Belle of the Ball

September 25th, 2017

This season, for the first time in its history, the Met presents Cendrillon— Massenet’s lush operatic adaptation of the classic Cinderella story, with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role. Laurent Pelly’s whimsical storybook production also features Alice Coote in the trouser role of Prince Charming, Kathleen Kim as the effervescent Fairy Godmother, and Stephanie Blythe as Cendrillon’s wicked stepmother, with Bertrand de Billy on the podium. DiDonato recently spoke about her longstanding connection to the Cinderella character, Pelly’s playful staging, and the unshakeable power of love.

Your performances as Cendrillon will be the first time Met audiences experience this opera. What can you tell us about this version of the classic Cinderella story?

Well, Cendrillon is the French name of the character that we in America know as Cinderella. She’s a character familiar to so many of us because we grew up with her. She is a girl who holds onto hope and who holds onto the idea that goodness and love really conquer. In Massenet’s operatic re-telling, she still finds her Prince Charming, but she’s not dependent on him—the Prince is really just a manifestation of her loving nature. She doesn’t dream of going to the ball to find her prince—she goes because of the magic of it. She doesn’t want always to be pushed into the corner by the fireplace. She wants to live her life. And when she arrives at the ball, the prince connects with her, and she connects with him. It really is a moment of connection between two people, but she doesn’t need him to make her life complete. 

You have a long history with the character.

Yes, one of the very first roles I sang was the title character in Rossini’s Italian version, La Cenerentola. So Cinderella, through Rossini and now through Massenet, is a character that I’ve sung over almost 19 years. 

What’s different about the two composers’ approaches?

Rossini and Massenet inhabited very different musical worlds. The bel canto style of the early 19th century invites ornamentation, liberty, and a lot of space for personal interpretation. My take on Rossini’s score could sound vastly different from other singers taking on the role. Massenet’s style, on the other hand, is much more specifically crafted and delineated. There is not one measure of this score that does not contain a specific direction regarding dynamics, articulation, or phrasing.

How do these stylistic differences affect the dramatic impact of each piece?

Dramatically, Rossini’s fairy tale world is one of morality and enlightenment—especially since he replaces the traditional Fairy Godmother with a wise philosopher. With Massenet, we get the romance, the magic, and the longing and melancholy of this young girl’s world. She longs for her mother and for that “love at first sight” element with her Prince. And of course, we get the glass slipper, which is not to be underestimated in terms of magic. Cendrillon really emphasizes the magic in the story and the power of love.

Your director, Laurent Pelly, who has created Met productions of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment and Massenet’s Manon, is known for his inventive approach. What can you tell us about his production of Cendrillon?

I love this production! Laurent grew up having his grandmother read the original Cinderella story by Charles Perrault out of this wonderful picture book with great calligraphy and big letters and lots of drawings and illustrations. So with this production, he really brings that storybook to life. The walls of the set actually have the story written out in French. There are so many whimsical touches. It’s just imagination come to life.

He also created the costumes for this production. What are your favorite touches?

When he was designing the dress that Cendrillon wears to the ball, he wanted something fabulously glamorous, but he didn’t want it to be all about the dress. He wanted it to be about this character, who is purity and goodness and innocence. So, at the bottom, it’s black, as if the cinders of the fireplace have clung to her, and it graduates up into this beautiful nude color, where we actually see her come out. She never forgets where she comes from. It’s a part of her, and yet she transforms it.

You’ll be reuniting with Alice Coote, who sang Prince Charming to your Cendrillon when the production played at Covent Garden. What’s it like collaborating with her?

I admire Alice so much and adore working with her. She comes onto that stage with all of her being, all of her commitment, and a supreme artistry that is always in the service of the music and the character. She is not afraid to be utterly raw and exposed, and this makes for a truly vulnerable and open performance for the audience.

What effect does it have on the performance to be singing opposite another mezzo as the Prince?

To me, having two female voices creates a deep sense of intimacy and sensuality as the voices interact and disappear into each other. I think it creates this sublime musical world where the two voices can entwine and interact in a way that invites the listener to get lost in their sound.

So what should audiences expect to take away from a performance of Cendrillon?

This opera invites joy. Sure, along the way there’s a little bit of tragedy and a little bit of hardship, but at the end, it’s joy. It’s a gift that you give yourself—to come in and spend a few hours with us, where we get to actually lift you up and give you an experience that you can’t have anywhere else. Moments like that are what I love about opera. Opera is one of the remaining things that we have that blasts open this world of sound and vision and magic and emotion—deep emotion. It’s a fantastic moment to just embrace that idea that the power of love can conquer—that goodness wins out. I truly think people are hungry for that.

—Edited by Christopher Browner