arts carry? who exactly deserves equal rights? is tolerance, or even better yet, acceptance possible? I’m the very first person to recognize the importance that the arts play in opening up (to quote Sister Helen) “a civil dialogue” between people to sort out some of the hard pressing issues of today, but I also think it’s important to simply let music/art/opera CARRY US AWAY from time to time. To allow ourselves to dream a little bit? To escape? To laugh? Maybe to cry? To remind ourselves of what innocence was like, and to allow things to CHARM us.

One of the big things I try to encourage young singers who are SO intent on making it in this career, and who are determined to conquer that horrible beast, perfection, at all costs, is to never, ever forget the element of PLAY. It’s the reason most people are first attracted to music – we bang on the pots and pans, pound on the piano keyboard, astonished at the SOUND that arises out of our interaction with an instrument. Before we are taught that there is a “right” way to “do it”, we are simply PLAYING! I find that this piece is a gift on a silver platter for all of us to simply settle in and play, hopefully bringing the audience along for the ride!

One other tiny thing? This cast is such a dream and I feel so honored to share the stage with them. Is there another opera (well, surely one of those Handel ones!) that allows for FOUR MEZZOS to share the stage? It’s Mezzo-palooza all over again! I do hope you will all enjoy it!

PS If you do end up loving the production, I had quite a fun time shooting some photos during rehearsals (and surely more will appear during the course of the run!) You can investigate them on my FLICKR page for fun!

Playing in my spare time. Photo: Alice Coote!

10 Comments

  1. Chris said…

    Interestingly enough Wikipedia claims the opera was conceived by Massenet while staying at the Cavendish Hotel in London, so it would seem very appropriate that the Royal Opera should finally present it where it in effect originated. There seems to be one recording of it from 1978 with Gedda and von Stade. Is there any chance that this new version will be preserved on a DVD?

  2. Gi said…

    Oooh lovely, and lots of fun stuff to go do from here (see photos, look for Cendrillon on Youtube). Love the Carosse, and ms. Coote’s pic too!

  3. Judy Lynn said…

    How right you are and how refreshing to be presented with pure beauty and innocence. Not a jackboot or combat boot in sight, can’t wait to be charmed on the 9th! So looking forward to it…

  4. Richard Whittington said…

    ‘Serious Music’ can indeed be fun. Reminds me of a story my piano teacher tells. When she was young she would sometimes turn the lights down, light candles and ‘play concert’. One time she ‘played concert’ too enthusiastically and set her music on fire. Whoops. She told us this when she was making the same point about how fun music can be. Just think about the overture to Il Barbiere or the Three Stooges singing Voices of Spring. The thought that opera can be fun might surprise people or even frighten some opera fans, but it’s true. No surprise that the Diva who is sometimes a Divo is reminding us of that. This time last year I lived in England so I could tried to see this live or in Trafalger square. Pity. Hopefully I smell a DVD in the works.

  5. AliceP said…

    We are loving it, too!!!!!!!!

  6. Irene said…

    I loved Cendrillon and everybody around me was also charmed by the music and this magical production, AND hearing, not only the wonderful Joyce DiDonato, but JDD and Alice Coote together – amazing. I will be going again – lucky me! I hope there is a DVD and a BBC showing on TV at Christmas.
    Thank you Joyce, so much, and for your point about play. I once ran a nursery where the children played opera tapes in the home corner and dressed up and danced while I tried to concentrate on practising the piano (badly) in breaks. I feel they learnt a lot about music through play. Conversely, singers, instrumentalists and composers who are capable of playfulness seem to have much more to say to their audiences than those who are not. We all need play!

  7. Chris said…

    Your schedule would suggest that after your appearances in Baden Baden you will take August and September off to relax and recuperate. I hope so since you deserve it. You seem to be one of the hardest working singers around. Take a break, Joyce, and enjoy some time off.

  8. Magdalena said…

    Dear Joyce! It was such a joy to watch you and the others in Cendrillon July 16th. I loved it so much! I´ve just watched it breathless. This is such an amazing piece of music.. You were fabulous and I´m really thrilled I could met you after the performance and to speak with you for few seconds. Thank you SO much!
    P.S.: Is anywhere in your plans a visit of the Czech republic with some recital, concert etc.? It would be so amazing to have you here!

  9. Vicky said…

    Managed to see Cendrillon at the final performance and was blown away…. I was absolutely astonished this has not been staged before at Covent Garden.

    It was playful, so beautiful, funny and innocent…. which is something we all need in our lives. I was entranced from the very first note. (Note to the ROH people – some of us like French opera and going by the general reaction of the audience I think quite a few more do as well.)

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We need you to make us feel an integral PART of a shared existence through the communal, universal, forgiving language of music, of dance, of poetry and Art – so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and that we are all deserving of a life that overflows with immense possibility, improbable beauty and relentless truth.

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