Pauline Viardot is the most famous musician you may never have heard of. A household name across Europe during the late 19th century, she studied with Liszt, played duets with Chopin, charmed Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Gounod and Turgenev, and hosted the greatest musical salon of her day. She was also a fine composer, though one still heard too rarely.
Light as a soufflé and every bit as delicious, Viardot’s hour-long operetta Cinderella is a proper Christmas treat. A sophisticated musical fairytale originally devised to showcase the talents of young singers, there are hints of Offenbach and Massenet in the elegant score, but all woven into a quirky, mischievous voice that’s distinctly Viardot’s own.
The i newsletter latest news and analysis
There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to a retelling that trades Cinderella’s wicked stepmother for a recently ennobled, ex-con father, and sees the Prince swapping places with his valet for a none-too-subtle test of the heroine’s priorities.
This gentle cynicism is slightly missed in the Northern Opera Group and director Sophie Gilpin’s sweetly sincere new staging.
The arch libretto (translated by Rachel M Harris) is hard to swallow, especially in the spoken passages, which are a rather self-conscious blend of French and English.
Filmed on location in Leeds, the real world of the modern city is always visible at the edge of the period action, giving a sense of the vulnerability of a fantasy that could dissolve back into the everyday at any moment.
Animated illustrations by Polly Rockman and a digital community chorus (guests at a Zoom-style royal ball) are cleverly integrated, and there’s a homemade energy to it all that’s awkwardly charming.
It’s Viardot’s score that’s the star. Cinderella’s instinctively lyrical lines (warmly sung by soprano Claire Wild, whose vivacious charm gives her heroine just enough piquancy) and the musical sugar-dust of the Fairy Godmother are conventional enough, but it’s in the ungainly, would-be-elegance of the Ugly Sisters and the gentle musical grotesque of Cinderella’s lovelorn father that set the piece apart.
Here are playful suggestions that any happily-ever-afters might not be quite so enduring.
Streaming on demand (northernoperagroup.co.uk)