Kim-Lillian Strebel, Anat Czarny, Katharina Melnikova, Anja Jung, Juan Orozco, Silvia Regazzo; Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Fabrice Bollon; dir. Barbara Mundel & Olga Motta (Freiburg, 2017)
Naxos DVD: 2.110563; Blu-ray: NBD0079V 139 mins
Cendrillon is an exotic bloom that needs tender care. Opera Freiburg, however, has pulled up Massenet’s miniature masterpiece by the roots and it all but dies in front of our eyes. This is a fairy tale about personal liberation for adults, not the left-footed circus fantasy created by Barbara Mundel and her designer Olga Motta with its fairground booths and hints of the big top, with half the chorus dressed as pantomime clowns and the rest in black with horned hats – refugees from Faust perhaps. The hapless Pandolfe, Lucette/Cendrillon’s father, is a knife thrower with the top hat and twirling moustaches of the ringmaster; melancholy Prince Charming appears in a white onesie with a slash of scarlet lipstick; and the nasty Stepmother and her two pushy daughters are all in designer black and trapped in huge white ruffs.
If you can hardly bear to look, you can listen. There’s some capable singing with Kim-Lillian Strebel’s Lucette/Cendrillon tugging at the heartstrings in her opening aria ‘Reste au foyer, petit grillon’ just as Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain intended. And her grief when she believes that she has lost the Prince, that their magical encounter in the woods was just a dream is deeply touching. Anat Czarny is a serviceable Charming, and both she and Strebel make the most of their duet in the forest – the high point in Massenet’s score. Katharina Melnikova is a sparkly-voiced Fairy Godmother and Anja Jung reaches deep into her chest register as the monstrous Madame de la Haltière. (Didn’t Pandolfe see what was ahead when he married her?) Massenet’s score needs a conductor with an ear for detail who understands that the drama is in the orchestra. Fabrice Bollon does his best to signal the composer’s souvenirs of the French Baroque, of Mendelssohn and, of course Wagner, but a more delicate touch would have been welcome. This, after all, is an opéra féerie not a circus.