Go inside this production of Cendrillon with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
The home of Pandolfe and his family
The household is preparing for a ball to be given at the court that evening. Pandolfe bemoans his lot, married to a nagging wife who ill-treats his daughter. Mme. de la Haltière instructs her two daughters on how to behave at the ball. She refuses to let Cendrillon go to the ball, or to let her father say goodbye to her. After her family has left, she dreams about the ball and falls asleep. Cendrillon’s fairy godmother enters and conjures up a coach, horses, a stunning gown, and glass slippers for Cendrillon. She tells Cendrillon that she can go to the ball, but must leave before midnight. e glass slippers will prevent Cendrillon’s family from recognizing her.
The royal palace
The ball is in full swing, but Prince Charming is in a melancholy mood. The king orders his son to find a wife, and several princesses dance for the prince. An unknown beauty (Cendrillon) enters the room to general surprise. The whole court (except Mme. de la Haltière and her daughters) are charmed by the stranger, and the prince immediately falls in love with her. Left alone with Cendrillon, he tells her of his feelings. Cendrillon is equally taken with the prince, but at the first stroke of midnight she hurries away, remembering the fairy godmother’s words.
Scene 1: The home of Pandolfe and his family
Cendrillon has returned home, mourning the loss of Prince Charming. She remembers her frightening journey from the royal palace, and how she lost one of her glass slippers as she left the ball. Mme. de la Haltière and her daughters enter, abusing Pandolfe. Mme. de la Haltière then describes to Cendrillon the “unknown stranger” who appeared at the king’s ball, telling her that the prince spoke contemptuously of the girl, and that the court regarded her with disdain. When Pandolfe tells his wife to be quiet, she turns on him again. Pandolfe has finally had enough, and sends Mme. de la Haltière, Noémie, and Dorothée out of the room. He suggests to Cendrillon that they leave the town and return together to his country estate. Cendrillon agrees, and Pandolfe goes to prepare for their journey. Alone, Cendrillon decides that she is too sad to continue living. She says farewell to her home, remembers her mother fondly and leaves, determined to go to the forest and die there.
Scene 2: The enchanted forest
Spirits are dancing in the forest. Prince Charming and Cendrillon enter, looking for each other. They pray to the fairy godmother to ease their pain. Hearing each other’s voices, they reaffirm their love, and Cendrillon tells Prince Charming her true name, Lucette. The fairy godmother allows the pair to see each other. They embrace, and fall into an enchanted sleep.
Scene 1: The home of Pandolfe and his family
Pandolfe found Cendrillon in the forest, very ill, and has been caring for her at home. She is now recovering. Pandolfe tells her that she has been talking during her illness of her adventures at the ball and of Prince Charming. Cendrillon begins to believe that the whole episode was a dream. Trying to be brave, she greets the spring with her father. Mme. de la Haltière, Noémie, and Dorothée enter excitedly. The king has summoned princesses from all over the land in the hope that one of them is the unknown beauty the prince met at the ball. Mme. de la Haltière is sure that the prince must mean one of her daughters and is determined to go to the palace. A herald announces that the prince is insisting that all the women visiting the court must try on the glass slipper that the “unknown beauty” left behind at the ball; only the correct girl will be able to wear it. Cendrillon decides to go to the palace.
Scene 2: The royal palace
Prince Charming is desperately searching for his “unknown beauty’ among the princesses summoned to the palace. He is almost on the point of death when Cendrillon and the fairy godmother arrive. The prince immediately recognizes Cendrillon and the pair declare their love to the court. Pandolfe and the rest of Cendrillon’s family enter, and everyone rejoices and hails Cendrillon as their future queen. Reprinted by permission of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.
Charm is a quality in short supply in our society these days. When we encounter it, invariably it strikes us as a breath of fresh air. That’s one of the many reasons that I’m so delighted by the long-awaited Lyric premiere of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. This irresistible work exudes charm while making us smile, dazzling our eyes and ears, and enriching our hearts.
