Jules Massenet is best known for his romantic operas Manon and Werther, but the French composer's stylistic palette expanded as the 19th century came to a close. Cendrillon, Massenet's 1899 version of the Cinderella story for the young at heart, mixes imitations of French Baroque music with the opera comique of Offenbach and Lecocq. The Miami Summer Music Festival staged this lovely confection on Thursday night, the festival's penultimate operatic offering.
Massenet's large-scale orchestration overwhelmed the seating capacity of the small pit at Barry University's Broad Performing Arts Center. Extra brass and percussion were placed on both sides in front, and the harp, which has a prominent role, was onstage. Despite the cramped seating arrangement, conductor Grzegorz Nowak managed to astutely balance the ensemble, drawing supple playing from the student instrumentalists. He captured the ceremonial pomp of the prelude, the pathos of Cendrillon's monologues and the light-hearted verve of the courtiers and servants' choruses.
The festival producers deserve credit for casting Prince Charming as a mezzo-soprano, the way Massenet originally conceived the role, rather than a tenor as many contemporary productions have done.
Sarah Saturnino cut a tall, strikingly handsome figure as the bored, unhappy prince. The clear standout of the cast, she brought a wide range of vocal colors and dynamics to Massenet's delicate writing. Her noble bearing, elegant phrasing and silvery top register portend future success in the Mozart-Strauss mezzo repertoire.
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Due to the illness of Maya Gour, the title role was sung by Chelsea DeLorenz. The petite singer made a fragile, vulnerable Cinderella, bringing emotion to her solo flights and capturing the protagonist's loneliness and despair. After an uneven beginning, perhaps caused by nerves, her moderate-sized voice took wing in the scenes with Saturnino, the duets achieving their proper magic.
Louisa Waycott was a younger, less haughty Madame de la Haltière, more a nag than evil stepmother. Waycott brought lively declamation and a secure mezzo to her outbursts if not the low contralto low tones.
In this version, Cinderella's father Pandolfe has a large role. Matthew Maisano encompassed the serious and comic elements of the role superbly. Maisano's dark bass-baritone and commanding stage presence gave the role greater dimension. The tenderness of the scenes with his daughter proved one of the evening's highlights. And his turn from harried, henpecked husband to finally standing up to his wife and Cinderella's stepsisters garnered approving laughter from the audience.
The role of La Fée (the fairy godmother) requires a coloratura soprano with the strength and agility of a Lucia or Zerbinetta. While Jana McIntyre exhibited a fine sense of Gallic style, her small voice and effortful high range lacked the spark and élan that can transform this cameo into a leading role.
Samantha Geraci-Yee and Perri DiChristina were the chirpy stepsisters. Geraci-Yee's high soprano (as Noémie) managed to make a strong impression despite the role's limited opportunities.
David Carl Toulson's direction worked best in the intimate moments. The ball and court scenes were too often played for inappropriate laughs. The choreography for the fairies looked like a high school dance class. The design team of Yuki Izumihara and Yee Eun Nam that had been so successful with last week's production of Albert Herring proved less inventive here. Pandolfe's home amounted to a couple of small painted canvasses, and light designs projected against curtains do not a ballroom make.
Still, it was heartening to see many parents with small children in the attentive audience. Despite the production's deficiencies, Massenet's operatic fairy tale makes an excellent introduction for newcomers to the art form.