The Cinderella story has been a perennial favorite since its B.C. origins, with everyone from Rossini to Walt Disney creating their own version. A less-known take, “Cendrillon,” is by Romantic French composer Jules Massenet.
And that’s perfect for Opera Company of Middlebury Artistic Director Douglas Anderson, who just loves introducing his audiences to unexpected gems. Still, today’s #metoo movement is a little bit at odds with the gist of this romantic fairy tale.
“We have to make this a Cinderella for our own day, not necessarily because we’re updating it, but making her strong,” Anderson, who is stage directing, said by phone. “She’s the black sheep of the family, she reads books, she’s intelligent.
“We’re not changing a word of the libretto, but she’s going to be the most interesting person,” Anderson said. “We’re bringing her into this century in a way that people are going to love, that is funny and charming — and doesn’t make her a helpless creature waiting for a man to come rescue her.”
Opera Company of Middlebury will present Jules Massenet’s “Cendrillon” May 31-June 8 at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, fully staged with orchestra, sung in the original French with English supertitles. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. May 31, June 6 and 8, and 2 p.m. June 2.
Massenet (1842-1912) is likely the most successful opera composer in late-19th century France, with more than 30 successful operas to his credit. By 1905, his opera “Manon” had been performed 500 times at the Palais Garnier in Paris. He had similar success with “Le Cid,” “Werther,” “Thaïs,” and many more.
“Cendrillon,” with a libretto by Henri Cain based on Perrault’s 1698 version of the fairy tale, was a huge success from its opening night, May 24, 1899 in Paris.
“First of all it’s the most gorgeous slab of music you’d want to hear,” Anderson said. “Massenet’s known for the romantic sweep of his music, and his wonderful melodies., and his music is just so accessible and lovely. I think that is one of the reasons why he’s fallen into disfavor. I was reading one critic who said, ‘I think Massenet’s music is too gorgeous for its own good’ — because it is just lush and wonderful.
“And, I think we might need a little gorgeous right now,” Anderson said. “I know if I’m listening to something and I keep hitting the rewind button because I want to hear it again, I know that’s an opera I want to do.”
Of course, once Anderson has chosen an opera, he cannot leave it alone — particularly if it’s a comedy.
“This has its very funny moments,” he said. “Obviously the mothers and the stepmothers are hysterically funny. Her father Pandolf is a kind of a funny loser. The ballroom scenes can also be very funny. So we’re finding a lot of humor, but also a lot of richness and warmth. There’s so much going on in this show, so many different colors, so many different emotions, it’s joy. It’s going to be a sumptuous feast for our audience.”
How? Anderson has his fun without changing the story — and certainly not the music.
“The actual time period is a little fuzzy,” he said. “You’ll find a lot of fairly hideous mid-century modern furniture — because that’s what the stepmother read was ‘in.’ So there’s a sense we’re somewhere in the bad taste side of the 1960s. And the clothes, particularly the clothes of the court, are in the worst taste for that period.
“Style is funny,” Anderson said. “It is eye-popping in its glorious colors.”
Opera Company of Middlebury is a respected regional opera, and casts professional singers from across the country, many of whom return regularly. Soprano Cree Carrico, seen last season as Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” will play the fairy godmother, La Fée. Vermont bass Erik Kroncke will be the king, and the starring roles will be played by two singers making their Vermont debuts, Lindsay Ohse and John Riesen. The orchestra, under the direction of Principal Guest Conductor Michael Sakir, is made up of some of the best musicians in Vermont.
Summing up his approach to opera, Anderson said, “I take a sneaky pleasure in introducing audiences to shows they don’t know — or don’t know they’re going to love.”