Watch it here!
Joana Fragata and Dominic Mattos, the producers of The Opera Makers, are delighted to share introducing the Covent Garden live stream of Massenet’s Cendrillon, particularly as they have shared the role of Le Prince Charmant in the past (during our times at Morley Opera) even though Joana is a soprano, Dominic is a countertenor, and most productions – such as this one – cast a mezzo-soprano as the prince… you’ll learn more about that later.
It was on 24th May 1899 that the newly refurbished Salle Favart at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique in Paris first saw Massenet’s Cendrillon.
Although the roots of Cinderella go back a long time, with the earliest account of a similar tale being attributed to the Greeks in the first century AD the librettist Henri Caïn based his four act version on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cendrillon or the little glass slipper) published in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé, in 1697).
Perrault’s version is the one that has most shaped the modern tale by calling the heroine Cinderella (Cendrillon) and adding new characters and elements, such as the fairy-godmother and the glass slippers. These elements added by Perrault to the tale are precisely the ones driving the plot in Cendrillon: the fairy-godmother acts as the perfect magical plot twister and the lost glass slipper sets the characters on the path to a happy ending.
These elements of the story will also be familiar to many viewers in the UK from the Great British pantomime tradition. Laurent Pelly’s production, with rich and exaggerated costumes [particularly Haltiere’s derriere] is redolent of the pantomimic style, as is the way the piece caricatures the wicked stepmother Mme de la Haltiere and her two daughters Noemie and Dorothee.
Who is wearing the trousers?
Musically, the piece overlaps various types of writing to depict three very different worlds: Cendrillon’s lyrical, melancholic and secluded world, the supernatural, enchanted and delicate world of the fairy-godmother and the mundane, rowdy and contrived world of society inhabited by Cendrillon’s stepfamily offering a musical caricature that adds to the pantomimic feel of these roles. And whilst Massenet does not write the sisters to be played by men he does give us some cross-dressing in the role of le Prince Charmant who, as in traditional pantomime, is played by a woman.
This may seem strange for some viewers but the tradition of women playing male characters in opera has a long history. It goes back to the days when women were not allowed to sing in ecclesiastical contexts and the only way to have a rich and powerful high tone was to ensure that some of the boys in the choir grew into adulthood without … losing their high notes. And so the castrati voice came about and eventually found its way onto the operatic stage, becoming so popular throughout Europe that the castrati were revered as many rockstars are today. When castrating children for the love of opera became something of a taboo many of the roles that had been written for the castrati were reassigned to female singers (or in some cases rewritten for more naturally occurring male voices). But a musical tradition had been born and many composers began to write male characters specifically for female performers. Such roles are referred to as en travesti and examples include Mafio Orsini in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.
This tradition then carried through to German and French opera, and the somewhat homespun breeches of the Italian tradition gave way to rather more courtly trousers. This was particularly prevalent in the late 1800s – early 1900s and Johann Strauss II and Richard Strauss give us two equally famous noble trouser roles either side of Massenet’s Le Prince Charmant: Prince Orlovsky (Die Fledermaus, 1874) and Count Octavio (Der Rosenkavalier, 1911).
The popularity of the tradition in opera must surely share some of the same motivations as in the pantomime tradition of the principal boy, where the presence of a woman in bifurcated costume was both titillating and slightly daring. There is also an obvious queerness to the notion of two women falling in love on stage that at the time could only be explored through an overt display of heteronormativity.
Despite his courtly provenance, the Prince shares a sound world with Cendrillon: it is not by accident that Massenet decided to give this role to the same voice type: Cendrillon and the Prince are both soprano parts, and the Prince a very specific soprano voice at that.
In the original score, Massenet specified included the unusual requirement for the part of the Prince to be sung by a falcon or 'soprano de sentiment' (that is, a dramatic soprano voice with a dark-coloured low and middle voice and a lighter upper register - a voice subtype identified and named after the famous 19th century singer Cornélie Falcon).
With this very particular request, Massenet was providing very specific guidance on the type of sound he intended to create (this is also consistent with the extremely detailed and precise agogic, dynamic and expressive markings to be found in the score). Throughout the opera, the voices of Cinderella and the Prince intertwine and merge in anticipation of their blissful union, supported by a lush orchestration resembling the textures used by the late romantic Wagner.
In most modern productions we hear quite a different sound to the one intended by Massenet, at least in terms of the voices chosen, with Le Prince Charmant usually being sung by a mezzo-soprano as it is here (and gloriously) by Alice Coote. And it really is a night for the mezzos as Joyce DiDonato sings the title character, which was something of a signature role for her. DiDonato’s voice covers the upper reaches of Cendrillon with ease, but brings a darker colour to the part than many previous slipper wearers. The singing throughout is exquisite but we are quite the fangirls of the legendary Polish contralto Ewa Podles, who sings Mme de la Haltiere and whose vocal acrobatics have to be heard to be believed.
To end on personal note, both of us have an interesting experience of singing the role of the Prince.
Dom’s reflections on being charming
It was very strange as a countertenor (who is also a professional pantomime dame) to sing a male role, written for a woman in an opera that feels at points like a panto… in some ways I just felt I should sing one of the sisters. However, the sound world of the Prince was a surprisingly good fit for me. Massenet’s long lines took the voice high without too much trouble, with most of the more strident parts sitting comfortably within the middle voice and giving me the opportunity to sing a very different style of music – far more lyrical and lush – than the usual baroque. Singing the role also really forced me to solidify what had previously been a somewhat erratic approach to a top A, given that Massenet decides to plonk one in on an octave jump at the end of posez dans son ecrin.
Joana’s reflections on being charming
Being more used to singing the female tragic heroine roles, the opportunity to undertake a proper trouser role was truly refreshing. In fact, most trouser roles are out of my reach, being more of a light soprano or mezzo-soprano territory. Maybe because this was one of the few trouser roles I ever tackled (apart from Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio - more of a tragic heroine in male guise) I have learnt to never underestimate the challenges of tricking the audience into believing you are a teenage boy! In vocal terms, this role fit like a glove (after singing this I have even started looking at other falcon soprano roles hoping they would suit as well as this one) with its very comfortable tessitura, long lyric melodic lines and gorgeously expressive use of the French language and of rests to convey the Prince’s youthful angst and ardent love. In some ways, singing the Prince felt a bit like belcanto on steroids, in French and against a much denser orchestral texture. Being more familiar with operas that turn into bloodbaths in a blink of an eye, it also felt quite good being part of a proper fairytale for a change!