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

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit