With a tale as old as Cinderella the watchword is simplicity, or so you’d think. Certainly Jules Massenet, as the fairy-fixated 19th century drew to a close, was content to trust the intrinsic potency of Charles Perrault’s story when he fashioned his colourful romantic opera Cendrillon. The composer recognised the dream-like nature of his heroine’s romance and rendered it as a kind of adolescent crush by setting Prince Charming as a soprano role. The enchanted duet in Act 3 where the lovers hear but do not see each other is not just an excuse for big singing, it also presents the idealised nature of a relationship that barely exists except in the pair’s – or maybe only Cendrillon’s – imagination. From there it’s not much of a stretch to muse that the donning of the glass slipper represents her sexual awakening.

Alix Le Saux (Cendrillon) © Richard Hubert Smith
Alix Le Saux (Cendrillon)
© Richard Hubert Smith

That’s quite enough armchair psychoanalysis, although it’s as nothing compared to Fiona Shaw’s hotchpotch of impositions on this sweetly lyrical score. The director reveals her hand in a programme interview: “Because everybody knows the Cinderella story, your job is to tell it in a new way.” No, your job is to interpret it for the audience and use your creative talents to do so as effectively as possible. Instead, in her anxiety to be ‘new’, Shaw slaps a sackload of semi-comprehensible ideas onto a sort-of present day update. These range from drastic surgical carvings to cure the Prince’s melancholy (nope, beats me) to the blood-red heart he wears on his sleeve (I got that one). Lip service is paid to Massenet’s ballets; indeed, the opera’s potential for entertainment of all kinds, whether comedy, mystery, tension or rapture, goes for very little. Only the music remains.

Kezia Bienek (Dorothée), Agnes Zwierko (Madame de la Haltière) and Eduarda Melo (Noémie) © Richard Hubert Smith
Kezia Bienek (Dorothée), Agnes Zwierko (Madame de la Haltière) and Eduarda Melo (Noémie)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Satisfying moments are mostly the work of designers Jon Bausor (set) and Anna Watson (lighting). A quartet of prismatic revolving towers not only allows for a succession of quick conceal-reveals, it also becomes a nifty hall of mirrors for the dream sequence and at the royal ball forms a giant LED that counts down to midnight. On a simpler level, the Fairy Godmother’s creation of Cinderella’s carriage is delightfully achieved through shadow tricks.

Duncan Ward and a crack Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra gave a scintillating account of Massenet’s sugared-almond score, with a magnificently robust Glyndebourne Chorus to ice the cake, but their efforts were all but negated by Shaw’s grim, dim aesthetic. Her previous Glyndebourne foray, The Rape of Lucretia, had a murk that fitted its subject matter; yet her Cendrillon is barely a lumen brighter and the fairy tale’s wonder is snuffed out by a caliginous gloom. There is something amiss when the ears dance but the eyes mourn.

Caroline Wettergreen (La Fée) © Richard Hubert Smith
Caroline Wettergreen (La Fée)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Enlightenment took spectral form as Caroline Wettergreen illuminated the stage with a dazzling display of singing. In Massenet’s stratospheric notation her Fairy character is less a Godmother than a Queen of the Night, and the young Norwegian pinged a magical coloratura with preternatural accuracy. Indeed, the fast-rising (in every sense of the term) soprano outshone all her colleagues on opening night, although there was decent work from the Francophone pairing of Alix Le Saux as Cendrillon and Eléonore Pancrazi as her gender-bending Prince. William Dazeley successfully conveyed the useless Pandolfe’s doltish side but Agnès Zwierko, on laboured form, sounded overtaxed as his shopaholic wife and our heroine’s shrewish stepmother.

Adam Marsden (Le Roi) and Éléonore Pancrazi (Le Prince Charmant) © Richard Hubert Smith
Adam Marsden (Le Roi) and Éléonore Pancrazi (Le Prince Charmant)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Cinderella’s younger self was a silent role, a Mini-Me played on alternate nights by Olive Dale and Megan Silburn. It was seldom entirely clear who was who and what was what, so when both Cendrillons shared the stage things got messy. Was big Cinders reminiscing about her childhood or was it the opposite: was she in fact the child throughout, playing pre-pubescent daydreams about being grown up? And is the little girl’s youth the reason why her fantasy prince morphed into a reassuring nanny figure, or is Shaw’s gender agenda more delicately psychosexual than that? Disentangle that lot and you still had the puzzle of Le Saux’ older version suddenly becoming her own mother… But that’s enough. The only certainty in an unreliable narrative is that Perrault’s fairy tale took a right royal battering.

***11