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ON THE SCENE: Saturday afternoon at the opera in Lake Placid
May 4, 2018

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Opera has magnificent singing, often imaginative sets and uplifting music, superb acting, sometimes a bit of dancing, and, more often than not, relatively simplistic story lines. They are a bit like a wire hanger upon which dazzling dresses are hung.

When it comes to the best bang for the buck, seeing an opera broadcast in HD live from the Metropolitan Opera in venues like the Lake Placid Center for the Arts on a rainy Saturday afternoon is hard to beat. This past Saturday, April 28, Dan Plumley and I took Louise Gregg, a former resident of Keene Valley now living at Saranac Village at Will Rogers, and Sallie Joachim of Lake Placid to see the final performance of the year of the live Met Opera broadcasts at the LPCA.

Dan came up with the idea, picked Louise and Sallie up, and I met them at Desperados for a pre-opera meal of enchiladas (two spiced chicken and one beef) and a chimichanga special (me), plus a side of guacamole. Over lunch, Dan got out his cellphone read reviews of Jules Massenet's "Cendrillon," the opera which we were to see, and bios of the lead performers. We learned that the opera had been composed and premiered in 1899 yet was only now being performed at the Met.

Sallie's first opera was "Pinocchio," which she first saw at the Old Met when she was 12.

"'Tales of Hoffman' is my favorite opera. I just love that," she said. "I'm excited to see 'Cendrillon' because it's never been staged at the Met before."

"We took the ferry over from New Jersey to see the opera when I was young," said Louise. "We'd bring our field glasses, so we could see the singers as we sat way up in back."

Dan was introduced to the opera at age 19 by his mother, but like many typical teenagers "was not interested." He was re-introduced to opera and ballet as an adult in Siberia in 1993 at the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Ulan Ude Russia. "It was startling in many ways because the Buryats have tremendous artistic talent," he said. "I was 33 years old. But it was four or five years ago that I first came with Louise to Live at the Met at the LPCA. I totally enjoyed it and have been coming ever since."

"Cendrillon" is a take-off on the Perrault's 1698 operatic version of the fairy tale "Cinderella," which makes one wonder just how old that fairy tale is. For those who have inquiring minds like us, the earliest known version was recounted by the Greek geographer Strabo in 7 BC. Perhaps the most unusual aspect, certainly for anyone brought up on either Disney's feature-length animation or the Grimm's fairy tale is that Massenet cast a female mezzo-soprano for the prince, and so the "trouser role" was wonderfully performed by Alice Coote. Stephanie Blythe, a graduate of the SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music, was a delightfully wicked stepmother to Cendrillion in the role of Madame de la Haltiere.

"I'm not so used to the female Prince, but I'm getting used to it," said Jim Dawson during the break, first introduced to the opera when he was about 9 years old by his aunt, who he said was very musical. "The stories can be bizarre and the sets out of context, but I love the music and seeing it on the big screen along with interviews."

Joyce DiDonato dazzled as the lead Cendrillion aka Cinderella aka Lucette, a role for which she has set a high bar for anyone else to equal. Another astounding performer was Kathleen Kim, who the Chicago-Sun Times describes as a "tiny dynamo" and Opera News as "spectacular," living up to such praise as the Fairy Godmother. Having these four on stage together made this a must see no matter what the subject matter, and here that being a mix of drama, humor, and love.

One of the nice aspects of the Met Broadcast is watching the stagehands reconfigure the sets during breaks, the stage manager giving people their cues, and the interviews with the leads, the conductor, and other principals such as Laurent Pelly, who both directed the staging and designed the costumes. From him we learned the book upon which Perrault created his opera had a red cover and used red in some of the illustrations, thus he built on that tradition by having red costumes for all the women attending the ball and seeking the prince's favor.

Pelly kept the balance of the set and costumes very muted reflecting the limited color range in the original book. What he also did was create nearly cartoonish costumes for Blythe, the wicked stepmother, her daughters, and the other would-be-brides that were quite fun though a challenge for Cendrillion's two step sisters to walk around and sit in. Blythe is a full-figured woman made even more so under pumped up costumes.

A lovely addition was seeing Ann Hurd at the opera, a resident of Keene Valley who once performed at the Met. I asked her what it was like being up on that big stage.

"I loved it because you were getting up on stage not as you, but as some character," said Hurd. "I always found singing straight recitals tougher than singing on stage as a character."

Her career started late as she went to college as a brass major, but in college her teacher wasn't as good as her high school music teacher, so she switched to voice. She got into the met by attending a "cattle call," trying out in the last hour of the last day," and beating out 1,200 people to be one of twelve selected.

Hurd, a mezzo soprano, was amazed by the number of mezzos performing.

"The Prince is a female because that's what Massenet wanted," said Hurd. "It's interesting because you have the Prince, the mother, Cinderella, and the Fairy Godmother all mezzos. There are more mezzos in this than most operas."

"I was drawn to presenting 'Cendrillion' at the Met because it's a story and a score with a lot of contrasts," said conductor Bertrand de Billy on screen during intermission. "It has a fantastic balance. It doesn't stay in any mood too long. The composer wrote 'Cendrillion' after completing a very sad piece. It's difficult to compose something that's funny. It is also a gift to give the (Metropolitan) musicians and chorus a new piece of music, because when they have a new piece they don't have a tradition. Tradition is sometimes good, but not always."

"I thought it was great and so much fun," said Sallie. "Kathleen Kim was amazing as the Fairy Godmother, what a voice!"

"I thought the opera was fascinating and so different from the traditional 'Cinderella' story that we all know so well," said Louise. "I enjoyed it, it was fun, and lovely to be at the opera with my pals. I'd love to do so again. The 2018-9 season looks terrific. I can't wait!"

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