Magic in the Air
When Laurent Pelly’s enchanting take on Massenet’s Cendrillon premiered at the Met in 2018, it cast a spell on audiences, transforming the stage into a giant storybook complete with dancing horses, a spunky fairy godmother, and whimsical sets and costumes. “The production is as lovable as its heroine,” raved The New York Times, while the Observer promised that “the Met’s Cendrillon will make anyone love fairy tales.” On December 17, the opera makes its long-awaited return—this time as Cinderella, a brand-new abridged, English-language version for families that stars mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as the rags-toriches heroine. By Christopher Browner
In addition to the popular English-language presentations of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, audiences are invited this month to embark on a musical fairy-tale adventure with Cinderella, the Met’s newest family-friendly offering. Appearing in an English translation by Kelley Rourke—a librettist, translator, and resident dramaturg for the Glimmerglass Festival and Washington National Opera—this new adaptation of Massenet’s opera runs just 90 minutes in an abridged version of Laurent Pelly’s imaginative 2018 production.
For mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who makes her role debut as the title character, Cinderella offers young audiences a perfect introduction to opera. “This is an age-old story, something people will instantly recognize,” she says. “This is always helpful when trying to introduce new art forms, especially to children.” Sharing the stage with Leonard are rising star mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo in the trouser role of Prince Charming and Australian coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt as the Fairy Godmother. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, who gave scene-stealing performances during the production’s original run, once again lock horns as Cinderella’s feuding guardians, and Maestro Emmanuelle Villaume takes the podium.
Isabel Leonard, seen in a 2015 performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
Within just weeks of the staging’s 2018 premiere, plans were already underway to add it to the company’s repertory of holiday presentations, and Rourke—with her experience providing translations and children’s operas for more than a dozen opera companies, including English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis—was selected to lead the effort. “Kelley is, at heart, a musician, so she really understands how to makes cuts while still preserving the overall musical structure. And having written libretti for family operas in the past, she also knows the child audience,” says Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg, who worked with Rourke, Pelly, and members of the Met music staff on Cinderella.
“Our first task was to figure out what was absolutely necessary to tell the story, and we found that it worked much better to make a few big cuts than a hundred small ones,” Rourke explains. “Of course it was important that the musical transitions made sense, and we also discovered that some sections that initially seemed expendable were actually needed for scenic or costume changes.” To help visualize the contours of the new adaptation, the team edited together a version of the 2018 Live in HD transmission of Cendrillon to see how the scenes would flow together. “We tried to retain as many of the most magical and humorous moments as we could,” Cremo says, “including most of the zany ballet music and a lot of the scenes with the over-the-top wicked stepmother, Madame de la Haltière, because everyone loves that character—especially when played so marvelously by Stephanie Blythe.”
Stephanie Blythe (center) as Madame de la Haltière
After nearly a year of fine tuning, the team had successfully cut the opera down to just an hour and a half, and only then did Rourke begin translating. “To me, an adaptation is successful if the English libretto is so closely wedded to the music that, if you didn’t know better, you might think the composer’s choices were based on the translated text,” she says. “So before I write a word, I want to have the score in my ears. I listen to a recording on repeat. I bash through the score at the piano. And at the same time, I immerse myself in the story, the background of the opera, and the director’s concept.”
As Rourke sees it, the work of a translator is not just to convert the words from one language to another but also to match the score’s different moods and colors. “The text for Cinderella required a variety of approaches—rhyming comic patter for Madame and the stepsisters, soaring mellifluous lines for the love duets, and tender simplicity for Cinderella’s father, Pandolfe,” she continues, “so my challenges had less to do with language than with musical style.” She also took some cues from the scenery, which incorporates the text of Charles Perrault’s original fable, and sprinkled well-known French phrases and expressions into the text—“très chic” and “à la française” for instance. And as her new translation moved from page to stage, Rourke collaborated with the cast to make further adjustments, explaining that she often tweaks lines to better fit the voice—“a singer is always grateful for an open vowel on a high note,” she says.
Above all, Rourke worked to make sure that this new version of Cinderella will resonate not only with children but with their parents and grandparents too: “By removing a couple of perceived barriers that opera presents—language and length—these family productions give people of all ages the opportunity to discover something that many of us already know to be true: opera, done well, is such a good time!”
Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.