Monday, May 11, 2015

Cinderella And Other Fairy Tales

After more than 300 years the story of Cinderella continues to captivate, whether presented in a movie, opera, ballet or some other form.  Let me be quick to clarify that Cindy is not my favorite fairy tale character.  That honor goes to the princess who kissed a frog and turned him into a prince.  I have kissed a number of frogs in my life and none of them has turned into a prince, but I keep trying. However, I never miss a performance of Cinderella and always discover a new layer to the story.   
Maxim Mironov and Isabel Leonard in WNO's production of Rossini's opera Cinderella.

The other day I was passing by Kramerbooks store at Dupont Circle and noticed in the window a selection of children's storybooks. One was titled Everyone Poops and another The Gas We Pass: The story of Farts. Wow! They did not have those where I grew up. My first reading list comprised Grimm's, Anderson's and Perrault's fairy tales from which I advanced to Aesop and international folk stories.  In my teens I went through a period of obsession with the romanticized stories of the Wild West by Karl May and Zane Grey before graduating to the great classics.

Although I don't often see Perrault's tales in the children's sections of the dwindling number of the area's bookstores, I assume there must be an interest in them, judging by the number of kids at the Saturday premiere of WNO's Cinderella.

The production seems to be targeting young audiences and those young at heart. 
The colors and the design are over-the-top, screeching and at times ridiculous. But one can imagine a kid building a set like that from lego pieces, with costumes cut out from neon-colored paper. Note for example the prince's blue-and-white patterned shoes. Fussy but simple and geometric at the same time, like everything else in the show. The acting also was exaggerated and clearly meant to make you laugh even in the sad and tender moments. You could not take this Cinderella too seriously, at least not initially. It took time getting used to, but once I got "into it" it became great fun. The first really hilarious schtick was the arrival of the false prince on a white horse. I don't know if it's the same in other cultures, but in mine "the prince on a white horse" is the synonym for every woman's romantic dream of a man. Maxim Mironov's Don Ramiro was absolutely delightful. He looked like a confused young man with no experience with women. I imagine my son was like that on his first date. Isabel Leonard was not as charismatic for me in real life as she was in the Met broadcasts, but she sang beautifully.   The portrayers of the mean stepfather and his daughters, Dandini and other characters were all skilled entertainers both in terms of singing and acting, eliciting outbursts of spontaneous hilarity, with the exception of Shenyang whose Alidoro I thought was too serious for this production.

WNO's Cinderella, the Proposal Scene

Despite the emphasis on the comic, I found more depth in this production of Cinderella than I did in the Met's version a few years ago. Maybe it was the mismatch between the statuesque Elina Garanča at the time and her short and portly prince, maybe it was all the kitsch and confection in the more traditional production - but despite superb singing I never noticed then as I did this time that Angelina, aka Cinderella, was craving family. The playbill notes focus on her forgiveness and magnanimity, but to me she seemed more like a lonely woman who wanted to come to her prince from a home and a family.  Rossini's Cinderella wanted to bring an identity to her marriage, not just assume the husband's.   Even an unloving stepfather and two malicious step-sisters were better than no kin at all.

The not-quite-so-happy ending is a mixture of funny and serious like many other things in this production.  Angelina emerges from her reverie with a broom in her hand, a harsh reality that awaits many a young woman today when she wakes up.  Teenage girls might prefer the standard happy ending in Kenneth Branagh's new movie version of Cinderella. I appreciate that the British star director gave a new dimension to the wicked stepmother, portrayed aptly by Cate Blanchett. In this movie, she is a beautiful and elegant woman whose beloved husband died, forcing her to remarry. She is disappointed to learn that she is not as well loved by the second husband and it hurts even more to find herself impoverished after his death. She is still evil, but more human and easier to understand than a stereotypical fairy-tale stepmother. Branagh's Cinderella, on the other hand, is a girl with a cause, or at least a motto, not just a dreamer. But she is only a half-baked activist as if the director could not quite decide how much to intervene in the classic fairy tale. The sets in the movie are exceedingly Disney-like and gaudy, complete with a pumpkin turning into a carriage, lizards into footmen, glass shoes and tons of tulle. One expected more creativity from a Kenneth Branagh.

Opera in the Outfield
The Washington National Opera has chosen a formula which worked successfully last year with The Magic Flute free-for-all in the  Nationals baseball park.  Various operatic characters walked into the outfield to mingle with the audience and engage the kids.  The production including Jun Kaneko's playful costumes was a hit with the area families.  This year, you can expect Cinderella's mice  (or are they rats?) to greet you on arrival.

It is clear that such a vision of Rossini's opera does not agree with the music critic I saw run out of the theater as soon as the curtain hit the floor. I knew what to expect in her review the next day and she did not disappoint: a slew of poisoned arrows rained from Mount Olympus. But there are many who applaud WNO's Francesca Zambello for bringing approachable opera to the backyard of many families who would never see it otherwise.  The classic fairy tales presented in the way kids can understand teach them to dream of a world in which the good always wins and the evil is punished, something that stories about bodily functions do not.

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