Wishful Thinking, Fairytale Ending: Massenet's 'Cendrillon'

woo-1410-250bMassenet’s four act opera is based on the familiar version of the Cinderella story by Charles Perrault – the first version to incorporate the famous glass slippers. ACT ONE begins on the estate of Madame de la Haltière.  She's better known as the Wicked Stepmother, and with good reason. 

We quickly learn that almost nobody can stand this woman. Her servants despise her, and her husband Pandolfe, Cinderella’s father, wishes he’d never laid eyes on her -- much less married her. He asks himself how he could possibly have left a happy country home for such a shrew, in the process subjecting his own daughter Lucette -- or Cinderella -- to a despicable stepmother and two insufferable stepsisters.

From here the story follows the familiar line. We learn that the Prince is holding a ball, to find himself a bride. The Stepmother primps her daughters for the occasion, telling them, “the ballroom is a battlefield,” and they should take no prisoners. Cinderella looks on with resignation. She’s devoted to her father, and her words tell us she’s accepted her subservient place in the household. But at the same time, Massenet’s music reveals the true depth of her plight.

Father, Wicked Stepmother, and the ugly stepsisters all depart for the ball. Pandolfe is reluctant to leave Cinderella behind. But what else can he do, he asks himself? He did marry this horrid woman, after all. 

But all is not lost.  Before long, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother comes to the rescue.  She and her supernatural charges dress Cinderella in a sumptuous outfit, complete with the magical glass slippers that will make her unrecognizable. Then they drive the transformed Cinderella off to the ball, with the Fairy Godmother giving her a stern warning to return no later than midnight.

As ACT TWO opens, Prince Charming is in his Palace, before the ball begins, alone and wretched.  Only true love can end his depression, so his father the King orders him to get married.  In a ballet sequence, the King has a whole gaggle of comely young princesses brought in for his son to choose from. But none of them does the trick. 

Then, a mysterious beauty arrives. It’s Cinderella, and when the Prince sees her, the two instantly fall in love. But just as it seems they’ll live happily ever after, the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella abruptly rushes off, leaving the Prince wondering what he’s done to offend her.

In ACT THREE, Cinderella remembers the glamorous ball, and how frightened she was rushing home through the night. Her family, such as it is, returns from the ball as well, and Pandolfe tells her all about it. He says none of the many young women offered to the Prince met his fancy. But the sudden appearance of a mysterious beauty bowled him over. 

The Wicked Stepmother gives the events a different spin. She says everyone was appalled at the intrusion of this gaudy, "common" stranger -- including the Prince. She also reminds everybody of her own high-class ancestry, citing a Rabelaisian list of scholars, judges, a Doge or two, and even a couple of Royal mistresses.

When Pandolfe sees Cinderella’s distress at her Stepmother’s account of the ball, he’s finally had enough, and throws his wife and stepdaughters out of the room. In a moving duet, he tells Cinderella that they’ll leave this place together, and go back to the country where they once were happy. But when he leaves, Cinderella decides she won’t let her father share her misery. Instead, she walks deep into the woods all alone, and assumes that she'll die there.

The scene changes to an enchanted forest, where the Fairy Godmother lives.  In an almost impressionistic sequence, Cinderella approaches from one side, and Prince Charming from the other -- separated by an arbor. They can’t see each other. But each can hear the other singing of their loneliness and misery. The two recognize each other’s voices, from the ball.  They declare their love, and fall into an enchanted sleep.

As ACT FOUR begins, several months have passed.  Cinderella was found unconscious near a stream, nearly dead.  Back home, she’s slowly regaining her health -- but not her happiness. In her sleep, she has sung of the ball, the Prince, and the enchanted woods. But as she wakes, her father tells her that it was all a dream; none of those magical events really happened.

Then, everyone hears the big news. Prince Charming is searching his entire kingdom and beyond for the mysterious beauty who stole his heart. He still has the glass slipper she left behind by at the ball, and he's determined to use it to find her. Hearing that, Cinderella realizes that everything actually happened, just as she remembers it.

In the last scene, dozens of princesses are paraded before Prince Charming, to try the slipper. It doesn't fit any of them. Then Cinderella appears. Before she even tries the slipper on, she and the Prince know they have found each other. The opera ends, and naturally, everyone lives "happily ever after."