Preview: “Cendrillon,” Massenet’s enchanting fairy tale opera for all ages

Original article published on the CU Independent here.

Taylor Raven and Max Hosmer from the 2015 University of Colorado Boulder production of “Cinderella” (Courtesy of CU Presents)

Once upon a time, the young girl Lucette lost her glass slipper at Prince Charmant’s ball and found her one true love. 

So begins the classic, age-old Cinderella fairy tale —  reimagined with witty storytelling and expressive, romantic music in Jules Massenet’s 1899 opera “Cendrillon.” 

“Cendrillon is relentlessly positive as a survival mechanism,” said graduate student Gloria Palermo, who will play the titular role for CU Presents. “She is sweet and innocent to a fault. In this story, she finds her bravery and learns how to stand up for herself as she grows up.“

The University of Colorado Boulder College of Music will present Massenet’s “Cendrillon” at Macky Auditorium on Friday, March 17, and Sunday, March 19. The production, led by stage director Leigh Holman and music director Nicholas Carthy, will feature fanciful, Victorian-inspired costumes and whimsical scenery.  

Massenet’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale is based on Charles Perrault’s 1698 version of “Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper,” with a libretto by Henri Caïn. In the first act, the opera introduces the usual line-up: the cruel step-mother, Madame de la Haltière; the two jealous step-sisters, Noémie and Dorothée; the kind-hearted father, Pandolfe; and the innocent protagonist, Lucette (Cendrillon). 

Then comes the majestic La Fée, the Fairy Godmother. She is the embodiment of magic — an enigmatic character, clad in an earth-tone corset dress with a green sparkly tiara and a stately wooden staff. 

 “The fairy godmother is more elemental than human,” said graduate student Alice Del Simone, who will play La Fée on Friday night. “She’s almost creature-like, yet still beautiful. She isn’t like the Fairy Godmother from Disney.” 

After La Fée orchestrates Lucette’s fashion makeover, the young girl sets off for the Prince’s ball, all decked out in her magnificent blue ball gown and sparkly tiara. There, as the mysterious princess Cendrillon, she charms the Prince — until her sudden disappearance at midnight. 

For Palermo, being the belle of the ball is not her usual style; however, she has embraced the experience in her role as Cendrillon.

“[Growing up,] I wasn’t a Disney princess girl,” Palermo said. “I’m still not super girly like that. But, it has been super fun to tap into my inner child, to play with being more girly and having dreams that I hope will come true.” 

Yet, Palermo also hopes to portray Cendrillon as a more nuanced character than the Disney princess, thus staying true to the composer’s intentions. Massenet’s Cendrillon is more spirited — determined to find her true love and yet willing to sacrifice her own happiness for her father’s well-being.

Massenet captures Cendrillon’s passionate personality with sweeping, emotional music, especially in her duets with the Prince. The Prince is technically a “trousers role,” meaning it is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, the same vocal type as Cendrillon. Given the similar ranges, their voices blend and weave together as they sing, reflecting their growing emotional bond. 

On Sunday night, countertenor graduate student Elijah English will play the role of the Prince, which will offer a distinctive vocal tone rarely heard in the world of French grand opera. 

To contrast the couple’s complex, dramatic music, other characters will have more exaggerated, stylized parts. The shallow step-sisters provide comic relief with their chattery melodies and simple harmonies, while their cruel mother sings in a haughty and bold way. Meanwhile, La Fée sings lovely, high-lying coloratura lines, which evoke her otherworldly magic.  

“She is this ethereal being, so [her vocal part] is in a higher register than everyone else’s,” said graduate student Olivia Russell-Botto, the Sunday show’s La Fée. “You can hear the sprinkle of her magic in it. In the melismatic lines, she spins and weaves in her magic as well.” 

With their interpretation of Massenet’s “Cendrillon,” the cast hopes to connect to audiences of all ages — whether or not they are fairy tale lovers — and to offer an uplifting musical escape for a few hours.

“We all have those moments where we want to escape to a fantasy land,” Russell-Botto said. “Life can be tough. I think fantasy can bring joy and happiness into the world and a smile to people’s faces.” 

The College of Music will host two performances of “Cendrillon” with different casts at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 17, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 19. Find more information about the show on the CU Presents website here

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