The opera was written by a true man of the theater who knew exactly how to please audiences. Given the intensity and sheer grandeur of so many of his operas, it surprised everyone when he turned to a classic fairytale. But Massenet knew precisely what he was about – his music turned out to fit the Cinderella story like a glass slipper.
During the international resurgence of interest in Massenet several decades ago, many of his more unfamiliar operas were rediscovered, only to quickly disappear again. That, fortunately, wasn’t the case with Cendrillon. It has been hailed in countless major houses for the ravishing music Massenet gave the heroine, her Prince Charming, and her Fairy Godmother; the riotously funny scenes involving Cendrillon’s bossy stepmother, Mme. de la Haltière; the immensely touching dialogues between Cendrillon and her gentle, put upon father, Pandolfe; and the delicious court scenes, which feature some exhilarating orchestral showpieces.
All of us at Lyric are thrilled to introduce Cendrillon – the first of four Lyric premieres this season – in a particularly memorable production. Inspired by the wonderful tale by Charles Perrault, Laurent Pelly has brought to this unique cocktail of wit and romance every bit of the theatrical wizardry that has made him one of today’s great geniuses of French opera. Laurent’s direction, his own costume designs, Barbara de Limburg’s inventive sets, and Laura Scozzi’s witty choreography are perfectly integrated in presenting a marvelous fantasy world.
Lyric’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, is a great champion of Massenet’s operas and a superb Massenet interpreter. His success leading Thaïs in Chicago during the 2003/04 season initiated an intense interest in this repertoire, confirmed by Andrew’s subsequent performances of Thaïs internationally, as well as Werther and Don Quichotte at Lyric. Having fallen in love with Cendrillon when he conducted the Pelly production in Barcelona in 2014, he was eager to have us schedule the Lyric premiere. I was delighted about this, since it’s a work I’ve admired myself for several decades.
Andrew and I are both thrilled with our cast. Excepting longtime Lyric favorite Alice Coote, whose Prince Charming is one of her most admired portrayals (recently applauded in the Met’s company premiere of Cendrillon), the other principals are all making their company debuts. The outstanding young Australian lyric soprano Siobhan Stagg, who is making her American debut at Lyric after rapidly established herself all over Europe, is starring in the title role, with the scintillating French-Canadian coloratura soprano Marie-Eve Munger as the Fairy Godmother, the formidable American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Mme. de la Haltière, and the rich-voiced Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton as Pandolfe.
The eagerly awaited arrival of Cendrillon at Lyric is a very special moment for our company, and we’re delighted that you’re here to share it with us.
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Certain composers have needed a champion to draw attention to their excellence and create an enduring audience for them in the opera house. Jules Massenet is a good example.
Arguably his country’s most commercially successful opera composer in the last quarter of the 19th century, Massenet knew how to please the public. But by the 1930s, outside France, the majority of his works were severely neglected. One could still find Manon, Werther, occasionally Thaïs and Don Quichotte, but not much else.
In the 1970s, the international operatic scene did experience something of a Massenet revival. Nowadays, though, it’s comparatively rare to find a lesser-known Massenet work in a major theater. But one of those pieces brought back into circulation four decades ago has entered the repertoire worldwide, and that is Cendrillon.
This opera’s appeal stems above all from its quite extraordinary heart, which emerges in the enchanting characterization of the heroine. She’s surrounded by four other principal participants in the story who sustain our attention throughout: her father, Pandolfe; her stepmother, Mme. de la Haltière; “le Prince Charmant” – a.k.a. Prince Charming; and the character known in the opera simply as “La Fée”, “the Fairy,” more often referred to (in America, at least) as the Fairy Godmother. The music through the entire piece is wonderfully varied, the text very much in the spirit of the opera’s literary source: Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufl e de verre (Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper)
Perrault (1628-1703), a lifelong Parisian, wrote beautiful prose and poetry, the excellence of which was recognized officially with his appointment to the prestigious Académie Française. He came from a wealthy family and studied law, after which he embarked on a successful career as a government administrator, supervising the management of royal buildings. It wasn’t until his mid-sixties that his writing career took off. The vehicle was the fairytail, of which he was a pioneer – the first truly great writer to create this sort of story. His greatest contribution was a collection he called Histoires ou contes du temps passes (Stories or Tales of the Past, subtitled Les contes de ma mère l’oye – Tales of Mother Goose). Children will be forever grateful to Perrault for that collection, given that it included several of the most beloved stories ever written: Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and of course, Cinderella.
