Cinderella – new adaptation of Pauline Viardot’s chamber opera Cendrillon [1904]

Presented by: Cape Town Opera (CTO) in association with A&M Productions
Language: Performed in English, with surtitles in English and isiXhosa
When and where: July 4-8, 2023 in Artscape Opera House. Evening performances are on July 4, 6,7 and 8 at 7pm, with matinees on July 5, 6 and 8 at 2pm
Running time: 30 mins Act 1 – interval of 30 mins and 45 mins act 2/3 combined

Bookings: Computicket or call Artscape Box Office 021 4217695    

Cinderella/Cendrillon is sheer magic. This production staged by Cape Town Opera, in association with A&M [Abrahamse & Meyer Productions] is an adaption of Pauline Viardot’s 1904 chamber opera Cendrillon and harnesses the intimacy of chamber/salon opera and the grandeur of epic theatre. It is a production which is minimalist and yet gorgeously opulent, elegant and sumptuous. There is ballet. The Fairy Godmother flies. A huge framed mirror (6 metres high and 7m wide) is tilted at an angle, suspended onto the stage. Chandeliers dangle into the space. It is breathtakingly beautiful.

The mirror (made from an aluminum composite) not only reflects the performers on stage and projects them in double vision (effectively doubling the cast) but also reverberates in terms of central themes in the opera – identity, preening at one self, mirroring others, conjuring up refracted versions and disguises of one’s self. The mirror imbues the stage space with an incredible depth of field.  It feels as if we are perched on the edge of a wondrous soiree which is opera, ballet, masquerade, panto and theatre of imagination – with the glorious voices of Cape Town Opera and ballet dancers, beguiling and dazzling us. There are 22 dancers from the Waterfront Theatre School (from little ones to older students), choreographed by Kirsten Isenberg. There are masks, headdresses, quirky props such as a pumpkin. The production marks the world premiere of a new orchestration by Arthur Feder and Antoni Schonken who have arranged Viardot’s music for eight musicians, making up a chamber orchestra.

The orchestra is in a raised pit – so the audience can see the musicians. The musos interact with the company of singers and dancers on the stage and that is a lot of fun to see this playful exchange as the narrative unfolds. Musical director José Dias conducts the orchestra and plays the piano. The instruments include a beautiful harp, violin, cello viola, double-bass clarinet/sax harp and percussion.

Conceptually, the stunning design by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer with the mirror and chandeliers, is faithful to the original presentation of the opera as a chamber opera, presented in private homes/salons. In Pauline Viardot’s day, female opera composers were not able to get their work staged in mainstream opera houses, so the answer was to present operas, salon style in homes. Marcel Meyer of A&M Productions:  “At the turn of the previous century, it was impossible for a female composer to get her work staged at a major opera house. That was the domain of male composers. This did not deter a passionate music-maker like Pauline Viardot from writing and composing, but in order to get her work staged she conceived them as tiny chamber pieces that could be easily mounted in private salons rather than public opera houses.“

Presenting operas in private homes, meant that there were minimal sets but there was space to dress up, with masks and use props. This thrilling 2023 production in Cape Town echoes all of that: The opulence of a Paris salon in a majestic home, with a mirror and chandeliers. Viardot wrote the opera for one piano but in this production, there has been the expansion and new orchestration of the music and the inclusion of the chamber orchestra.

Meyer’s costumes are magnificent- a palette of silver, greys, shimmering with jewels  and then bright and saturated costumes for the step-sisters and Baron (step-father) with a layered lighting plot by Faheem Bardien – with light and dark being cast through the mirrored frame and back to the audience. Furniture is transparent and the lighting is heightened through the translucency of the Perspex material. The effect is of the lighting and mirror and movement is filmic. There is tremendous movement on stage: There is the ballet. The performers glide across the stage, magically moving via the mechanical drum revolve at Artscape. It is extraordinary to experience, theatrically, on a visual level.

