Some of the most significant opera productions in area schools serve to educate the public as well as the students involved. Massenet's Cinderella opera, ''Cendrillon," was one of his most popular a century ago, but then, like Sleeping Beauty, it slumbered for decades until it was revived as a vehicle for Frederica von Stade back in the late '70s. Since then opera workshops have taken it up, but it is still not a piece many opera lovers have encountered in the theater.
The opera is a real bonbon, awfully sweet, and concocted from strange and diverse ingredients ranging from French Baroque music to Wagner's ''Parsifal." But Massenet was a master maker of confections, and his mixture of humor and sentiment is artful. The pastry is stretched awfully thin over the piece's substantial four-act length, but Massenet knew his own limits and in this work did everything he knew how to do to perfection, adding many a heartfelt human touch.
Caleb Wertenbaker designed a spectacular Art Deco production, with fabulously fanciful coordinated costumes by Andrew J. Poleszak. Marc Astafan's stage direction was one of his best efforts, charming, touching, and amusing, although not free of cheap shots: Does every hairdresser in an opera have to be flamboyantly gay? He was defeated only by the long dream sequence in the Fairy Godmother's Dwelling, which goes on even longer than the Norn scene in Wagner's ''Twilight of the Gods." The poor Fairy Godmother, perilously perched on a pedestal 10 feet above the stage, waved her arms endlessly, like an Indian goddess, while Cinderella and Prince Charming pleaded with her from below.
The orchestra played very beautifully for conductor John Greer, who led with affection and a secure sense of style. Most of Saturday night's cast was very capable and sang in presentable French. Stephanie Horowitz and Sarah Austin had fun as the wicked stepsisters, twirling their pearls, eating chocolates, and checking their teeth for lipstick stains. Sean Damm revealed a pleasant baritone as their put-upon stepfather, and displayed unexpected reserves of power when he finally lost his temper. Prince Charming was pallid, but Nathan Hylan sang solidly as the King.
The outstanding performances came from Maria Alu as the Fairy Godmother and Erica Brookhyser as Cinderella. Alu lacks a trill, but her tracery of the intricate coloratura was accurate, full-toned, and attractive at all dynamic levels. Brookhyser, singing her second consecutive performance (her alternate was sick on opening night), sounded a little tired in some of the loud, high climaxes, but she boasts a full, secure, and attractive mezzo, flexible and at ease with high, soft notes. She sings with exquisite musicality. She also offers a special, radiant stage presence. Dressed for the ball, she looked more like Katharine Hepburn than Cate Blanchett did in ''The Aviator," which made you wonder why the opera needed to last as long as it did: At any moment this take-charge creature could have reared up in all her glory and sent all the others packing.