What is the difference between real life and dreams, especially for an insecure young person?
That poignant question is at the core of Massenet’s 1899 opera “Cendrillon,” which opened on Friday at the Metropolitan Opera in English translation as “Cinderella” — a holiday offering trimmed to 95 minutes and aimed at families.
In Laurent Pelly’s boldly stylized production of this adaptation of Perrault’s fairy tale, when we meet Cinderella (the affecting mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard) she is restless and forlorn. Wearing a raggedy dress and frumpy sweater, she is treated like a lowly servant by her imperious stepmother and snide stepsisters.
Left alone to ponder her fate, Cinderella sings a wistful aria, music that suggests an old folk song, and allows herself a moment to dream. There must be someone who can rescue her; somewhere a loving soul mate is waiting. Leonard, who has excelled at the Met as Debussy’s Mélisande and in other major roles, does it meltingly.
Cinderella’s rescuer, unfortunately, is not her father, Pandolfe (the bass-baritone Laurent Naouri). As we learn, Pandolfe was a widower living contentedly in the country with his beloved daughter when he foolishly married the energetic Madame de la Haltière, who already had two children. Soon she revealed herself as overbearing and ambitious. Pandolfe proves incapable of standing up to her and protecting his daughter.
And who could stand up to this production’s Haltière, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe? With her powerful, deep-set voice and take-charge presence, Blythe is hilariously withering.
In the bustling opening scene, she orders her fearful servants and obsequious milliners to create fancy gowns for her daughters to attend a royal ball; the king of the realm (the robust bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, in his Met debut) has decreed that the recalcitrant prince will finally choose a wife. Massenet’s music teems with rustling flourishes and pomp, vibrantly led by the conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Left behind, poor Cinderella curls up on the floor and falls asleep.
But her longing to attend the ball has been heard by the Fairy Godmother (the bright-voiced coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt), who arrives with spirit-helpers — a dancing chorus of women dressed eerily like Cinderella, who wakes up draped in silver-cream and is taken to the palace in a horse-drawn carriage. Is it all a dream?
What comes through in Massenet’s telling, elegantly rendered in this performance, is that Prince Charming (Emily D’Angelo, a rich-voiced mezzo) is also a dreamer. We first see him looking miserable in his red pajamas, dreading the ball and his responsibilities.
During a faux-courtly, tartly comic choral scene, a parade of eligible women in outrageous outfits — Pelly also designed the costumes — appear before the sullen prince, who can barely respond. Then, in a vision, Cinderella arrives. As their silent glances turn into lyrical exchanges, beautifully sung by Leonard and D’Angelo, these young people truly seem like the answers to one another’s dreams.
And so the familiar tale unfolds: the glass slipper that falls off Cinderella’s foot as she rushes away at midnight; the prince’s relentless search to find its owner; and the joyous outcome when their dream of love becomes reality.
The production is a delight, with lines from Perrault’s fairy tale written all over Barbara de Limburg’s set and Laura Scozzi’s choreography a deft blend of sleek moves and silliness. The cast (including Jacqueline Echols and Maya Lahyani as the stepsisters) could hardly be better. It is an apt companion for the Met’s other family fare for the holidays: Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” which opened last week.
Through Jan. 3 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.