Glyndebourne's Cinderella (Cendrillon) - Milton Keynes Theatre (atgtickets.com)
As an actress Fiona Shaw is renowned for heavyweight parts in tragedies such as Electra, Medea and Mother Courage. More recently one of her directorial big hits was the The Rape of Lucrecia, Britten’s mournful chamber opera. Sure, a lot more people know her these days from her lighter moments as Petunia Dursley from the Harry Potter films. Ooh! And don’t forget she was in the Super Mario Brothers film… But.


Look, what I’m trying to say here is that on paper she looks an odd fit to direct, for Glyndebourne,  Massanet’s Cendrillon, one of the frothiest, airiest, lightest, melt-in-the-mouth Crunchie moments in the whole world of opera. Cendrillon is the tale of Cinderella, based on Perrault’s 17th century telling of the story.  From the start you know it’s not going to be any kind of Cinderella you’ve come across before – to start with, it’s opera, for heavens sake – so no well-upholstered pseudo-dames, no bumbling no cheery Buttons
(Hiya, kids!) no Anita Harris in thigh boots and, as far as film fans are concerned ***SPOILER ALERT*** no singing mice. Definitely not. 

What you do get though are some fine moments of singing among sets that do some of the psychological heavy lifting that Shaw wishes to imbue, Angela Carter-like, into the fairy tale. In her re-telling how much is real? How much is a dream? Who’s doing the dreaming? Is the tale all in the head of the 12-year-old  Cendrillon who appears silently at key moments?  

Alix Le Saux’s Cendrillon is tender, sweet and damaged, seeking love in the ashes of a life laid low. Caroline Wettergreen’s Fairy appears to be the memory of her dead mother, coming back to defend her from the predations of her avaricious  stepmother, Madame de la Haltière (Agnes Zwierko) and her two horrible-rather-than-ugly daughters (Eduarda Melo and Kezia Bienek), whose selfies and slapperdom lighten every scene they are in while William Dazeley is a suitably weak and useless Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s dad. 


Massanet created the part of Prince Charming for a female (Quiet, Anita!) perhaps acknowledging the love between the prince and Cendrillon to be as some idealised dream cypher. As the gender-fluid prince Eléonore Pancrazi excels, particularly in Act 3 when s/he literally wears a heart on a sleeve in swooning duets with Le Saux: it’s pure romance, as the composer intended. Shame, though, that the prince looked so Primark. Going to a ball in what look like Sandi Toksvig’s gardening clothes? Anita would have none of that.

The ball is a good point to mention the work of set designer Jon Bausor. The Palace ballroom is composed of four revolving mirror towers that aid concealment and revelation and add to the dreamy quality for which Shaw is striving. All black and silver and crammed to the gunwhales, it’s a dead spit for any Top Rank Suite circa 1972. That's a compliment, by the way.

Musically, it’s a treat. Just like a fairy godmother… er… father, Duncan Ward conjures up some spells of his own in bringing out the best from Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra, presenting with enormous freshness the differing soundscapes in each of the four acts. There’s pomp, there’s eroticism but most of all there’s a delicacy and melodic precision that enchants.


In truth, the production is like watching a boxing match between Sigmund Freud and a meringue. Freud may walk away with the fight but it’s the smashed meringue that you’ll remember.


Glyndebourne's Cendrillon is at Milton Keynes Theatre on Saturday Dec 1 at 7.15pm