Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Cinderella, ballet in three acts(1940-1944)
Cinderella – Marianela Nuñez
The Prince – Vadim Muntagirov
Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House Orchestra/Koen Kessels, Frederick Ashton (choreography)
rec. live 5 & 12 April 2023, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK
Opus Arte OABD7316D Blu-ray [122]

Cinderella is a far more complex ballet than many balletomanes and musicologists might realize. In 2011 I reviewed an earlier production of this work, also conducted by Koen Kessels, on the Kultur label, that featured the Birmingham Royal Ballet. (Kessels is music director of both the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham RB.) In that review I provided some background information on how this work has been viewed in the past, how it has evolved from the realm of children’s music to that of a multifaceted and deeper form of expression. Yes, it’s a fairy tale with comedy and romance alright, but it has both darker and heroic elements which Prokofiev seems to highlight: there is always a sense of desperation and longing for freedom in Cinderella’s character and a final triumph over oppression to reach total liberation and happiness. Prokofiev’s music very obviously contains all these elements and in the end comes across much on the same artistic level as another of his ballet masterpieces, Romeo and Juliet. That conclusion might seem controversial to some, but I think this excellent production on Opus Arte helps make the case for that view.

Let me first deal with a few issues regarding this new release to clarify matters of layout and presentation. The label has decided to clump various numbers together so that instead of one number per track, you often get more. Prokofiev’s original score contained fifty dance numbers, but this Blu-ray disc has twenty-nine tracks, although three contain no music: No. 1, Opening, features the conductor entering the pit, and the last two tracks offer curtain calls and credits. Now, as for this Frederick Ashton version, like so many ballet productions, it contains cuts, most of them coming in the Third Act: the first five numbers (39-43) are excised—The Prince and the Cobblers, The Prince’s First Galop, Temptation, The Prince’s Second Galop and Oriental Dance, which add up to about eleven or twelve minutes’ worth of music.

But there is one curious addition: on track 7 in the First Act there is a number that I immediately recognized as the work of Prokofiev, but not in the realm of ballet or orchestral music. It is pretty far removed, both in terms of time and genre, in that it is an orchestration by some unknown person of No. 7, Pittoresco, from Prokofiev’s popular piano work Visions Fugitives (1915-17). It is placed between No. 11 in the score, The Second Appearance of the Fairy Godmother, and No. 12, Variation of the Spring Fairy. Actually its music fits in pretty well and doesn’t strike you as being alien to the rest of the score. I should mention too, that Opus Arte often gives different or less descriptive titles for the various numbers in the ballet. Thus, The Dancing Lesson is included in the track called Preparations for the Ball, and Duet of the Sisters with the Oranges becomes simply The Three Oranges.

The dancers in this production are excellent, especially Marianela Núñez as Cinderella. She has danced the role many times in Frederick Ashton’s choreography and thus knows it well. She is graceful and athletic and conveys with her facial expressions and body language all the emotions of the innocent, good-hearted and often forlorn Cinderella. Vadim Muntagirov partners her well as the Prince, and Fumi Kaneko makes a fine Fairy Godmother. Special mention must be given to Gary Avis and Luca Acri as the Stepsisters. Male dancers, by the way, typically dance these two roles in Ashton’s production, although that will change soon, I am informed. Avis actually is a standout, not least because of his brilliant comedic sense. There isn’t a weakness anywhere in the remaining cast members—all are quite convincing.

Koen Kessels conducts this score with an uncanny sense for insightful phrasing: in particular, his tempo choices and accenting are always right on target, and he manages to draw splendid playing from the ROH Orchestra. From the dark opening number called Overture here, to the glittering numbers at the Ball, Kessels captures the emotional thrust of Prokofiev’s music masterfully. Try the famous ominous Waltz that leads to Midnight. It is colorful and full of omen as the tension builds. And he handles the big Midnight climax brilliantly. Yet here the performance would have been even better because there is a cut in this version: in the buildup to the clock striking twelve the music is shortened by about a half minute or more, which might seem a modest excision, but it shortchanges the growing suspense and somewhat deflates the sense of Cinderella’s sheer desperation. By the way, this is Kessels’ third video recording of this ballet: besides the aforementioned Birmingham Royal Ballet production, he recorded one with the Paris Opera Ballet, also on Opus Arte. Needless to say, he knows this ballet backward and forward.

The sets are imaginative and brilliantly conceived: in the last two numbers I was particularly impressed by the long winding stairway that seems to rise to some special fairy tale haven. The lighting is outstanding with many special effects that are never overdone or distasteful. The misty haze below the partially hidden huge clock during the Overture establishes the fairy tale atmosphere of mystery and magic, and later when the Fairy Godmother enters (track 7) the glittering speckles of light above impart an enchanting charm to the darkened setting. The appearance of flowers (track 8) and later of fruit (track 9) projected above the action in the changing of seasons creates another brilliant visual effect. The costuming is also splendid. There is no attempt to modernize the setting as has been done in other productions of this ballet. The bonus features offer some interesting commentary and interviews with cast and staff members, as well as behind-the-scenes glimpses of the rehearsals and preparations.

Incidentally, this production was staged to mark the 75th anniversary of Frederick Ashton’s 1948 premiere of what is said to be Britain’s first full-length ballet production. The camera work and picture clarity are first class and the sound reproduction is very well balanced with orchestral detail emerging with the utmost clarity.

As for the competition on video, Gergiev on Mariinsky has a good recording but with several questionable production decisions: Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography is imaginative and the story is given a 1930’s setting (in Russia, supposedly), but, alas, the final number of the ballet, Amoroso, which is the crucial culmination of the love between Cinderella and the Prince, is cut. There are other cuts as well and while I think the updated take on the ballet mostly works, many others won’t. There is also a highly praised version from the Lyon National Opera Ballet on Arthaus Musik led by Yakov Kreisberg: frankly, despite its acclaim, this is a very weird production wherein dancers wear doll-like masks, and the music stops in places after which pre-recorded voices are heard making mostly unintelligible sounds, sometimes involving babies or children laughing or crying or moaning or whatever. In the end it often grates on your nerves. In addition, there are many cuts. Opus Arte has another Cinderella on video from the Dutch National Ballet that is excellent. Yet, though there are few cuts, the reordering of numbers is extensive and may seem a bit confusing. Further, the Fairy Godmother is replaced by the four Fates. Thus many will dislike the substantial liberties taken in this version, even though everything is very well done.

Regarding the aforementioned Birmingham Royal Ballet version on Kultur, it has an excellent cast led by Elisha Willis, but also features the hilarious and brilliant Carol-Anne Millar as Dumpy. Like the new ROH effort it has a fair number of cuts. Still, it’s an outstanding version. So the choice probably comes down to this new ROH production and the Birmingham Royal Ballet effort on Kultur. Either one will do but I slightly favor the ROH largely because of its better sets and lighting.

Robert Cummings

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Other Cast and Production Staff

Cinderella’s Step-sisters – Gary Avis, Luca Acri
Cinderella’s Father – Bennet Gartside
The Fairy Godmother – Fumi Kaneko
The Fairy Spring – Anna Rose O’Sullivan
The Fairy Summer – Melissa Hamilton
The Fairy Autumn – Yuhui Choe
The Fairy Winter – Mayara Magri
The Jester – Taisuke Nakao

Tom Pye – set designer
Alexandra Byrne – costume designer
David Finn – lighting designer
Video Designer – Finn Ross

Bonus material

An introduction to Cinderella
Becoming Cinderella
Cast gallery

Technical Details

Picture format: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic
Sound format: LPCM 2.0 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles (in bonus features): English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean