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‘Cendrillon’ opera not just another Cinderella story

Opera can be unapproachable to even the most avid theater buff, but through the use of a commonly known fairy tale story such as “Cinderella,” even the youngest novice can find fun and appreciation in a night at the opera. 

Last weekend in the University Theatre, the Bob Cole Conservatory brought the classic story to the stage with “Cendrillon,” by Jules Massenet and libretto by Henri Cain.

First performed in 1899, Massenet and Cain used some well-known aspects of Perrault’s 1698 tale, but also conceived some fresh interpretations for the story. This production echoed that sentiment with its own conceptive twists of the opera under the direction of Stephanie Vlahos.

Though Vlahos is a director-in-residence for the conservatory and has the experience of a professional singer, her capability as a director for “Cendrillon” is delightful in theory, but not in execution. The curtain opened on several occasions to excruciatingly uneventful staging where the performers stood or sat and did nothing but that. Placing an actor on a stage is not the same as blocking a story to bring it to life. 

Vlahos’ conceptual themes and their simplicity and post-modern funk worked for the set and some of the costumes, makeup and hair, but fell flat in most of the actual direction of the performers.  A child was read the story of “Cinderella,” and it was as though her imagination was what viewers saw performed on the stage, but Vlahos’ staging of the child through almost every scene became merely a distraction and annoyance, for there was nothing for her to do but stare at the action. She eventually grew so bored that she just rubbed her face and looked at the ceiling.  The child would have been better as an undertone and periodic spice to the story, rather than such a focus as Vlahos set her up to be. 

The lyrics, though in French, were provided in English by supertitles above the stage, and only ended up magnifying that more action should be happening. An example of this was when the servants are suddenly nervous that their master is in the room, though it was obvious he was there.

The cast was comprised of high and low points as well, though it is unclear if they lacked experience or direction.

Zoe Scaljon (Cendrillon) and Mindi Ehrlich (Madame de la Haltiere) gave standout performances.  These women not only possessed amazing voices, but their acting was what really secured them as spotlight performers.  Scaljon’s voice was creamy and seemingly effortless, while Ehrlich’s acting soared above the rest.  The stepsisters, played by Beth Wightwick and Jessie Shulman, were a joy with their physicality at times as well, and the other leads and chorus also caressed the ears.

The set design by Frederica Nascimento was perfectly simple in Cendrillon’s home, but missed the mark in other aspects, such as the weird Fairy Godmother coach and clouds that looked like black trash bags covering foam.

 

The costumes, makeup and hair designs by Nancy Wei were also interesting and fun in some ways, but lacked cohesiveness with the lyrics and feel of the music.  This was very apparent during the scenes with the birds, which took the place of any other fairy-like characters and were more buzzard-faced ugly things than whimsical. 

Though this production had a dark tone in its costuming and paint, and its production quality lacked at times, it was, as the translated lyrics say, “embroidered in color.”


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