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

Iain Cameron
Show Hide image

Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.