Cinderella lost one of her shoes at the ball, right? And the young prince, supposed to marry her, found her through the matching shoe on Cinderella’s foot. That’s the story as it has been told to us. So why did the librettist Jacopo Ferretti of this opera drop the shoe and let the prince find and recognize Cinderella through her bracelet? Mystery. Perhaps because this opera was written in a matter of days. It took Ferretti 22 days to complete the libretto while the composer, Gioacino Rossini, composed the music in 24 days. It all happened in 1816.
Not that the shoe issue would matter. The plot of this opera is of secondary importance. It is the music that matters here. “La Cenerentola” is a feast for my senses and gives me many moments of joy whenever I listen to it. Ferretti’s plot is a little more complex than Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, but let’s focus exclusively on the music of this “opera buffa*”. This opera is extraordinary for a simple reason. Even if you don’t see the singers on stage, even if you don’t understand Italian – Rossini’s message is clear: Let’s have a good laugh! And he gives us ample reasons to laugh: a plot with many confusions, witty dialogues and music with a wink. Is Rossini making fun of the actors/singers, the audience, himself or all three together?
If you care to explore this opera outside an opera building I suggest you listen to a recording from beginning to end and then return to certain arias and duets that I believe illustrate my point. I have a beautiful recording with the orchestra and the chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna under Riccardo Chailly and Cecilia Bartoli as Cinderella.
Halfway between tragedy and comedy
Here are some of my favourite parts: Don Magnifico’s aria at the beginning of Act 1 is a beautiful caricature of the hopes a father puts in future rich sons-in-law. The first encounter between the disguised Prince Ramiro and Cinderella is very charming too, the music illustrates the delicious tension that quickly builds up between the two, Cinderella’s sad longing for a loving husband, Prince Ramiro’s enchantment culminating in their tragic-comic duet. Halfway between tragedy and comedy is also a duet (or is it a duel) between Don Magnifico and Cinderella, the father claiming his third daughter (Cinderella) has died and Cinderella claiming the contrary. Should you laugh or cry? Both, if you can.
A delightful case of dialogue comedy is the moment in Act II when Cinderella indirectly avows to Prince Ramiro that she loves him while his valet Gandini, also in love with the girl, comments Ramiro’s bliss with the sarcastic words: ” Now, this goes well!” Prince Ramiro follows up with a really nice aria: “If I only could find her, I swear…” Such a testimony of true love – truly Italian! I also like the duet of Don Magnifico and Gandini when Gandini confesses that he and the prince have switched their roles and that the prince has deceived Don Magnifico right from the start. Hilarious!
The Napoleon of musical drama?
Rossini and his operas were discussed very, very controversially and they still are today. The French writer Stendhal, an unconditional admirer of the Italian composer, called him in his book “Vie de Rossini” published in 1824 a revolutionary and compared him to Napoleon. Hm. Napoleon lost in Waterloo and let to the restoration of autocratic regimes. Was Rossini then a revolutionary who failed? I don’t think this is what Stendhal had in mind.
The Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini explained in 1836 that Rossini, with the tremendous success of his operas, did not re-invent the Italian school of opera writing, but consolidated it and brought it to its final moment of glory. He spoke of “music without shadows, secrets, twilight”. And this leads me to Mozart. Mozart had a keen feeling on how to please the masses. Is it wrong to please the masses? Rossini did not necessarily set out to please the masses, but the music he wrote did please the masses. He was extraordinary successful and almost everybody wanted to imitate him.
The cake and the cherry
One may decry the lack of originality, of intellectual innovation in Rossini’s music, but isn’t the perceived excess of originality and intellectual innovation precisely the reproach leveled at contemporary classical composers? Rossini or Riemann? Traditional with pleasing melodies or modern and abstract? You cannot have the cake and the cherry, can you? Well, today you can, but stop whining when you get both.
The popularity of Rossini’s operas can be partially explained by the paramount part he gave the singers. The scores gave them all the space they needed to demonstrate their talent and virtuosity – through Rossini they became stars like “der Jonas” or “la Caballé” in our times. And people flocked to the opera to hear their stars.
Rossini’s opera music indulges in ornamental parts for the singers, but lacks the elaborated and dense orchestral parts of Mozart’s Italian operas. Rossini once said that Italy’s composers haven been beaten by Mozart on their own field (of excellence). A bust of Mozart stood in Rossini’s bedroom – a sign of his deep reverence. “La Cenerentola” is as close as Rossini ever got to Mozart.
© Charles Thibo