Under the shade of an old oak tree, Lucette, — or as her step family mocks her, Cendrillon — and her lover Le Prince Charmant feel their ways through its mystical blossoming branches in search of each other after a whirling night at the ball.
A dazzling and ranged chorus, vibrant textiles and scenery and characters with pomp are just some of the ways UBC Opera is bringing Jules Massenet’s 1895 romantic opera Cendrillon — sung entirely in French — to life.
As Madame de la Haltière struts into the court of her manor followed by her daughters Noémie and Dorothée, her doormat-of-a-second-husband Pandolfe scurries away as they nudge into their seats to glamorize for the ball.
With the family off to the palace, Cendrillon emerges on stage as she polishes the fireplace and longs for a chance to go to the ball. The aria meshes melancholy with spells of hope, as the audience is introduced to our protagonist.
For fourth-year opera student Alexandra Baird, who is sharing the role of Cendrillon with Mariana Iguavita who is also in her fourth year of the program, the experience has felt like a dream come true.
“I have this big ball gown, there might be a special coach that comes on stage,” Baird said. “My inner child has loved every minute of the whole process.”
That process is a long and windy one. Development for the opera begins in September, and as Baird pointed out, one of the hardest parts about taking on such a dynamic role is balancing all the elements of a good performance on stage.
“Acting on stage and then looking at the conductor for your cues; it's a ton of multitasking,” Baird said.
Members of the UBC Symphony Orchestra were led by conductor Gordon Gerrard to weave silky strings and fleeting woodwinds amongst the flourishing voices of the characters.
The Fairy Godmother, or La Fée, played by Kenda McDermott as well as Magdalena How, provides a looming glow that steers the plot towards its happily ever after through sharp fermatas that are matched with her chorus of curious spirits who sing in legato harmonies.
As Cendrillon and her magical, disguising glass slippers are whisked away to the ball in her carriage hauled by black-cloaked horsemen whose presences juxtapose the liveliness of the scene, Carly King’s and Katie Fraser’s Prince Charming fidgets thoughtfully before the ball, unbeknownst, about to meet his inconnue.
Pop culture has turned to spinning this fairytale in particular on its head countless times. Not UBC Opera — they preserved all the class. After all, as Director Nancy Hermiston noted in her introduction, “opera is the most expensive art form.”
Indeed, the set design, moved in strict choreography between the shadows of the scene changes, is decorated in romantic imagery on a royal palette, its walls nearly reaching the stage’s overhead subtitle screen.
Equally appreciable about the show as a whole is each performer's success in fully immersing themselves into their characters.
The attitudes of Madame de la Haltière and her boisterous daughters hilariously juxtapose the submitting nature of Pandolfe, while his love for Cendrillon eventually becomes clear as he works up the courage to dispel his wife and step-daughters.
Unlike other versions of the story however, Cendrillon’s dynamic with her step family is much less prominent. The characters do not interact until Act III. Rather, what is brought out through the opera’s libretto is Cendrillon’s sense of self and her innate kindness.
“She is [very soft spoken] in the show around her stepfamily, but then she has a couple of [arias] where she's talking to herself, but she's really talking to the audience and she opens up about what her life is like,” Baird said.
“She's a mix of shy and brave … she's just very resigned to the life that she lives until she gets the chance to go to the ball and meet the Prince and live this life that she's always dreamed about living.”
As Baird noted, with so much darkness in the world, she hopes audiences appreciate the light-heartedness of the performance.
“It's an amazing show to see for your first opera, because there's so much joy and no one dies, which is kind of a huge plot in opera,” said Baird.
“I hope people just take away the joy and the kindness of the show.”