DHO's 'Cinderella' Updates a Classic

The plot of Jules Massenet’s opera “Cinderella” centers around the same elements as that of the Disney movie everyone grew up with: a girl, a godmother, a glass slipper. What people might not recognize from their childhood version, in the opera however, are iPhone selfies, Juicy Couture tracksuits, and the “bend and snap” from “Legally Blonde.” But that is exactly what you get with Dunster House Opera’s production, which runs through Saturday in Dunster Dining Hall. With incredible wit and fantastic musical performances across the board, the show maintains all the charm of the original story while updating the comical theatrics and costumes.

Director Katherine E. Moon ’14 gives a modern, playful spin on the classic, providing a tongue-in-cheek parody of modern culture where most viewers are expecting the comfortable familiarity of an age-old fairy tale. The effect is to make the opera more accessible—the two stepsisters (Olivia R. Miller ’16 and Julia I. Biedry ’16), are armed with a brace of Sephora bags and prance about the stage practicing duck faces, while the group of tailors, with their flowing scarves and deep v-necks, recall contemporary hipsters. By playing up these comic elements, Moon has turned a night at the opera, which can seem stodgy and humorless to those less acquainted with the genre, into a light and fun theatrical experience.

Though entirely run by students, the show is marked by the utmost professionalism. All of the elements of the production create a harmonious, balanced whole: nowhere does the orchestra overpower the singers, as so often happens with student productions. Instead, actors and musicians perform in lockstep, working together to convey a dynamic, human side of characters we know so well—after Cinderella flees as the stroke of midnight nears, the prince sings of losing hope that he will ever see his love again, and the cellos echo his despair in their melancholy flourishes.

The central pairing—Cinderella (Amelia H. Ross ’14) and Prince Charming (Allison A. Ray ’14)—provides the opera with a solid emotional core. The fact that the prince is played by a woman may seem like a modern twist, but in fact Massenet originally intended for the part to be played by a soprano. While some productions use a tenor instead, DHO’s decision to have a female prince was the right one. Ray is perfectly suited to the part, with a strikingly beautiful, gentle voice that gives depth to her character. The prince is introduced in a scene where he refuses to get dressed, but the next scene, in which Ray sings affectingly of his loneliness, develops sympathy for her character. And Ross, a talented singer in her own right who so affectingly conveys Cinderella’s anguish in her first scenes, is a perfect match for Ray. The dream scene in which they serenade each other, with the Fairy Godmother’s (Liv A. Redpath ’14) voice floating above their intertwining promises of love, is one of the most magical of the performance.

As the stepmother, Elizabeth K. Leimkuhler ’15 steals the show with her diva-esque take on her role—she chews gum while singing her arias, brandishes a stiletto heel at her harried husband, and even winks creepily at the audience like Lucille Bluth from “Arrested Development.” But Leimkuhler’s theatrics are not designed to compensate for any lackluster singing—she manages to maintain her imperious, sneering air while expertly navigating the difficult notes. At several points during the show, she comically shoves others out of the way so that she can be at the center of attention, but she hardly needs to: her mere presence is enough. If Ray and Ross, with their delicate, heartfelt duets, preserve the essence of Massenet’s original, Leimkuhler’s theatrics give the production a humorous spark and a modern twist.

Redpath, as the Fairy Godmother, gives another exquisite performance. Her voice is sweet and graceful, and she hops with ease from high note to high note. The only hiccup is the floppy, oversized set of wings she wears, which undercut her elegance and distract from her vocal feats. For a production that is otherwise so self-assured in its novel interpretations, this foray into literalism is unnecessary. Costume designer Juliet M. Snyder ’15 dressed all of the other characters in creative modern outfits, so the Fairy Godmother’s garb felt inconsistent with her overall vision.

Still, with the only criticism something as minor as a pair of wings, the overall production is a fantastically successful reinterpretation of a classic fairy tale. With clever elements of satire and a cast that makes Massenet’s arias look easy, DHO’s funny, superbly executed production is more than worth a trudge through the snow.

—Staff writer Erica X. Eisen can be reached at eeisen@college.harvard.edu.

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