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Pauline Viardot, after Perrault

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Pavilion

July 12-24 2021, 1hr 10min

Nikki Martin as Cendrillon in Cendrillon at Buxton International Festival. Credit Genevieve Girling
A nice girl: Nikki Martin as Cendrillon in Cendrillon at Buxton International Festival. All pics: Genevieve Girling

Pauline Viardot’s reputation in her day was as a performer: one of the great mezzos of the 19th century, she was the sister of Maria Malibran, whose untimely death after a Manchester Musical Festival vocal sing-off in 1836 is sometimes, rather ill-adroitly, clung to as a distinction in the city’s cultural history. She also lived in a cheerful menage-a-trois with her husband and the novelist Turgenev. Atta-girl!

She spent much of her time in the company of the aristocratic and cultured elite, as did most serious artists, and of course she taught private pupils.

Her compositional gifts, though considerable (she had lessons from Liszt), seem to have been practised mainly in creating entertainment for her own salon and pupils to perform. Hence her piano-accompanied comic opera (with spoken dialogue), Cendrillon, written in the early years of the 20th century, when she was in her eighties.

It’s not Offenbach nor Gilbert and Sullivan, but it’s not very far off. There’s a succession of charming and pleasant ditties, with some duets and ensembles – of which the most notable is the sextet that ends Act One.

The “Young Artists” of Buxton International Festival – mainly Manchester music students – have brought her adaptation of the Cinderella story back to life, under the direction of festival head of music Iwan Davies, who accompanies. The director is Laura Attridge, who has provided adapted dialogue in English though the musical numbers are sung in the original French (side-titles translate), with design by Anna Orton, costume design by Michelle Bristow and lighting by Rachel E Cleary.

The story is a mild-mannered version of the familiar European Cinderella, as told by Perrault and set to music by bigger names. The sisters are not so much ugly as vain (and not even very nasty), and Prince Charming appearing disguised, mainly as his own Chamberlain (Buttons, as we now know him) is simply assumed from the start. Prince Charming is a woman’s “trouser” role, and the main event at the ball is when the girls are each invited to sing. Viardot leaves it to the performers to select their music here, and Davies has the sisters sing the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann, while Cinderella gives us a slice of Massenet – though we learn later that dancing came into it, too.

But Cinders’ father really is a Baron Hard-Up, and Viardot’s text makes much of the fact that he’s not much of a real baron because he once made his money as a grocer – in trade, my dear!

It’s all frothy and sentimental and, on the occasion I saw it, was very well sung by Pasquale Orchard (Le Fée), Nikki Martin (Cendrillon), Camilla Seale (Prince Charming), Olivia Carrell and Flora Macdonald (the sisters), Ross Cumming (the Baron), and Andrew Henley (the Chamberlain).

Further performances are on 16 and 24 July.

Info and tickets here


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