Massenet’s Cendrillon at the RNCM

Because it is a comic, light piece, Cendrillon may not contain Massenet’s greatest music, but it has considerable charm, wit and warm lyricism; and it is surprising that it is does not have a regular place in the standard repertory. It was an excellent choice for the Royal Northern College of Music’s pre-Christmas show, as reflected in the capacity audience and its enthusiasm.

The enthusiasm was wholly justified as this was one of the most rewarding of the College’s recent opera performances. That was due, in the first place, to guest conductor Martin André’s assured reading of the score and the quality of the student orchestra. I enjoyed his attention to the wispy phrases, and the rhythmic passages satirising pompous pageant and pretentiousness as well as the more obvious lyrical sentimental episodes which at times became, in his interpretation, poignant.

Since the retirement of Stefan Janski, the College has also engaged guest directors for its productions and Olivia Fuchs’ experience and flair proved to be a great asset. She was adept at managing large numbers on the stage and, with the aid of Bethan Rhys William’s choreography, created a striking spectacle from the stylised movements of the excellent and energetic chorus. The rich coloured costumes and elegant sets (designer Yannis Thavoris) suggested, in the first half, that this was to be a traditional production. But Fuchs was concerned to give extra depth to the piece by drawing on the possibility that what happens to Cinderella (the fairy godmother, the ball, the slipper…) may have been imagined rather than real, a psychological response to her misery. So that, after she has attempted suicide, she is taken to a hospital ward where, in an adjacent bed, lies the Prince, himself a depressive.

It has to be admitted that the stark contrast between the hospital scene and the setting for the rest of the opera jarred somewhat and a less blatant way of creating the ambiguity between fantasy and reality might have been more successful. Nevertheless, with its strong characterisation and enjoyable but never vulgar or exaggerated comedy, this was an impressive staging.

And so to the student soloists. As usual at the RNCM, the opera was double cast. The one I heard revealed promising talent. In the title role Fiona Finsbury through her phrasing and colouring of the vocal line communicated the emotional core of her predicament. Although there is a slightly hard edge to her soprano, this served well her nuanced interpretation of the role (doubtless a consequence of the director’s conception of the work) which made of the heroine something much removed from the innocent, docile maiden of tradition. As the Prince, Kamil Bień displayed a tenor which, with its attractive timbre and his excellent articulation of the French language, is well suited to Massenet. A couple of muffed high notes can be forgiven for this was a confident, and dramatically convincing, performance. The vocal star of the evening was Danielle Sicari who, as the Fairy, negotiated with aplomb the coloratura runs and throughout sang with a sweet, pure tone. For a young singer, Rebecca Barry has a remarkable chest voice and this, together with agility in the higher register, made her an impressionable stepmother. John Ieuan Jones, as her browbeaten husband, maintained an appropriately soft legato when consoling his daughter or nostalgically reminiscing on their trouble free past in the country.

Another highly entertaining but also satisfying operatic evening at the RNCM.