The libretto (story) adapted from the Viardot original is scrumptiously funny (for instance, yummy food allusions), satirical and poignant – way more than the Disney rags-to-riches Cinderella. It is a story about identity, the search for self and true love. Meyer: “…and the knowledge that true beauty, kindness and compassion come from within and that the key to happiness lies in our ability to look with our hearts, rather than our eyes.” A key shift in Viardot’s interpretation of Cinderella is that there is a step-father and not a step-mother and the step-father is not what he seems. Cinderella is from noble lineage – despite her downtrodden position as a scullery maid. Keep your eyes peeled for the inspired ‘kitchen’ scene. I will not production spoil.

Visually the production – design – is a wow- and is a triumph aesthetically. The story is nuanced and stirs and shakes up the Cinderella parable. The orchestration riffs off a host of musical genres, instruments and dance – particularly the Mazurka [Polish folk dance]. While writing this, I asked Meyer for insights into the orchestration: “Viardot’s music is freshly orchestrated, enhancing the original Gaelic charm, with a delightful combination of strings, harp, piano, celeste, harpsichord, woodwind and percussion. In the second act Viardot pays homage to her friend Chopin with refreshing vocal re-interpretations of some of his most beloved Mazurkas.”

And we have not even got to the company: Cape Town opera. Brittany Smith is captivating as Cinderella and once again, not only reaches the musical notes but brings in a pathos and shows her acting smarts. She has won two Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and her interpretation of Cinders deserves another award for its delicacy and tender expression of a young woman in search of her identity and her pursuit of true love.

Another Fleur du Cap Theatre award winner is Janelle Visagie and she is delicious as one of the step-sisters, Maguelonne. The other step-sister, Armelinde, is played by Asisipho Petu- fabulous. The step-sisters bring the house down in riotous laughter – terrific comedy. Watch out for their Mazurka duo- and their interactions with conductor, José Dias. Alida Scheepers as the Fairy Godmother is a vision to behold– voice and enchanting presence. She dances and flies. She waves magic into this production, with grace and vitality.

Each performer is exceptional, conjuring up vivid characterisations. Luvo Rasemeni as Le Baron de Pictordu (step-father) is captivating as the green grocer who has become the nouveau riche Baron. Van Wyk Venter is charming as Le Compte Barigoule who is not what he seems. As the Prince’s valet, he swaps places with Le Prince Chamant (Prince Charming -sounds better in French), played by Tylor Lamani. This role-swapping enables the prince to court his love, without the veil of monarchy. There is so much in this production – the original Viardot creation – adapted and finessed, with the new orchestration and on stage chamber ensemble, stunning set and costumes and the exquisite voices of the singers and the featuring of ballet [not in the original opera- see interview].

Cinderella/Cendrillon is an opera, which may be “be classified, as the French would, as an Opéra-Comiqué”, says Marcel Meyer, “a type of French opera where spoken dialogue alternates with sung sections.” The decision was taken to sing it in English, to make it easy for young people to follow. There are English and isiXhosa surtitles and it makes the production a joy to experience – immersive and magical. It is accessible and easy to follow but having said that, I would not tag it as children’s theatre. It is a sophisticated theatrical operatic production- funny and immensely entertaining.

Do not miss Cape Town Opera’s Cinderella/Cendrillon: Short season July 4-8, 2023. Eight performances over five days. 

Hilarious: Step-sisters (Asisipho Petu and Janelle Visagie) in Cape Town Opera/A&M Productions, Cinderella/Cendrillon. Cinderella- performed by Brittany Smith, is peeking through, the sisters. Note – the mirror in which they are reflected. Pic by Danie Coetzee.
Glowing: Cape Town Opera/A&M Productions, Cinderella/Cendrillon. Pic by Danie Coetzee.

✳ Photos of Cape Town Opera/A&M Productions, Cinderella/Cendrillon, by Danie Coetzee. Supplied.

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