In the darkness of a moonless night in the depths of an enchanted forest, a young girl and her princely lover are drawn to the fairy's oak tree: spirits prevent them from seeing each other until they can be restrained no longer. She steals his heart, but they must part, not to meet again until...

In the past, Act III of Massenet's Cendrillon has struck me as something of an aberration: a generous helping of high gothicana sitting uncomfortably between the Prince's ball and the ensuing shenanigans with the slipper. But last night's production at Royal Academy Opera has converted me: director Christopher Cowell and conductor Gareth Hancock turned this into the centrepiece of the whole opera. Act III contains some of the best music in Cendrillon: vividly phrased, melodic and with more variety of orchestration. This, together with some fine acting and low key staging, turned the act into a neatly drawn interlude between the glitter of the surrounding scenes.

What helped, of course, was that Act III features the three best singers in the production, who lifted the whole evening out of the ordinary. Tereza Gevorgyan may not have too much opera on her CV, but her performance here won't have done it any harm: she cruised through the perilous heights and swoops of the Fairy's Queen-of-the-Night like coloratura, hitting the high notes hard and thrillingly. In the title role, Cathy-Di Zhang summoned up depths of romantic expression and phrasing. Zhang throws a lot into varying her vocal timbre in line with what's happening in the music: it's very effective, although in Acts I and II, it rather came at the expense of facial expression and movement. By Act III, she was moving more freely.

Richard Dowling's Prince Charming was powerful and ardent. In these student productions, I generally worry about the strength of the male voices: Dowling has a generous voice, with power to burn as well as the ability to smooth everything out and stay in control. The role is almost too light for him, at least in a small theatre. With all three singing together and with the Royal Academy's orchestra hitting its stride after an uncharacteristically rocky start, this was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of opera.

Other roles were perfectly competent, if not quite at the same excitement level. As Lucette's put-upon father, Ed Ballard exuded a rather shambling charm and sang lyrically and appealingly - but here, a few more years and a few more decibels would help. The ugly step-trio of Rozanna Madylus, Celine Forrest and Sarah Shorter don't have nearly as many vocal opportunities as the four leads, but they took those opportunities well enough, and produced suitably enthusiastic and camped up acting to keep the audience grinning. The choreography for the chorus was complex, with a very large amount of movement around the stage; it was executed accurately and with verve. To a greater or lesser degree, everyone struggled with French accent and diction; Dowling was probably the clearest of the soloists, while choruses were often difficult to make out at all.

Over the years, I've generally found performances at Royal Academy Opera to be enjoyable evenings of opera, with good orchestral performances, straightforward staging and some interesting young singers, all in a pleasant, small performance space. This production of Cendrillon went rather beyond that, making me hear a lot more in the music and showing off three singers who all have a bit of star quality about them. I'll be watching to see where they show up as their careers continue, and this performance has made me more likely to want to see Cendrillon again.

RAO: Cendrillon, at RAM Sir Jack Lyons TheatreDavid Karlin reviews Royal Academy Opera's production of Massenet's Cendrillon.4