WA Academy of Performing Arts 3rd: Cendrillon

Geoff Gibbs Theatre

Review: Sandra Bowdler

One of the benefits of the WA Academy of Performing Arts for Perthites is the regular showcases for its well-schooled students.  In the case of the classical voice protégés, the annual opera production is almost invariably a treat, with often unusual repertoire you will never hear from the established companies showcasing fresh young voices and featuring innovative productions tailored to show off the blooming talent. There is usually a backbone of more experienced contributors holding it together.

WA Academy of Performing Arts’ Cendrillon production. Photo Jon Green

This year’s opera, French composer Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon, the French Cinderella, was another felicitous decision, comprising the familiar fairy story set to tuneful and lively (if not totally memorable) music and a range of voice types. This was the final programming choice of retiring Head of Classical Voice at WAAPA, Patricia Price, and what an excellent job she has done on this front. On this occasion, the director and conductor are senior figures in the Australian music world, the former, Thomas de Mallet Burgess, recently taking on the role of General Director of New Zealand Opera, and the latter, Alexander Briger, the prominent founder of the Australian World Orchestra among many other things. Former Opera Australia singing star and incoming vocal head Emma Matthews was the voice coach.

The production was sung in English, with English surtitles; one might argue that it lost a certain je ne sais quois in the particular quality of Massenet’s writing for voice. The Faith Court Orchestra performed well, although the small forces created balance issues. The brass and winds were over-emphasised at the expense of the strings, leading to more oom-pah-pah effect than Massenet’s elegant music intended.

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The stepsisters from Cendrillon. Photo Jon Green

Under de Mallet Burgess’s leadership the production created an attractive world of magic and dreaming alternating with Cinderella’s drab reality. Eilish Campbell’s set design was a dark panelled space with, initially, a branch of bright blossom intruding into the room from a window on the left and a swing in the centre.  One directorial conceit was to have a younger (non-singing) version of Cinders (or Lucette, as Massenet dubbed her) to whom the older version expressed her hopes and despair. At the back of the panelled space a large lift door was placed, allowing for various fun types of entry and exit.  A red sofa covered in transparent plastic embodied the vulgarity of the vaunted aristocrat stepmother Madame de la Haltière (or haughty).

The costumes by Ashley King were a delight, especially the frightful stepsisters (one basically pink, the other screaming yellow), the punk Prince Charming, the stylish (?) stepmother. Cinderella’s ball gown was lovely and sparkly.  The blocking of the large supporting cast and chorus was spirited and excellent. All the production team deserve praise but space forbids mention of more than production manager Claire Mayers, stage manager Emma Brazzale and lighting designer Mai Han.

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The Prince and Cinderella. Photo Jon Green

The singing chops of the classical voice students suggested several potential opera careers in the making. We were privileged to hear the “Metropolitan Opera Cast” (for 15, 17, 19 October) as against the “Royal Opera House Cast” (16, 18, 20 October). Jessica Taylor as Cinderella and Ema Rose Gosnell as Prince Charming sang in a similar tessitura – low-ish soprano or high-ish mezzo (both roles are generally sung by mezzos in modern maingstage opera productions).  Both displayed excellent acting ability, particularly Taylor who has to cover a wide range of emotions.  In both cases their voices grew in body and expressiveness as the opera progressed, with some truly thrilling duet singing.

The fairy godmother, a high soprano role, was sung in sparkling fashion by Shania Eliassen with nice coloratura fireworks. Nicole Mealey sang the alto role of the stepmother, bringing out the innate nastiness of the part while clothing it in dark velvet tone. The stepsisters were portrayed with great comic effect by Amber Reid and Virginia Hurley, embodying as gauche a pair of lowering adolescents as can be imagined.  The father (rejoicing here in the name of Pandolfe) was sung by Laurence Westrip with attractive even tenor tone. Again, no room here to list everyone who contributed, but overall this was a wonderful ensemble production, all lifters and no leaners.

Cendrillon continues until 20th October.