LA CENERENTOLA, OSSIA LA BONTÀ IN TRIONFO
- Dramma giocoso in 2 acts
- Composer: Gioachino Rossini
- Libretto: Jacopo Ferretti
- First performed: Teatro Valle, Rome, 25 January 1817
SETTING: Salerno, Italy, late 18th – early 19th century
CHARACTERS: ANGELINA (contralto), La Cenerentola; DON RAMIRO (tenor), Prince of Salerno; DANDINI (bass), his valet; DON MAGNIFICO (bass), Baron of Montefiascone and Cenerentola’s stepfather; CLORINDA (soprano) and TISBE (mezzo-soprano), his daughters; ALIDORO (bass), philosopher and the Prince’s former tutor
ORIGINAL CAST: Geltrude Righetti as Angelina; Giacomo Guglielmi as Don Ramiro; Giuseppe de Begnis as Dandini; Andrea Verni as Don Magnifico; Caterina Rossi as Clorinda; Teresa Mariani as Tisbe; Zenobio Vitarelli as Alidoro
Today is Rossini’s 57th birthday. The ‘Swan of Pesaro’ is one of my favourite composers, and we will look at many of his works this year. (A dozen? Seventeen?)
La Cenerentola (Cinderella) is the finest of Rossini’s three popular comedies. Musically, it is the most sophisticated, and what it lacks in farce, it more than makes up for in heart. Although based on Perrault’s fairy tale, there are no fairy godmothers, stepmothers, pumpkins turning into carriages, mice transformed into coachmen, or even glass slippers in Rossini’s account of the mistreated stepdaughter who marries the prince. (For those, see Massenet.)
Instead, the opera mixes domestic drudgery with princes and philosophers, opera buffa grotesques with sentiment and pathos, in one of Rossini’s most touching works. The opera has a melancholy tint L’italiana in Algeri or The Barber of Seville lack, summed up in Angelina’s plaintive little song “Una volta c’era un rè”. We feel for her more than we do for the feistier Isabella or Rosina; because she’s the underdog, her final triumph is all the sweeter.
The opera was written quickly over Christmas 1816. Rossini had a commission, but the censors objected to the libretto he’d expected to set. Ferretti adapted Isouard’s opéra-féerie Cendrillon (1810), omitting all the fairy magic, either because special effects in the opera house wouldn’t be good enough, or because Rossini wasn’t a fan of the supernatural. (We find sorcery in Armida and a ghost in Semiramide.) He kept the twist that the prince and his valet swap places. The odious stepsisters see only the “Prince’s” glittering surface and try to capture the impostor, but the lowly servant Angelina finds a good heart in her “groom” – and rises higher.
According to one story, Ferretti wrote the libretto in a single night; 22 days is more probable. Rossini composed the music in just over three weeks, entrusting some of the numbers to his colleague Agolini.
The first performance left the audience cold; they jeered and hooted the opera. Rossini, though, was sanguine. He predicted La Cenerentola would be popular in Rome by the end of the season, throughout Italy by the end of the year, and in England and France within two years. He was almost right: it was performed 29 times in Rome, and in seven more Italian cities that year. But it didn’t reach London until 1820, or Paris until 1822. By then, it had been staged in Munich and Barcelona (1818), Lisbon (1819), and Vienna and Budapest (1820), and would soon be heard in Dresden and Madrid (1822) and New York (1825). (Stendhal, though, found it vulgar, while Blaze de Bury missed the romance and poetry of Isouard’s version.)
It rivalled The Barber of Seville in popularity. Today, it is one of Rossini’s most beloved operas, second only to the Barber, and the 21st most performed opera in the world.
After a Sinfonia reused from La gazzetta, the curtain rises on the dilapidated home of Don Magnifico, one of Rossini’s fussy, bad-tempered domestic tyrants; his vain daughters; and his put-upon stepdaughter Angelina (Cinderella), a good-hearted but slightly simple girl treated as a drudge and made to sleep in the fireplace. The poor thing can’t even sing or feed a beggar (really the Prince’s adviser Alidoro) without her horrible sisters bullying her. But then comes the news the Prince will hold a ball and marry the most beautiful woman in the kingdom… The Introduzione (No. 1: ‘No, no, no, non v’è’) is one of Rossini’s most brilliant, full of incident and movement. It deftly establishes the character of the three women – Angelina’s lower tones suggest her moral worth, while her sisters’ higher voices indicate their shallowness – and ends in a dazzling patter quartet.
In his entrance aria (No. 2: Cavatina: ‘Miei rampolli femminini’), borrowed from La pietra del paragone, Don Magnifico recounts a dream – and makes an ass of himself. Don Ramiro, disguised as his groom, enters; he and Angelina fall in love at first sight. Their duet (No. 3: ‘Un soave non so che’) is one of the quieter numbers in the act; it captures the bashfulness and awkwardness of young love, but its delicateness might make more effect on audio than on stage.
