When it comes to reimagining the classic fairy tales, it's hard to imagine anyone doing it as well as Walt Disney did, in films such as Snow White and Cinderella. But when it comes to Cinderella, at least, composer Jules Massenet may have given Disney a run for his money back in 1899, with the opera Cendrillon.
At first glance, it might seem that comparing an animated Disney film to a 19th-century French opera would be something of a stretch. After all, Disney's Cinderella and Massenet's Cendrillon are from two different eras, with very different sensibilities. The movie is, relatively speaking, "modern" entertainment. It feels like something from our own era -- something we can identify with. And the opera? Well, it's from whatever era French Romantic opera came from. Which is to say, it’s from "a long time ago."
But how long ago was it? Disney’s movie came out early in 1950, 60-plus years ago. Massenet’s opera was first seen in 1899, just 51 years before the film. That is, Disney made his film during an era closer to Massenet’s than to our own. Given all that, why shouldn’t the movie have as much in common with Massenet’s opera as with "contemporary" film entertainment?
Well, it just might. The two have the story in common, of course. It's been around forever and Massenet uses what’s probably the most popular version, complete with Cinderella's famous glass slippers. Visual effects? Naturally, the composer didn’t have Disney’s technological resources, but French opera was famous for special effects long before there even was a Hollywood. And the music? Well, there are surely some great songs in the film, from "Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo" to "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes." Still, Massenet hardly takes a back seat in that regard. He was one of history’s most successful theater composers, with a whole career’s worth of hits to his name, and this opera is one of his very best.
So, give Massenet’s opera a chance, and you may come away thinking Walt Disney must have surely been an opera buff. Like the film, the opera takes us to a fanciful time and place, with vividly drawn characters, magical love, and enchanting dreams -- plus music as appealing, and dreamily expressive, as anything Massenet ever composed.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Cendrillon from the Grand Liceu Theatre in Barcelona. The stars are Joyce DiDonato as Cinderella and Ewa Podlés as the Wicked Stepmother, with Alice Coote as the young Prince Charming, in a production led by conductor Andrew Davis.