Perrault, by the way, is very much a part of the production to be seen at Lyric. The director, Laurent Pelly, has mentioned on many occasions that as a child, when visiting his grandmother, he read Cendrillon in a volume of Perrault’s fairytales with illustrations by the great Gustave Doré (1832-1883), a book long cherished all over France. Pelly’s production is, in a way, an homage to the book and to his joyful experiences reading it. The story is actually written out on the walls of the set for his production.
Cinderella has always figured in popular culture. The earliest version of the story goes back to the first century B.C.: the tale of Rhodopis, a Greek courtesan to whom the King of Egypt proposes marriage. The basic elements of Cinderella have been adapted endlessly in literature, including Aschenputtel, a much darker version than Perrault’s, written by the Brothers Grimm. Children are invariably horrified by the stepsisters in Grimm; at their mother’s urging, each takes drastic action (one cutting off her toe, the other a portion of her heel) in an attempt to fit her foot into the glass slipper.
Onstage we’ve seen Cinderella in British pantomimes, as well as in the full-length ballet gloriously composed by the great Serge Prokofiev. Musical theater got into the act delightfully in 1957 with a Cinderella by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, seen in black-and-white by an astoundingly large audience nationwide – 107 million television viewers. It was remounted successfully (1965, 1997) and adapted for Broadway (2013). Imdb.com reveals no fewer than 200 listings for various versions of the story created for film and television, including the two Disney versions (animated in 1950, live action 65 years later). There have been film versions, such as the Slipper and the Rose and Ever After. Pretty Woman certainly has its Cinderella-ish elements, and – in 1960 – there was even Cinderfella, with Jerry Lewis in the title role entranced by Anna Maria Alberghetti as Princess Charming.
Opera, of course, has been an important part of this story’s evolution, beginning in the mid-18th century with a two-act Cendrillon by Jean-Louis Larnette, produced by Paris’s Opéra Comique. There have been innumerable other versions, including Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 1816; also works of Nicolas Isouard, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and even one composed by one of the most illustrious singers of the 19th century, mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot.
In Cendrillon, Massenet and his librettist, Henri Cain, departed from Perrault in some interesting ways. Most important was the significant expansion of the roles of the Fairy Godmother, Cinderella’s father, and Prince Charming to give them much greater appeal. Massenet also knew that his audience would appreciate the sheer variety of the piece – the total integration of sung dialogue with arias, duets, ensembles, choruses, and dance music – and the sheer charm of the entire work.
The commission for Cendrillon from the Opéra Comique had originated with its famously enterprising director, Léon Carvalho, but the premiere kept getting postponed, leaving Massenet in despair. Carvalho died in late 1897 and was succeeded by Albert Carré, who would do much for the propagation of new French operas during the next three decades. He made it his aim to produce an absolutely smashing premiere of Cendrillon, with an opulence that even the much grander scale Opéra de Paris would envy.
After those frustrating delays, one can imagine how gratified Massenet must have been when the Opéra Comique finally introduced Cendrillon in 1899. The composer never attended the premieres of his operas, but a telegram from the theater (sent by the great comic baritone Lucien Fugère, who created the role of Pandolfe) brought him word of the opera’s success. Just three years after that first performance – following successes in Brussels, Geneva, and the Hague – audiences in New Orleans applauded the American premiere.
