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Cendrillon: A Joyous New Production by KCL Opera Society

Source: Instagram @kings_opera

Staff writer Anwesh Banerjee Review’s KCL Opera’s Society latest production ‘Cendrillion’, inspired by the classic tale of Cinderella.

After the runaway success of their last production, staged inside the majestic baroque settings of the Strand Chapel, King’s College London Opera Society is back this Spring with a magnificent production of Pauline Viardot’s 1904 opera Cendrillon. Produced by Clara Richards, directed by Beatrice Tinsley and with music direction by Ella Frost (most will remember her as the exquisitely fragile Dido from the society’s fall production last year), this one hour long salon-style production is delightfully funny, and immensely watchable.

The story follows the renowned fable of Cinderella (played by the delightful Annabella Stevens) who is fated to a life of undignified toil and labour in her house, while her sisters Maguelonne and Armelinde (Anya Andriesescu and Josephine Jeffers are absolute hoots as twentieth century French coquettes) gallivant all over the house and launch taunts her way. The household is run by the Baron, who Cinderella addresses as “father”, a man who had served jail time for ethically ambiguous business transactions in his previous grocery shop. One day, the Prince (Constance Starns) enters the household in the guise of a beggar, is attended to with immense kindness by Cinderella and in true fable-like quality shunned away by her sisters. Soon an invitation to a royal ball arrives, and what ensues over three acts is a well known story of magical intervention, mixed identities and the final triumph of the labouring, pious Christian spirit against all mortal odds and evils. 

When I first received the invitation to attend the performance for this production, I was taken aback for a good while. The spectacular scale of the society’s previous production was still fresh in my mind, and this production’s curious location in the St. David’s Room, directly across the chapel, took me by genuine surprise. But once you settle down into the cozy, close-knit space of the room, you realise the vision of the makers. Cendrillon, is not only a beautifully rendered homage to one of the best known female opera composers of the past century but also a carefully calibrated recalling of a certain sub-genre of operatic compositions that were specifically designed to serve and equally subvert gendered norms of the day and age. Viardot, who was a renowned salonniere back in the day, had many of her productions performed within the domestic space of her own salons – a popular space of socialisation for multiple upper-class, French ladies in the nineteenth and twentieth century. 

A conscious spatial rendering of the source text, is a necessary acknowledgment of the production’s own gendered history of performance. In the translation note by Mellisa Frost , the makers take note of the loose nature of their own English translation, which consciously omits references from the French original, posing Cinderella as a paragon of piety and chastity. In doing so, Richards and Tinsley ensure the production stays relevant for a more modern audience, while retaining in an adequate bit of risque humour, to keep the laughs rolling in. But the biggest humour, intentionally or not, is derived from the production values that drive this performance. Never in my life had I imagined seeing a theatrical rendition of the Cinderella story that would let me see this widely loved heroine pour coffee from a French Press. If this was not enough, there is a brilliantly styled Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Ikin) whose white rimmed glasses, short tulle skirt and bright sky blue gloves deserve an essay of their own. In case the makers were going for a homage to the Cinderella-look sported by Zendaya on the 2019 Met Gala red carpet, then the mission was successfully achieved. 

Ikin’s feather light performance lends a welcoming neon-punk edge to the character of the Fairy Godmother, who in this production goes from comforting elder mouth-piece of morality to unbothered, self-initiating, girl-next-door. The opera itself is designed for the central performers to showcase the extent of their vocal skills in the second act, where the Prince calls for the spontaneous organisation of a concert at the ball. Stevens shines bright in her rendition of Viardot’s own composition Coquette which is based on a marzuka by Chopin. There is a gentle tranquility to her voice that allows her to lend immense emotional heft to the more challenging, higher notes of this piece – a challenge Stevens takes up with great aplomb. The excessive drama that is denied unto her performance through a script that is written to deliver a message of morality, is made up for through her musical numbers. From initial moments of shining goodness to eventual evocations of longing and yearning, Steven’s makes sure her performance is never static. If my instincts are anything to go by, then this is a definitive voice to look out for in the society’s future productions. Special mention needs to be made for Andrisescu and Jeffers, who deliver the coquettery of upper class French society with perfection. Their performance, which relies (and rightfully so) on theatrics, walks a fine tightrope and never veers into the territory of reductive caricature. 

Viardot’s Cendrillon is not designed for juicy drama. It is a story that has been told a thousand times, and there are very little changes to be made and fun to be had with a story that has been reworked so many times. Despite these challenges, Richards’ and Tinsley’s production is one that brings this story to life with much heart and joy and finds humour in the most unseeming places – eventually leaving you with a smile on your face. And for a production of such restrictive source material, it is the biggest of all feats! 

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