Joel Ivany transforms a prosaic venue into an Enlightenment Salon for this 19th-century Version of Cinderella.
The beloved fairy tale Cinderella is a story with myriad variations tracing back to before the birth of Christ. Any narrative that’s hung on that long must contain important emotional truths while being adaptable enough to switch up cultural and historical specifics so that it speaks to different sensibilities. Debates still rage over which version of Cinderella is the most beneficial for children with no consensus in sight. The feminists don’t like the prince. Rossini didn’t like the glass slipper, replacing it with a bracelet. I share psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s disapproval of Perrault’s sugary additions of the fairy godmother and her magic transformations of the pumpkin, the mice, and the lizards, preferring the Grimm version in which Cinderella progresses through stages of internal maturation. But post-Disney, the pumpkin is here to stay, even Prokofiev’s cynical spin, as adapted by the National Ballet of Canada, (and currently on stage) keeps it. Cinderella’s transformation from a girl in rags by the hearth, to an elegant young lady making an entrance in style is one of the more gratifying elements of the story, whichever version you prefer.
What better way to dramatize the story of a girl of humble circumstances being transformed into a glittering princess than to present it in a space that has been transformed in the same fashion? This is director Joel Ivany’s approach for the Glenn Gould School fall opera, Cendrillon, to be performed November 18 and 19th at the Mazzoleni Concert Hall in the Royal Conservatory. It’s not inaccurate to say that this venerable, modest and very cozy venue for just over 200 people is the often-overlooked stepsibling of the glamorous Koerner Hall to which it is attached. But come Friday night, as if by magic, it will be transformed into a lavishly appointed 19th Century style French salon, complete with draperies, settees, footstools, floral arrangements, a harp and a pianoforte.
But it’s not magic, it’s the innovative ingenuity of Joel Ivany, the groundbreaking founder and artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, who updates, adapts and transfers operas from conventional theatre spaces to theme-related sites, presenting La bohème in a Bar, and A Little Too Cozy, (from Così fan tutte) in a TV Studio. Ivany usually takes a canonical work and moves it outside the theatre. This time, restricted by the spatial limitations at the Conservatory building, he transported the location itself through time and space to the period in which the opera was composed. As this version of Cendrillon is a Salon opera, composed by the legendary opera singer, pianist, composer and man-killer, Pauline Viardot, (1821 to 1910) to be performed in her own home in 1904, Ivany wanted to create the ambience that the original audiences would have enjoyed in the intimacy of a private and elegant mansion. Taking it a step further, he has not only provided the surroundings of a Salon, but also transformed the cast into the guests who would have frequented Viardot’s Salon. Each performer, in addition to singing their part, has an alter ego who mixes and mingles in the Salon (aka the lobby) before the play, where the audience will be able to meet and interact with them. Given that Ivany has named the venue Hôtel de Rambouillet, a historical gathering place for such intellectuals as La Rochefoucauld and wits such as Madame de Sévigné, the performers should be very good company.
I’ve been in Mazzoleni Hall many times, and I have loitered in the lobby and around the adjacent registration area, finding it pleasant but fairly nondescript. But when I walked through the lobby and the antechamber to meet Ivany in the hall itself, I immediately felt as if I had entered an enchanted space, even though the transformation of it was not yet complete. Small touches had already begun to have their effect. A red upright piano is positioned at an angle beside a round settee, and curtains have been drawn back to frame a space that is usually used for storage, but now reveals an intimate nook with a pianoforte, a settee, and glowing light. In the concert hall itself, the stage, which is usually dominated by two gigantic and scratched up concert grand pianos, has a charming set of a drawing-room with comfortable arm chairs and a day bed. I’ve read Cinderella, attended the National Ballet of Canada’s production, seen the Met HD performance of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and grew up on Disney’s cartoon. But until now, I never felt as if I had stepped into the story myself.
Directing a fairy-tale opera at this point is particularly apt for Ivany, who has a three-year-old son. In addition to reflecting on his son’s bedtime stories, Ivany’s also been thinking about his musical development.
“My family was Salvation Army,” he explained to me. “So I was given an instrument at a very young age. I played the tuba. Then there was theory, sight singing, and my mom taught me piano. I went through the RCM until Grade 8.” As parents who have a legacy to hand down often do, Ivany now recognizes how much was involved in his own musical education. “ Now I’m thinking if we don’t invest in our children’s musical development, how are they going to acquire the skills I was given?”
Ivany sees the Glenn Gould School operas as important contributions to developing musical talent. “These young performers deserve to be showcased,” he told me. “They are outstanding developing talent, and from productions like these, they go on to perform with mainstream Opera companies.”
The cultivation of talent, the refinement of musical taste and related questions are the kinds of subjects that were once discussed at the great Salons of the past. The conversation was as much of an art as music. To get a taste of those bygone social institutions, and to experience an opera created expressly for that venue, hone your aphorisms and come to the Hôtel de Rambouillet on November 18 or 19.
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