Storybook fantasy

Massenet's Cendrillon brings some welcome novelty to the opera season.

The programme essays may speak of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, but there's not the merest blood-spatter of revisionism to sully this production of Massenet's Cendrillon. First seen at Santa Fe Opera in 2006, Laurent Pelly's storybook fantasy is making its Royal Opera House debut, bringing some welcome novelty to close a summer season of revivals.

More than a hundred years separate the 1899 premiere of Cendrillon and this, its first appearance on the stage of the Royal Opera House. It's a gap that speaks not only of shifting fashions, but also of the confused loveliness of the work's score. Rather too porous and well-educated a composer, the influences of Massenet's musical knowledge and tastes are all spread out buffet-like in this opera: here a bit of Wagner, there a courtly eighteenth century ornament. The result is as gossamer light as Cendrillon's ballgown, melting into air as soon as the curtain falls and midnight strikes. Yet when allied to Pelly's visual pageantry and conductor Bertrand de Billy's fluid musical direction, this ceases somehow to matter.

You can get a good sense of an opera from the timbres and textures that emerge from the pit pre-curtain. Warm-ups on Saturday night were coloured by the glints of harp, flutes and celesta - the orchestra's most magical of instrumental lexicons. An upper-voice dominated set of soloists adds further to the sheen of the opera, with both Cendrillon and her travesti Prince as female roles, with the additional presence of two fluting Ugly Sisters and the gleaming coloratura of the Fairy Godmother ( La Fée).

All-female ensembles and love-duets (as Rosenkavalier demonstrates so devastatingly) achieve an intensity all their own, and with the luxury casting of British mezzo Alice Coote as Le Prince Charmant and American mezzo du jour Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon it was always going to Massenet's sprawling duets that offered the highlights.

While a coldy DiDonato (a per-performance announcement asked for our indulgence) lacks none of her trademark warmth and stage-presence, her voice - so unassailable in the high-wire runs of Barbiere - showed the tiniest of cracks here. Her mid-range work is well shaped and projected, but the upper register (the opera demands floated pianissimos from most of its principals) tends to thin out a little too dangerously. By Contrast Eligse Gutierrez's La Fée has all her top notes in place but suffers further down. I'm not convinced that this is the right casting for Gutierrez, whose rather woollier, weightier lower register shares little of the clarity and sweetness she demonstrates elsewhere.

Fortunately with the extraordinary Ewa Podles as Cendrillon's stentorian minx of a stepmother, and Coote's prince, we were back in fairytale territory. Coote has a power and a vocal brilliance lacked by so many mezzos, bringing not only impact but beauty to the lovelorn hero - a disturbingly boyish vision of petulant sincerity.

Pelly's production, dominated by his signature reds, is a vision capable of reaching right back into the depths of the Amphitheatre. Aided by Laura Scozzi's choreography (revived by Karine Girard) he transforms the ballet of princesses and subsequent ball into a distorted fantasy, a grotesque but elegant scene where hobbled and exaggerated female figures convulse and contort for the delight of an unwilling prince. The mannerisms of the court (already present in Massenet's faux eighteenth-century musical posturings) live in Pelly's sharply-pointed comedy, aided by Barbara de Limburg's endlessly flexible (if noisy) sets.

Only in Act III, where the oboe speaks of pastoral glades and Pelly offers us an urban rooftop scene of smoking chimneys, does the production lose its way. It seems no coincidence that this should happen at Massenet's weakest moment, but in an attempt to rethink this dream sequence Pelly only drifts further from the clarity we so badly need.

Papered in the text of the fairytale itself, de Limburg's sets never let us forget the fictive nature of proceedings; in a wry touch even Cendrillon's magical carriage is fashioned from letters spelling out "carosse". Our heroine's story appears printed out in front of her before the action even begins, set down in Perrault's authoritative words. Pelly's production never sets out to challenge these, to engage with the more subversive potential of de Limburg's visuals. This is storytelling at its most traditional, glossy pictures, gold embossed letters and of a course a happily ever after ending.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 9 July, 2011

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

Show Hide image

No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.