Looking at Cendrillon’s Italian counterpart, La Cenerentola, reveals some differences in the story, although one attribute the Italian and the French heroines share is that each of them has a nickname: Cenerentola and Cendrillon both can be translated as “little girl of the cinders.” (Each also has a real name – Rossini’s character is Angelina, while Massenet’s is Lucette). In both, the girl’s father is an important character; Pandolfe is sweet and gentle, very unlike Cenerentola’s father. Perhaps Pandolfe is too meek for his own good. Certainly he seriously regrets his marriage to Cendrillon’s stepmother, a character who doesn’t appear in Rossini at all: Mme. de la Haltière, quite incorrigibly bossy and outrageously self-important. In the hands of another composer she might seem excessively nasty, but Massenet and Cain draw a good deal of humor from the character. Her daughters, Cendrillon’s stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, eclipse their counterparts in Rossini as simply the silliest, giddiest young ladies in opera.
Act Two, at the ball, shows us Cinderella sporting glass slippers, as in Perrault (Rossini’s heroine leaves behind a bracelet). At home in Act Three, we have a major departure from both Perrault and Rossini: Devastated to have left the prince, Cendrillon decides to hide her misery from her father by running away. But she falls asleep, and her dream appears before us: she’s in the Fairy Godmother’s enchanted forest, and she’s with the prince, although initially they can’t see each other. In Laurent Pelly’s production at Lyric, rather than a forest, set designer Barbara de Limburg places the scene in a very different but similarly mysterious realm – the dark rooftops of Paris.
The score’s wonderful combination of styles gives us grandly romantic episodes, but also an intimacy that seems sweet, never cloying. Thanks to the indomitable Mme. de la Haltière, there’s also a pomposity worthy of Perrault, who described the stepmother as “the proudest and most haughty woman who ever was seen.” As envisioned by Massenet and his librettist, this character’s scenes wouldn’t be out of place in comic operettas by Offenbach. At one point in Act Three, after coming home from the ball, she pooh-poohs the qualities of the unknown princess and sings a hilarious aria, giving all the details of her own magnificent family pedigree.
The ballet music recalls Baroque minuets; and in contrast, Massenet gives us the vigorous march of the princesses when they’re presented to the prince at the ball. Most captivating of all, however, is the tenderness of the love music, which also takes wing in magnificently soaring climactic phrases. Those scenes, in which the two singers truly can connect vocally, musically, and emotionally, also offer moments of melancholy that truly touch the heart.
Perrault calls Cendrillon “the best creature in the world.” That’s also the impression she gives onstage; this is one of the most unselfish, most loving of all operatic heroines, whose loneliness, rejection, and sadness all come through vividly in her music. But it’s clear how much hope she has, and how much she believes in love and goodness. We see her capacity for love not just in her scenes with the prince, but in her scenes with her father – their relationship is perhaps the single most endearing element of the opera.
Massenet dedicated Cendrillon to the singer who created the title role, Julie Guiraudon, by all accounts an adorable artist. She clearly enraptured both Massenet, who called her Cendrillon “exquisite,” and Cain, who later married her. Guiraudon was actually a soprano; today the role is more frequently sung by a mezzo, but it’s absolutely true that a lyric soprano who complements a gleaming top with a strong lower octave can easily master Cendrillon’s challenges.
Prince Charming is much more interesting – more complex emotionally – than in Rossini’s opera or, for that matter, in Perrault’s tale. He’s given a real emotional journey, basically moving from inexperienced and petulant boy to loving man. His music is as passionately soulful as the Fairy Godmother’s is shimmering. Massenet justifies the latter’s added prominence in the tale by giving her utterly bewitching music, requiring real quicksilver in the voice and stupendous technique.
A fairytale come to life with matchless elegance, wit, and sheer imagination, Cendrillon is simply a joy. We can expect the long-awaited Lyric premiere to be one of the great highlights of Chicago operagoing this season.
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, has appeared annually on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts’ “Opera Quiz” for the past 12 years and also contributes regularly to opera-related publications and recording companies internationally. He taught a seminar, “The Glory of Great Singing,” last spring at Chicago’s renowned Newberry Library.