About the Opera, Cinderella

Gioachino Rossini composed La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) during an especially busy period that followed the premiere  of Il barbiere di Siviglia in February 1816. He was still under contract at the Neapolitan Royal Theaters and had to return for the production of two further works, La gazzetta (September 26, 1816) and Otello (December 4, 1816). The Naples theater impresario, Domenico Barbaja, had the good sense to give Rossini some latitude in their agreement as the composer had (unwisely) made another commitment in Rome, this time to the rival Teatro Valle’s impresario, Pietro Cartoni, to start the Carnival season on December 26. As Otello had just opened earlier that month, Rossini was in a tight spot, since no libretto had been written, nor had a subject even been chosen. 

At first, he and librettist Jacopo Ferretti turned to Ninette à la cour, a French comedy inspired by the licentious behavior of infamous womanizer François I (who also would become the model for Giuseppe Verdi’s Duke of Mantua). And much like Rigoletto would later do, Ninette became a touchy issue with the especially prickly Roman censors. As the deadline was quickly approaching, Cartoni, Rossini and Ferretti sat up late one night brainstorming over hot toddies. After 20 various suggestions, Ferretti proposed Cenerentola, which seemed to pique Rossini’s interest. Th e librettist traded his cocktail for some black coffee and worked up a scenario that very night. 

Of course, all parties knew of a Cenerentola that had premiered in Milan just two and a half years before – Rossini had two operas produced at the Teatro alla Scala during the same season and happened to be there in April 1814 when the work had its premiere. The opera in question was Agatinaovvero la virtù premiata by Stefano Pavesi, itself a copy of Nicolò Isouard’s Cendrillon, which had recently opened in Paris. All of this was commonplace, as copyright had yet to become a real legal issue – one only had to live with verbal charges of plagiarism and general discontent among the parties involved. The enterprising Rossini would raid and eclipse Pavesi a total of five times during his career, in each instance producing a vastly superior work. 

Time was of the essence. Cartoni managed to postpone the opening to the end of January, but the production was still a formidable undertaking, with both composition and rehearsals to take place in just one month. Ferretti may have had an extant libretto from which to pillage, but Rossini also had a few shortcuts at his disposal. Another composer, Luca Agolini, was brought in to compose the recitatives and to contribute two arias, Clorinda’s “Sventurata! mi credea” and Alidoro’s “Vasto teatro è il mondo” (revised by Rossini in 1821 to become “ del ciel nell’arcano profondo”), and the chorus “Ah! della bella incognita.” Rossini also ravaged his other operas for material – from the failed La gazzetta (which likely wouldn’t be seen again) he borrowed the overture, and from Barbiere he assimilated the notoriously difficult (and often cut) Almaviva cabaletta from the end of Act ii, “Ah, il più lieto,” which he had composed for the celebrated tenor Manuel García. Transposed and embellished further, the aria became the title character’s brilliant rondò finale “Non più mesta.” 

The cast was quite tense on opening night – rehearsals had been fast and furious – and much like Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola was greeted with hostility. The composer was hardly concerned, predicting that within a year, the new opera would be popular around the world. He wasn’t far off the mark, and in posterity La Cenerentola would become his second most popular opera after Barbiere, surpassing Guillaume Tell’s huge following in 19th-century France. Perhaps still smarting from the initial failure of these two comic works, Rossini’s interest in opera buffa began to wane – Adina (1818) is a mere one-act farce and Le Comte Ory (1829) is modeled aft er the French style. Even in Cenerentola we already begin to see seeds of change toward something a little more somber – the sentimental and serious young lovers in pursuit of one another, the doleful timbre of Angelina’s recurrent canzone by the fire, “Una volta c’era un re,” and the stoically wise and vaguely magical maneuverings of the sage filosofo Alidoro. All reach beyond the transparent playfulness of buffa style. 


But where is the classic tale by Charles Perrault? What happened to the glass slipper, fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage and helpful rodents? As it turns out, by the first decade of  the 19th century Perrault’s story had already undergone significant revision. Influenced by the Enlightenment, Pavesi and Isouard’s operas replaced the ethereal godmother with Alidor/Alidoro, the Prospero-like philosopher who guides the two lovers’ union and transformation by way of prudent advice. It’s true the magic elements exist only by the slightest implication in La Cenerentola, something that already had started to fade in Isouard and Pavesi’s works – their only supernatural effect is a subtle red rose that renders Cendrillon/Agatina unrecognizable. By dispensing with that component completely, Ferretti and Rossini introduce the possibility that Angelina could be recognized by her family at the prince’s ball, adding a touch of veracity, tension, and later, abuse. 

Though Angelina’s insistent song about a bygone king who finds his modest bride suggests a  “tale-within-a-tale,” La Cenerentola becomes something more substantial, a comedy of manners with some real gravity – a commedia sentimentale rather than a simple conte de fées. Still, some humorous traditions had to be preserved. Hardly evil (though at times not very pleasant) Don Magnifico is a benign replacement as the bumbling and oft -drunken stepparent, coming straight out of the Italian commedia dell’arte. His control and squander of money (and Angelina’s fortune) draws an interesting parallel to Dr. Bartolo in Barbiere, though his task is much easier. He is able to snatch Cenerentola’s dowry by way of their sketchy familial relationship, rather than the more time-consuming (and in Bartolo’s case, fruitless) task of courtship. Dandini shares his more devious traits with the stock player Brighella, and his masquerade as well as the doubly disguised Angelina and Ramiro at the prince’s ball are further commedia tricks. Patter song, a requisite of the opera buffa genre, is obliged by not one, but two arias given to Don Magnifi co as well as a marvelous duet, where he faces off with his buffo adversary, Dandini. In spite of the rapid fire of Magnifico’s notes, the even dramatic pacing is another aspect of the work as being both real and human – there is no fretful stroke of midnight to bring the party to a sudden end. Angelina demands the prince play according to her terms – she coquettishly initiates the contest of the search to determine if his love is genuine. 

