The median age of opera goers at the Brown Theater last night was a little lower than usual for the opening of Jules Massenet's Cinderella. Little girls sprinkled the crowd, including one in the seat next to us, who declared herself a fan of princesses. She only made it through the second act, but a lack of dancing mice and teapots might make it a little less appealing to the under-six set, especially since the show started at her approximate bedtime. A running time of two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission is tough-going for the very young, but I did see a few who not only made it to the end, but seemed to enjoy the spectacle. For the rest of us, this performance was like the little powdered-sugar bonbon after the substantial feast that was Kentucky Opera's last production -- the grand Tosca.
In Massenet's version of the beloved fairy tale, Cinderella's father Pandolphe (Kevin Glavin) is very much alive, but well under the thumb of his domineering second wife, Madame de la Haltiere (Kathryn Cowdrick). This stepmother is a little less evil, but no less odious for putting Cinderella (Ariana Chris) to work while puffing up the expectations of her own petty-minded daughters, Noemie (Katy Lindhart) and Dorothee (Eliza Bonet). While the stepmother stamps and the servants quake in fear, the daughters are dolled up for the King's ball, leaving lonely Cinderella behind to sweep the ashes. Chris captures Cinderella's sweetness and affection in gentle smiles and graceful movements, and her lovely mezzo-soprano seems perfectly suited to the delicate songs of love and dreaming.
The sparkling Fairy Godmother (Angela Mannino) arrives to bedeck Cinderella in a silvery ball gown and the famous crystal slippers, sending her off to meet her fate, in this case, the morose and equally lonely Prince Charming, played by mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton in breeches and puffy shirt, expertly slouching and reluctant as any teenage boy responding to a father's demands.
All the principles handle their stock roles well -- the stepsisters are tittering and ridiculous, Cowdrick's stepmother is both fearsome and funny in her overreaching ambitions, and kindly Pandolphe manages to be both loving and weak-willed as he watches his daughter's neglect. The music, performed by the Louisville Orchestra and conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, is courtly and romantic by turns, the best moments being the love duets sung by Chris and Shackleton as the lovestruck couple. Shackleton, as the young prince, follows up her strong turn as Cherubino in last season's The Marriage of Figaro. Her voice blends beautifully with Chris's in their songs together.
The overall production, directed by John de los Santos, was very pretty, conjuring up all those storybook pictures from the past -- sumptuous costumes in muted pastels and shining fabrics, fantastical wigs, and simple but effective scenery. I regret that our young neighbor didn't get to see Fairy Godmother descend from the stage loft on a glittering half moon or the showers of rose petals wafting down in flickering light.
There is one matinee performance left tomorrow  at 2 p.m. If you're on the fence, I would recommend taking yourself and any little princes and princesses you may know for an approachable introduction to a classic art form. You never know what may awaken the budding musician.
[Photo Credits: Patrick Pfister]