Glitter and tulle abounded as little girls (and boys) came to experience Victorian Opera’s family-friendly production of Massenet’s Cinderella. Condensed to just under an hour it was a more inviting opera experience for a young audience, and possibly for many of their escorts, than the full version of more than twice the length.
With an aim of providing a more “authentic” experience, the opera was sung in French with short summaries of the text projected onto screens at either side of the stage. This may have been a wise choice instead of the promised surtitles since many of the children would not have been up to reading them anyway and they would have detracted from the onstage action. It was clear from the almost constant murmur in both performances that adults were explaining at least the gist to their young charges.
Under the direction of Libby Hill the singers themselves did pretty well everything possible to convey the essence of a popular fairy tale that sometimes diverged from the most familiar story line. As Cinderella’s father, Daniel Carison used a firm resonant voice and strong delineation of character to project frustration at the domineering antics of his wife and his longing for a quiet life with his beloved daughter. Cristina Russo and Shakira Tsindos made a lively pair of horrible sisters, more ugly of character than physical appearance, and Fleuranne Brockway was suitably objectionable as their mother. The trio drew quite a few laughs with their pouting and prancing and generally rude behaviour. Designer Candice MacAllister accentuated the fun with lurid, over-the-top costumes.
Cinderella would lose its magic if the transformation from poor kitchen wench to a fabulous creature fit for a prince failed to live up to expectations. Dressing her in a glorious gown of Disney blue, MacAllister made sure that Kate Amos more than fitted the bill. Amos possesses many qualities that added substantially to the effect; her beauty, grace and warmth would have out-charmed the most charming of princes. Using her attractive, musical soprano to capture the spirit of each piece, she sang Massenet’s melodious arias and duets with considerable emotional commitment.
It was sometimes difficult for a young audience to follow the storyline, such as in the forest scene when The Fairy Godmother initially enables Cinderella and Prince Charming to hear but not see each other. Nevertheless, Michelle McCarthy’s easy coloratura and expressive acting did much to compensate for this. Again, MacAllister created a costume of golden eighteenth century fairy splendour that the children could enjoy.
The role of Prince Charming was originally conceived as a “trouser role”, but it is often sung by a tenor and the choice of Carlos E. Bárcenas was certainly justified. His refined, beautiful tone was also a reminder of just how wonderful Massenet’s music sounds when sung in French.
Nathan Lay, Elizabeth Barrow, Kirilie Blythman and Michael Petruccelli completed the cast in various roles: The King, Hairdresser, Dressmaker, Herald and ensemble member. Libby Hill made excellent use of their vocal and acting skills as they made fluid transitions from scene to scene, adding to the humour of dressing the sisters for the ball or peeping out from behind the side curtains as the fairies.
Much of the slickness of this production was facilitated by MacAllister’s attractive sets. Eight panels featuring colourful leadlight designs were wheeled around with remarkable efficiency to create Cinderella’s home, the palace and the forest. Along with the elaborate eighteenth century costume they were a source of enjoyable visual stimulation for the young audience.
The orchestra itself was another source of interest. Although the small ensemble of musicians could not provide the lushness of a full “authentic” Massenet orchestra, the quality of the playing was generally excellent and Phoebe Briggs elicited polished, well-coordinated performances from instrumentalists and singers alike.
To judge the effectiveness of Victorian Opera’s achievement on the basis of the two performances viewed would be to underestimate the educational value of this endeavor. Anybody taking the trouble to read the online material and educational booklet with its various links would realize that a great deal of effort has been put into developing a very useful educational tool for teachers or even parents. The activity table and little stage set in the theatre foyers, where children could further explore the fairy tale and have their photo taken, also reflected the thought that had been put into this opera experience.
It is a moot point as to whether the opera should have been performed in English. Massenet actually composed it in the language of his audience and, despite all the arguments in favour of presenting this opera in French, the increased level of alertness evident when the concluding ensemble was sung in English suggested that many youngsters would have had a more positive experience if at least more had been sung in their own language.
Whatever the pros and cons concerning language delivery, Victorian Opera can chalk Cinderella up as a high quality performance showcasing some of the delights of opera for future audiences.
Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse, July 16 2pm & 5pm
The production picture of Michelle McCarthy (L) and Kate Amos was taken by Charlie Kinross.