Populux design runs riot in this sprightly updating of Massenet’s “Cendrillon.” Cinderella is a fairy tale so iconically familiar it can be adapted to just about any era. Here, director-choreographer Renaud Doucet transposes it to a gleaming, comicbook 1950s setting of boomerang patterns, neon squiggles and leopard print. In Andre Barbe’s witty designs, Cinderella is appropriately dwarfed by looming kitchen appliances and a giant dinette set. For this American premiere of a production already seen in Europe and Canada, City Opera has assembled a talented, energetic cast that makes the show hum like a Sunbeam Mixmaster.
Doucet’s take is clear from the moment the curtain rises on a swirly “Cendrillon” neon sign set against an amorphous ’50s shape that looks like the entrance to a malt shop. Female servants in Cinderella’s home sport New Look housedresses and ponytails, while Prince Charming is a college jock who mopes around in his letter sweater. His palace is a nightclub replete with gangsters and cigarette girls; the forest where he goes to rendezvous with Cinderella in act three is a drive-in movie theater. When Cinderella and her father have had enough of the evil stepmother and stepsisters, they flee to a tract home in Levittown.
The large smattering of kids in Saturday afternoon’s premiere audience appeared to love it, bursting into laughter and applause throughout.
The sets and costumes deliver plenty of wit, but the cast provides the essential ingredient of charm. Lovely and touching in the title role, Cassandre Berthon, the only native French singer, offers clear, exemplary diction. Cendrillon has been sung both by light mezzos and sopranos; Berthon is a lyric soprano with a particularly firm and pleasing upper range. (Doucet provides her with a show-stopping entrance from the oven of a gigantic kitchen range she had been cleaning.)
Prince Charmant, written by Massenet as a trouser role for mezzo-soprano, is played here by a tenor. That’s frowned upon by musical purists, and with good reason: it distorts the musical line and the composer’s conception of how the score should sound, particularly in the love duets. Be that as it may, Quebecois tenor Frederic Antoun cuts a handsome figure onstage, singing with ardent sweetness.
As the Fairy Godmother (in silver lame housedress, apron and red Lucille Ball wig), coloratura soprano Katherine Jolly delights with her endlessly flowing trills, runs and roulades. Young Romanian baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, a memorable Marcello five years ago in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway “La Boheme,” is unrecognizable beneath age makeup as Cendrillon’s white-haired, white bearded, henpecked father. His dark-timbered baritone is clearly a major instrument, though his rough vibrato could stand a bit of smoothing out.
Veteran character mezzo Joyce Castle makes the most of every moment as a steely, Harlequin-eyeglassed wicked stepmother, bearing a strong resemblance to Dame Edna. Her voice no longer responds the way she would clearly like it to but Castle is enough of a comedy pro to surmount problems with her patchy middle and lower registers and deliver a fiercely funny performance. As her daughters, Lielle Berman and Rebecca Ringle, make the most of their small roles.
George Manahan, a highly versatile opera conductor who has become a real asset to New York City Opera, brings out both the sweetness and the pompous Baroque-era parody in Massenet’s delectable score.
Doucet even stages a memorably integrated curtain call, the norm for a Broadway musical but a rarity in opera. And, despite the 1950s setting, never once does he indulge in that newest and most tiresome of opera-director cliches: turning a character into Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley.