I once heard a lecture by Gérard Mortier, then head of the Paris Opera, contrasting the twin operatic traditions starting from Monteverdi's serious and affecting dramma per musica and the lavish court entertainments of Lully. A couple of centuries on, there's no need to ask the side of the fence on which Massenet's Cendrillon falls. Laurent Pelly's production, first seen at Santa Fé Opera in 2006, apparently takes its aesthetics from an illustrated book of Perrault's fairy tales that he had as a child; the story is played for laughs and fairy tale, exemplified by the point when the stepmother muses whether such a thing exists as love at first sight. The French phrase is a "coup de foudre," and whenever she repeats the words, the lights are duly dimmed and lightning strikes.

(Back) Madeleine Pierard as Noémie, Kai Rüütel as Dorothée, Ewa Podleś as Madame de la Haltièr © The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper 2011
(Back) Madeleine Pierard as Noémie, Kai Rüütel as Dorothée, Ewa Podleś as Madame de la Haltièr
© The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper 2011

Barbara de Limburg's sets and the direction and movement around the stage are all outstanding. The stage is framed by walls covered in golden lettering with bits of the Perrault story, which slide into various configurations, often leaving a large expanse in which servants scurry around in terror of the stepmother or on the orders of the King. Occasional bits of scenery pop up from nowhere to denote specific places: the fireplace whose ashes give Cinderella her name, or a tiny bedroom in which the Prince sulks. The stepsisters - coarse, overdressed and foolish rather than ugly - are choreographed hilariously, never more so than when they are joined by the chorus of other "princesses" at the ball. Also, Pelly and Jacques Delmotte's costumes are magnificent: scarlet gowns in every conceivable shape and size provide a veritable feast for the eyes. Cinderella's coach was also a delight, made out of the letters of the word "Carosse", with two-legged white horses shaking their manes and tails.

To go with all this glitter, Covent Garden lined up a glittering array of singers. As Cinderella, Joyce DiDonato lived up to her star billing, with a smooth and melodic voice navigating effortlessly through the peaks and troughs of Massenet's demanding writing. Alice Coote's Prince Charming was every bit her equal; the duets sounded lovely, and Coote did a fine job of playing the Prince as a sulky teenager. As the fairy godmother, Eglise Gutiérrez provided a complete vocal contrast, in a coloratura style reminiscent of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. But under the noses of all the power of that star line-up, the show was comprehensively stolen by Ewa Podleś as the stepmother, who threw herself into the part with gusto, strutting around the stage and powering through her arias and dialogue. The Covent Garden orchestra were on top form, conducted enthusiastically by Bertrand de Billy. I'm usually able to go to first nights, but this performance was the fourth in the run, and I have a sneaking suspicion that limited rehearsal time means that later performances may often be considerably better than the first.

Massenet's music is always pretty and full of variety, but I struggle to find anything individual in Cendrillon that's terribly memorable or particularly affecting. It's all very pleasant and a great escapist stage show, but never quite transcends the medium and stops your heart for a moment in a way that Mozart or Donizetti succeed in doing in their comic operas. Oddly, some of Massenet's best music comes in a strange "enchanted forest" scene in between the ball and the well-known ending with the slipper, in which the fairy godmother arranges for Cinderella and the Prince to meet and renew their vows under a sacred oak tree. I have to agree with early critics of the opera that dramatically, it's an aberration; not even Pelly's brilliant staging and direction could rescue it.

I don't suppose that Cendrillon is ever going to make it onto anyone's list of the greatest operas ever written, but this production is about as good as I can imagine, and turns Cendrillon into a wonderful evening's escape.