The entrance of the “Prince” (No. 4: Coro e cavatina: ‘Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile’) is the scene’s big production number. In a mock-gallant aria, this grotesque, foppish creature hums, buzzes and drones like a bee flitting from flower to flower, apparently infatuated by the charms of the two daughters – then, in an aside to the audience, steps out of his assumed role and reveals he’s hoping for a tragedy.
All set out for the palace – except Cenerentola. May she go? she begs her stepfather. Ridiculous, he replies; she’s only an ungrateful, smelly servant. But didn’t Don Magnifico have three daughters? She … died… The quintet (No. 5: ‘Signore, una parola!’) is a splendid mixture of heart and melody. A magical andante (‘Nel volto estatico’) leads to a hectic stretta; after the frozen ensemble, the effect is explosive.
Yes, Cinderella, you shall go to the ball! Alidoro tells Cenerentola. Rossini didn’t have enough time to write an aria before the premiere, so entrusted it to Agolini; he later replaced his ‘Vasto teatro è il mondo’ with ‘La del ciel nell’arcano profondo’ (No. 6) – not one of the maestro’s most inspired moments.
The scene changes to a room in the palace. The Prince appoints Don Magnifico inspector of the royal wine supply, providing a situation for another buffo bass scene (‘Conciossiacosaché trenta botti già gusto … Intendete reggitior?’).
The finale, though, is masterly. Prince and servant share notes on the girls (a mixture of insolence and selfishness) in one of Rossini’s witty, chuckling duets. “The rapidity and vivacity of this duet are inimitable; it’s a firework,” Stendhal exclaimed. This turns into a quartet: the “Prince” will marry one girl; the other can marry his “groom” – much to the ladies’ disgust. They’ll regret it.
Quintet: Alidoro announces a veiled beauty has arrived. Chorus and entrance of the prima donna; she removes her veil – can it be la Cenerentola? Sextet. Entry of the buffo bass. Septet as the act ends in one of Rossini’s marvellous quicksilver strette.
Act II continues in the palace, with the last and best of Don Magnifico’s buffo arias (No. 8: ‘Se qualunque delle figlie’). He desperately needs money: he’s spent Angelina’s inheritance to keep her stepsisters in dresses; hopefully being a royal in-law will provide plenty of opportunities for graft. The beautiful incognita gives the Prince one of her bracelets, and challenges him to find her. Don Ramiro drops his groom’s disguise, and vows to find the woman; his three-part aria (No. 9: ‘Sì, sì trovarla io giuro’) is an elegant display piece for the tenor. Dandini – now deposed – reveals his true identity to Don Magnifico, infuriating the old man. The duet for the two buffos (No. 10: ‘Un segreto d’importanza’) is great fun; Stendhal thinks it was influenced by the similar duet in Act II of Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto.
The scene returns to Don Magnifico’s home. Cenerentola sings her ditty happily, but her relatives return in a foul mood. A storm bursts (descending phrases anticipate the overture of Guillaume Tell); the Prince’s carriage overturns in front of the house; and he and Dandini enter seeking shelter. There, Don Ramiro recognizes Angelina by the bracelet she wears. Stupefaction. The sextet (No. 12: ‘Siete voi?’) is the best of the Act II ensembles in the three big comedies. The first section (‘Questo è un nodo avvilupato’) is a knotty, popping little maestoso, wittily playing with Italian consonants (rrrrrrrrrrr); it’s wonderful.
There follows an andantino as Angelina tries to calm her Prince down, infuriated by the family’s jealousy and scorn. He’s not for the sisters, he’s plebeian, he tells them, throwing their earlier snobbish insults back in their teeth. The ensemble ends in a stretta that leaves the listener delirious with joy. And so Angelina leaves to a better and happier life. The original version has an aria (No. 13: ‘Sventuarata! mi credea!’) by Agolini for Clorinda; this is often dropped.
The opera ends in the palace, and shows the triumph of Angelina as she forgives her cruel family. The finale (No. 14: Coro, scena e rondo finale: ‘Della fortuna instabile … Nacqui all’affanno, ad pianto’) is really a concert aria for the prima donna, using Almaviva’s Act II cabaletta from the Barber; some critics complain that it’s dramatically redundant. They’re right, of course – but ‘Non più mesta’ is delightful; and if Cecilia Bartoli is singing, one really can’t complain!
- Frederica von Stade, Francisco Araiza, Paolo Montarsalo, and Claudio Desderi, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra and Chorus; director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, 1981. DVD: Deutsche Grammophon.
- Cecilia Bartoli, Raúl Giménez, Enzo Dara, and Alessandro Corbelli, with Bruno Campanella conducting the Houston Grand Opera and Chorus, 1995. DVD: Decca.
- Cecilia Bartoli, William Matteuzzi, Enzo Dara, and Alessandro Corbelli, with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Communale di Bologna, 1993. CD: Decca.
- Henri Blaze de Bury, “Compositeurs contemporains – Rossini, sa Vie et ses Œuvres – II. – Séconde période italienne, d’Otello à Semiramide“, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1854
- Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
- Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824