For the third year in a row, I was invited to attend a performance of UND Music Department’s spring opera. This year’s production is Cendrillon, a French opera with music by Jules Massenet and libretto by Henri Cain, which retells the classic fairytale Cinderella. I’m not going to start this review with my usual spoiler warning (which I post under duress anyway) because if you don’t know the story of Cinderella already, you need to think about your life and how you go to where you are today. You’ve had several hundred years to catch up on this little tale; get your life, Felicia.
The opera takes a mostly comedic tone, opening with Pandolphe, the Father (Ryan King), bemoaning his marriage to Madame de la Haltiere, the Stepmother (Angela Schmaltz), and wishing that he could control his wife. Madame soon enters, daughters Noemie (Jocelyn Hanson) and Dorothee (Katie Holleman) in tow, to demonstrate how fully in control of the house and her husband she is. The women are ecstatic about the King’s ball being held that night and Madame commands her daughters to look beautiful in order to entrance the prince. Hardly a thought is given to Pandolphe’s daughter from his first marriage, the sweet and obedient Lucette, also called Cendrillon (Kelsey Langness). She wanders among them, cleaning and straightening, wishing that she too could attend the ball. After they leave, Cendrillon lies down on a couch to get some rest, and La Fee, the Fairy Godmother (Haley Lund) arrives on the scene with her band of spirits (Brianna Becks, McKinley Solberg, Maria Muske, Abigail Farmer, Kalli Sonnenburg, Kara Roe, and Morgan Nunberg) who transform Cendrillon’s simple garments into a sparkling blue gown. Fairy Godmother gives her slippers of glass to hide her face from her family and she enters the ball, entrancing all in attendance including Le Prince Charmant (Lynneah Thompson). As midnight strikes, Cendrillon, who introduced herself to the Prince as the Unknown One, flees the ball leaving her slipper at the top of the stairs.
The rest of the show diverges somewhat from the most recognizable tellings of the tale. When they arrive home, Madame and the Stepsisters talk of the mysterious beauty and claim that when she left, the Prince disparaged her and questioned her honor. Cendrillon is overcome with misery at the loss of her love; as he tries to comfort her, Pandolphe tells her that they will leave the city and go back to a simple farm life together, at which point he finally finds courage to chase Madame and her daughters from the house. Realizing that her unhappiness is tormenting her father, she resolves herself to go out into the woods and die under the Fairy Tree. Dark stuff, right? It seems to get worse. As the Prince is wandering through the woods, he finds the place where Cendrillon has come to die, and the Fairy Godmother instructs the spirits to create a barrier between them. Wait, what?! They can hear each other singing about their pain, but can’t see or touch one another. Eventually, as they realize who each other are (is that a right sentence?) and the Prince pledges his love to Lucette, the spirits loosen the barrier so that he can see her face. Rather than using the slipper, the Prince recognizes her when she presents herself at the palace. Cue happy ending. After the darkness of the woods, I half expected them to stick with the original Grimm Brothers eye-pecking but it either wasn’t in the script or the special-effects budget wasn’t big enough (thanks Ed).
The voices, as expected, are tremendous and the music is light and playful under the masterful conducting of Joshua Bronfman. But what really stands out about this production is that the performers, many of whom I recognize from the previous productions, have really grown as stage performers as well as musical artists. The singers move across the stage with purpose and the choreography and movement (coached by Natasha Thomas) is fluid and graceful. They also utilize different areas of the stage quite well including a foreground that serves as Cendrillon’s home as well as (with a few minor alterations and the addition of a rather perilous looking staircase) the palace of the King, an upstage area behind the dividing wall of the set, and a platform. Even when people were in an area of the stage that wasn’t the focus, such as the upstage area during the ball, when the Prince and Cendrillon are falling in love, are aware of their movements, gliding in and out of view in a way that provides a lovely backdrop for the scene without being distracting. There were a couple of awkward clumping moments, especially with the spirits, but generally everyone as where they needed to be, when they needed to be there, doing what they needed to be doing, and this is a credit to Wesley Lawrence’s direction. The music is sung beautifully in French, but worry no Anglophones: there are “supertitles” that display above the stage to keep you in the know.
My favorite moment in the show is one where the technical aspects worked in perfect harmony with the performances: as Cendrillon and the Prince are singing to each other, the fairies keeping them apart, they are singing in front of the Empire’s large movie screen with a bitter winter scene playing. The fairies are wearing greenish-blue hoods, posed to created a twisted, impassable barrier. As Cendrillon and the Prince sing to each other, the Fairy Godmother, standing on the platform behind the screen, is illuminated with a bright light, making her seem as though she is floating above the lovers in the forest. It was a lovely use of light and space. Plus, I thoroughly enjoy the possibly unintentional queerness of having the Prince played by a female performer.
Unlike the last two productions, which took place in the Josephine Campbell Recital Hall in the Hughes Fine Arts Center on campus, this production is lighting up the stage at the Empire Arts Center downtown, and the technical aspects of the production have been beefed up for the new venue. The costumes by Amy Sanner are whimsical and colorful with enough hints of historical accuracy to set the proper tone without striving to be a period piece. The stepsisters wear colorful wigs of green and pink with big, floppy flowers and Schmaltz’s Marie Antoinette updo is ridiculous in all the right ways. The lighting design by Spencer Carmichael is simple and effective, though I might have liked a few more “fireworks” thrown in – you know me, I love my world lit up like a bad trip!
