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A treat, as always

Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts classical vocal students and Faith Court Orchestra: Cendrillon ·
Geoff Gibbs Theatre ·
Review: Sandra Bowdler ·

One of the benefits of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, for Perthites, is the regular showcases of its well-schooled students. In the case of the classical voice protégés, the annual opera production is invariably a treat, often with 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.

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.

This production is sung in English, with English surtitles; one might argue that it loses a certain je ne sais quois in the particular quality of Massenet’s writing for voice. The Faith Court Orchestra performed well on the night viewed, 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.

An attractive world of magic and dreaming alternates with Cinderella’s drab reality. Photo: Jon Green

Under de Mallet Burgess’s leadership this production creates an attractive world of magic and dreaming alternating with Cinderella’s drab reality. Eilish Campbell’s set design is 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 sees the inclusion of a younger (non-singing) version of Cinders (or Lucette, as Massenet dubbed her) to whom the older version expresses her hopes and despair. At the back of the panelled space a large lift door is placed, allowing for various fun types of entry and exit.  A red sofa covered in transparent plastic embodies the vulgarity of the vaunted aristocrat stepmother Madame de la Haltière (or haughty).

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

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), and the singing chops of the student performers suggested several potential opera careers in the making.  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 prowess, 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 Eliasson 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. Without naming everyone who contributed, overall this was a wonderful ensemble production, all lifters and no leaners.

Cendrillon continues until October 20.

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