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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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.