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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