NEW YORK, N.Y. – It was opening night for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon” and Stephane Blythe — all but absent from the house for three years — was nervous as she sat backstage waiting to go on as the wicked stepmother.
“I could feel the butterflies coming up, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, there’s no going back now,'” the American mezzo-soprano recalled in an interview. “And all of a sudden I thought, ‘You know, my character, Madame de la Haltiere, is not nervous right now. She’s angry, she’s frustrated, she’s excited. So why don’t you just let her take over? So I did. I just sat back, and I just became her before I came onstage and everything was calm, everything was fine.”
Better than fine, according to the critics. James Jorden on the Observer.com website praised Blythe’s “scene-stealing turn,” while Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times wrote: “Her voice enormous and rich, Ms. Blythe wields it with palpable joy and considerable wit. Through sheer force of personality, her Haltiere takes on almost shocking humanity without stinting cartoonish glee.”
“Cendrillon,” a French version of the Cinderella story, stars two other mezzos — Joyce DiDonato in the title role and Alice Coote as Prince Charming — and will be broadcast to movie theatres worldwide Saturday as the last of the Met’s Live in HD presentations this season.
Blythe has more than 200 Met performances to her credit since her 1995 debut, often in supporting roles made memorable by her all-enveloping voice and incisive delivery. She seems equally at home in comedy (Dame Quickly in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress) or more sombre fare (Fricka in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Cornelia in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”).
But “Cendrillon” had never been staged at the Met before, and Blythe said that when she signed on for the project, the role of the haughty, overbearing Madame de la Haltiere “was not in my sights at all.”
She said she found it “outrageously difficult to learn in terms of text … a lot of words jammed into a very little space.” But vocally it’s “a great part for me because it allows me to stretch more in the bottom range of my voice, which is nice because as I get older my voice is filling out more in the bottom … I always wanted to be a contralto, so I’m happy that I can sing a C below middle C.”
Blythe had not performed in a full opera at the Met since 2015, though she took part in the company’s 50th-anniversary gala in 2017. She’s been busy elsewhere, often with unconventional projects: Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” a tour singing Kate Smith standards and a cabaret act with a drag queen that will be featured in Opera Philadelphia’s fall festival.
And she’ll be back at the Met next season, taking on the Marquise de Berkenfeld in Donizetti’s comic romp “La Fille du Regiment” and reprising her roles in each of Puccini’s three one-act operas performed together as “Il Trittico.”
ALL IN THE TIMING
Blythe credits director Laurent Pelly and conductor Bertrand de Billy with helping the cast fine-tune the comedy that makes “Cendrillon” such a treat.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done an opera where the music and the movement and the intention and the set all work in concert so well together,” she said. “What makes comedy is beats. When a joke particularly lands, it’s all about rhythm, it’s about space, it’s allowing something to hit.
“Everything has to happen at exactly the right moment or it’s not funny,” she said. “And what’s beautiful is that because we’ve done the work, we can enjoy it. And the audience can feel that.”
WHERE TO SEE IT
“Cendrillon,” which also stars soprano Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother and baritone Laurent Naouri as the heroine’s father, will be shown Saturday. A list of theatres can be found at the Met’s website: http://www.metopera.org/hd. In the US, it will be repeated on May 2.