This production was a wonderful example of the quality work being done by the students and faculty in the performative arts at UND. These are not good times at UND, especially if you care about a liberal arts education in general and access to quality arts in particular. I’ve mostly stayed out of the discussion since the impact on me is distanced somewhat, and perhaps this isn’t the best forum in which to finally make a comment, but you know that when I’m feeling some kind of way I’m going to say some shit. And I want to say that having had some sort of relationship with UND for the last 20 years (as an undergrad in the Integrated Studies and Honors Programs, and later a grad student in the English Department; as an employee in various places across campus including the old KFJM studio, UND Housing, and the International Centre; as a member, officer, and now unofficial historian – i.e., relic – for the Ten Percent Society; as a member and later chair of the Multicultural Awareness Comittee; and as one of the founding members and co-chair of the now virtually defunct Safe Zone Program) I am disgusted and dismayed by the so-called leadership being demonstrated by Ed Shaeffer as UND’s interim president, and this is the first time I have ever been truly embarrassed by my association with my alma mater. Good ol’ boy Ed is raking in $33,000 a month (more than many families in this town bring in over the course of a year) but is posturing about how these cuts are going to eventually make the University “better.” If his vision is to turn UND into an aviation/hockey tech school, then perhaps that vision will be realized. Meanwhile programs that produce students ready to move into important health care fields are being suspended, a program like Women and Gender Studies that provides Essential Studies classes related to diversity and that has almost no budget to begin with is being hacked to the ground seemingly out of spite, and anything related to arts and culture lives under constant threat. We have to stop thinking of the arts as expendable, and we need leaders who actually understand what the foundations of a liberal arts education actually are. Herein ends the rant.
But I brought it up because all of that noise, all of that drama, was happening as these students were preparing to bring this show to the stage. Dr. Lawrence, the director of the opera, is leaving UND at the end of the semester and taking his talent and expertise with him. Students who are in the show may be going to class every day wondering what aspect of their academic experience will be sacrificed next. And yet, they have come together to create a magical theatrical moment; their soaring voices never waver with uncertainty and their eyes are shining with the wonder of great music and storytelling, not bowed in fear. Art is powerful; it can help move us through adversity and can help bring hope in the darkness. Every member of the cast and crew of this production should be commended for creating this experience.
You have two opportunities to see this show: Tonight, April 30, at 7:30 pm or Sunday, May 1, at 3:00 pm. Tickets are available at the door.
I don’t always get a chance to mention every member of the cast and crew in the review, so a full cast and crew list follows:
Stage Director: Dr. Wesley Lawrence
Conductor: Dr. Joshua Bronfman
Production & Set Design: Wesley Lawrence
Costume Design: Amy Sanner
Lighting Design: Spencer Carmichael
Chorus Master: Dr. Anne Christopherson
Production Manager: Dr. Stephanie Beinlich
Building Manager: Evan Montgomery
Movement Coach: Natasha Thomas
Dance Coach: Chris Feldmann
Supertitles: Kelsey Langness, Stephanie Beinlich
Assistant Director: Kelsey Langness
Assistant Production Manager: Jace Erickson
Builders: Stephanie Beinlich, Wesley Lawrence, Kipp Loeslie, Evan Montgomery, and members of the cast
CAST (in order of Vocal Appearance):
Pandolphe (the Father): Ryan King
Madame de la Haltiere (the Stepmother): Angela Schmaltz
Noemie (the Stepsister): Jocelyn Hansen
Dorothee (the other Stepsister): Katie Holleman
Cendrillon (Lucette/Cinderella): Kelsey Langness
La Fee (the Fairy Godmother): Haley Lund
1st Esprit: Brianna Becks, McKinley Solberg
2nd Esprit: Maria Muske
3rd Esprit: Abigail Farmer
4th Esprit: Kalli Sonnenburg
5th Esprit: Kara Roe
6th Esprit: Morgan Nunberg
Le Doyen de la Faculte (Master of Ceremonies): Jace Erickson
Courtesans: Jacob Sherfy, RJ Morin
Le Prince Charmant: Lynneah Thompson
Ensemble: Brianna Becks, Jace Erickson, Abigail Farmer, Chris Feldmann, Josh Johnson, Bethany Loock, Max McCann, RJ Morin, Maria Muske, Morgan Nunberg, Kara Roe, Hannah Rue, Jocab Sherfy, McKinley Solberg, Kalli Sonnenburg, Bailey Strahota, Josh Strehlo, Cole Thibert, Michael Thompson, Riley Unzicker, Kryston Wiseley
(I don’t know how to do those fancy French marks on some of the words, so any inconsistencies in the French are mine. Sorry ’bout it.)
Tags: Amy Sanner, Angela Schmaltz, Anne Christopherson, Cendrillon, Champagne Dreams Productions, Cinderella, community theatre, Empire Theatre, Jace Erickson, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Joshua Bronfman, Kelsey Langness, Lucette, Miss Jaye, Opera, Ryan King, UND Department of Music, UND Music, UND Music Department, Wesley Lawrence, World of Champagne