Sunday, 3 November 2019

Viardot - Cendrillon (Wexford, 2019)

Pauline Viardot - Cendrillon

Wexford Festival Opera, 2019

Jessica Hall, Davide Garattini Raimondi, Ben Watkins, Isolde Roxby, Cecilia Gaetani, Rachel Goode, Kelli-Ann Masterson, Richard Shaffrey, Mark Bonney

Clayton White's Hotel, Wexford - 29 October 2019

In addition to the main programme at the Wexford Festival Opera, you can also turn up some operas every bit as interesting and rare in their afternoon series of ShortWorks. And, when it comes to rarely performed operas, as is the intentions and principle at Wexford, one of the categories of neglected operas that is often noted but rarely addressed throughout history is the lack of compositions by female composers.

Pauline Viardot is a fascinating figure in musical history, connected to many major literary musical and cultural giants, Gounod, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Alfred Musset, but not unexpectedly, she doesn't get half the recognition of any of those figures or even really the attention she deserves. A leading mezzo-soprano who premiered and was in demand for major roles that were written for her, Viardot was also an accomplished pianist and composer.

Cendrillon (Cinderella) is a short salon opera composed by Viardot and to see it performed as part of the Wexford Festival ShortWorks series was an unmissable opportunity. It's a refreshing change from the Rossini and Massenet versions but every bit as magical and charming as the familiar fairy tale should be. In fact, having listened to Viadot's version, reduced or perhaps written purely as a piano score and wonderfully played by music director Jessica Hall, you almost feel that every fairy tale opéra-comique should be performed like this.

Credit for that of course has to go to the Wexford production team and director Davide Grattini Raimondi for helping inject the necessary charm and magic. There's little need for elaborate costumes and sets, the magic really is all there in the lightness of touch and beauty of Viardot's melodies. Bring that lightness to the performances and it's all that is needed; you can't go wrong with the material provided. The wicked step-sisters Armelinde and Maguelonne and cruel step father Le Baron de Pictordu don't need to be heavy-handed, their neglect of Marie (Cinderella), their refusal to acknowledge her as an equal and let her be herself is something that can touch deeply for anyone. The story and the moral are familiar - kindness is its own reward - and only the names are changed in this version, Viardot composing her own libretto.

Viardot's Cendrillon is all the more delightful for its concision, the over-familiarity with other versions of the fairy-tale meaning that we don't need everything explained again in detail, and neither apparently does Cinderella. That is exploited by the Wexford production, who use it to enhance the humour; "be careful with those slippers, you don't want to leave one behind". Inevitably that's exactly what happens as Marie stops briefly with an 'oh silly me' and kicks off one glittery shoe as she makes her escape from the ball, and just as she and the footman (Prince Charming in disguise) are getting on so well.

Effortlessly knocking out three acts in an hour, there are nonetheless some lovely arias that require good singing and a confident delivery and that's what we got here from Isolde Roxby as Marie, the whole thing sung in French as well with the recitiative in English. Cecilia Gaetani and Rachel Goode were two excellent wicked sisters that you love to hate, Ben Watkins was a wonderfully deadpan and slightly morose father, there were some gallant performances from Richard Shaffrey and Mark Bonney as Prince Charming and Count Barigoule and an essentially sparkling performance from the fairy godmother Kelli-Ann Masterson; a perfect little ensemble for the lovely little arrangements written by Viardot. This was a delightful production of what turned out to be a little gem of an opera.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera