Photo: RNCM

Our Manchester performers were enchanted by RNCM's Cendrillon

Streetwise Opera performer Anita Ferguson writes about our Manchester group's experience watching Jules Massenet's 'Cendrillon', staged by the Royal Northern College of Music:

Massenet's Cendrillon premiered in Paris in 1899. He chose the 1697 Perrault story, from the thousands of versions told since the first century. Director Olivia Fuchs stages a rich, opulent production, set in Louis XIV Versailles.

We begin with a lively, comedic commotion, as Madame Le Haltiere, with her sights set on social elevation, prepares her daughters for the ball. She tries in vain to instil some social graces and sufficient feminine wiles to snare a prince. The servants run around to the regular, staccato rhythm and the bells. They at first appear polite and obsequious, but it is soon apparent that they are contemptuous of Madame and her pretensions. They snigger in amusement. Pandolfe, Cendrillon's father, is put-upon and somewhat pathetic; he longs for some peace and quiet.

Throughout the piece, Yannis Thevoris' set is spell-binding. At first it is full of colour and light. There is an ingenious central wall of two-way mirrors. We see distinctions between the way things appear and the way that they are. The opera will explore facades, deception and betrayal. For example, Madame sings with her daughters in a beautiful charming way, but in the mirror she is magnified and distorted, perhaps showing her true self. I wonder: if we look at ourselves in the mirror, who do we see?

Madame is played, in a rich, powerful voice, by Eleanor Watts. Charlotte Richardson and Rhiain Taylor are the inept and clumsy Noémie and Dorothée. They use their lovely expressive voices and posture to ably display their inadequacy. I feel some sympathy for them, controlled by the ruthless Madame.

Matthew Nuttall's Pandolfe sits in his chair. His singing is edgy and monotone, as befits his character. I'm frustrated by his acquiescence and apathy, while his daughter suffers. Cendrillon has thus far blended into the scene, but now has a moment with her father. She sings "Stay, Cricket. Stay", by the fire. Caroline Taylor has a beautiful voice, dulcet yet strong. Her pain is perceptible and I am moved by her sweet tone and her desolation. She sleeps.

La Fée, the Fairy Godmother, enters with ball gown and slippers. She emerges from the glowing lights behind the mirrors and I'm transfixed by the spectacle: it is delightful. Stephanie Poropat has a warm mellifluous voice, perfect for the role.

The chorus, brilliantly well-schooled by Kevin Thraves, are an astonishing tour-de-force throughout. At times they produce a formidable wall of sound. They are full of energy. The choreography is superb.

Act 2 opens with Prince Charmant, played by Michael Gibson. He is melancholic and indeed has the demeanour of a recalcitrant teenage boy. We all go to the ball. Cendrillon enters and everyone is stunned by her beauty. The two, of course, fall in love immediately. At midnight, she runs away.

In Act 3, Pandolfe finally asserts himself and orders his wife and stepdaughters out of the house. She cruelly lies that the prince said unkind things about Cendrillon. So our downtrodden heroine is in despair and she decides to end her own life.

We then have a huge change in the set - from colour and light to a plain, cold hospital room. The stark contrast hits me like a blow; I'm pushed from dreams to reality. The mood leaps from magical make-believe to the harsh image of Cenderella's hospitalisation, after a suicide attempt. The production does not shy away from the darker shades of the story. The sprites are now nursing nuns on roller skates. (I smile as I recall my years at The Bar Convent grammar school in York. At the time I was sure that the nuns who glided along the dark echoing corridors did indeed wear skates!)

The mirrors are now an opaque wall and the sweethearts are adjacent, but cannot see each other. They sing a duet along the wall and La Fée resolves to reunite them. Their voices are innocent and pure and I am moved to tears.

This began as a traditional story, but here we are shown the possibility that Cendrillon has imagined the fairies, the ball, the slipper, because of her misery and confusion. This for me is a whole new slant on the tale.

Jules Massenet's score is phenomenal. The assured conducting by Sergej Bolkovets of the tremendous orchestra sweeps us along through the story. The rhythms of the piece bring out the pomp and pretension in the tale. The score sometimes compliments the action, blending with the chorus. But then, very effectively, the rhythm goes against the singing. The result is choppy, uneven, unnerving. Moods and ideas are planted. I realise that Jules Massenet is an exceedingly under-valued composer!

And so the two are drawn together. They glimpse one another and fall into an enchanted sleep. The prince begins his search for the mystery beauty, armed with the lost slipper. Cendrillon resolves to return to the palace. She is reunited with Prince Charmant, to the acclaim of all at court and my own delight.

The final tableau is full of sparkle and colour, as befits our happy-ever-after ending.

Sincere thanks to the Royal Northern College of Music for giving the Streetwise Opera Manchester group a chance to see this wonderful work.

This splendid production, from the students at RNCM, is full of beauty and joy. The gifted creatives, cast and orchestra work together to produce a superb opera. The enthusiasm of the players was contagious. I was caught up in the joie de vivre and willingly gave myself over to be utterly enchanted. It was Magic!