Finally, there is the absence of the glass slipper, which some say might not have been glass at all. According to those sources, the French word for glass, verre, was mistranslated from its near-homonymvair, or “squirrel fur.” This theory has since been debunked by the latter’s utter lack of elegance (remember Perrault’s story was originally set during the era of Louis xiv), not to mention the fur’s elasticity, which could more easily adapt to a variety of foot sizes. The inflexible, more petite glass slipper reinforces a stereotype of the feminine ideal – the smaller the foot, the more beautiful (and in some cultures, the more submissive) the woman. Th e reason they decided to omit it? Roman decency forbade the exposure of a woman’s bare ankle in the drama’s penultimate scene. Ferretti and Rossini had to settle for two matching bracelets.  

IsouardPavesi and Rossini’s operas turn the story away from fantasy and emphasize its virtue – virtù, which is, in fact, spotlighted in the title of the second work and bontà (goodness)  in the third. By the mid-century, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) had become enormously popular throughout Europe and was tremendously influential on all the various art disciplines. Pamela is a servant in the house of B—, and it becomes quite clear early in the novel she is a person of exceptional character. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of her mistress’ son, who retains Pamela’s services after his mother’s death. Mr. B—’s inappropriate behavior creates discord in the household and puts the title character’s reputation to the test. After a series of awkward episodes, Pamela earns her master’s respect by way of her letters (which he secretly reads) and her steadfast unwillingness to submit to his amorous advances. B— acquires a greater respect for his maid, and crossing all social barriers, the couple eventually marries. As the foundations of the modern novel began to congeal, Richardson’s fiction ignited a great literary controversy, with “Pamelists” and “Antipamelists” in heated debate. As a retort, John Fielding wrote two parodies, Shamela (1741) which detailed the debauched activities of its title character, and Joseph Andrews (1742), spinning Pamela’s trials and surname into a male sibling version of her moral integrity trapped within a burlesque and chaotic world. In part to settle this dispute, Richardson wrote a more tragic sequel, Clarissa (1748), which involves the detention, rape and death of its honorable heroine. 

Among Pamela’s many stage and operatic adaptations is a libretto by buffa master (the “Italian Molière”) Carlo Goldoni, set to music by Niccolò Piccinni in 1760. First appearing as a play entitled Pamela, ossia la virtù premiata (an appellation later borrowed in part by Pavesi, who would become Piccinni’s student), the opera La buona figliuola tells a similar story of a low-bred, orphaned girl, Cecchina. Her employer’s brother, the Marchese della Conchiglia, is fixated on the young maid, in spite of his sister’s misgivings. For her part, the marchesa cannot marry her boyfriend, the Cavaliere Armidoro, if her brother marries outside his class. Though Pamela (and Cenerentola) marry above their station, things turn out in a tidy fashion for Cecchina – she is identified as a long-lost descendant of a German baron (by a birthmark on her arm, yet another commedia dell’arte trick), and everyone lives happily ever after. Piccinni’s opera was immensely successful and was mounted all over Europe, becoming the most popular opera buff a of the century. La Cenerentola is thought to be a deliberate homage to the earlier work’s original title, La Cecchina. 

To complete the circle, a similar tale, Griselda, was treated by both Giovanni Boccaccio and Perrault, and set as an opera by Piccinni in 1793. This story also involves the cruel testing of a young maiden, this time the patience and dedication of a shepherdess, by her princely husband. The original tale was adapted by Apostolo Zeno into a libretto, which was set by a number of composers, including Antonio Vivaldi (1735), in a version revised by a young Goldoni. It precedes Richardson’s novel and is believed to have provided some inspiration for the enlightened, reasonable, virginal and virtuous woman that so captivated the 18th-century imagination. 


It appears every culture and nearly every continent has its own Cinderella story, sources as diverse as tales from the Chinese T’sang dynasty, Native American legend, Zimbabwe folklore and Russian superstition. Each is identifiable by the following criteria: a family member in a miserable state, the intervention of a helper (usually supernatural), a glimpse at a better life, recognition by some object and improvement of the condition (usually a perfect union, such as marriage). The earliest Italian version of Cinderella appears to be Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1634–1636), which predates Perrault’s story and is strikingly similar – the French author may have had this collection in his mind when he crafted his Cendrillon. A touch more graphic, Basile’s La gatta Cenerentola incorporated a murder into his tale – Zezolla/Cenerentola is encouraged by her loving governess to break her evil stepmother’s neck with the lid of a chest after drawing her into a trap. The rest of the story follows the expected pattern. With Zezolla’s assistance the governess becomes the new stepmother and brings to the household her previously undisclosed six daughters, who all mistreat their new stepsister. The conduit of magic is a fig tree her father brings back from Sardinia. By housing the Dove of the Fairies, the tree produces the necessary transport and clothing for a series of royal feasts. After meeting the king for a third time, Zezolla loses her slipper, and when the king summons all the women of the realm before him, the shoe magically finds its owner.  

Charles Perrault came along later in the century, publishing his Les histoires ou Contes du temps passé in 1697. It is generally assumed that these are drawn from popular tradition, though Cendrillon and the other contes in the collection can be traced to earlier works by Basile and Boccaccio and to the Volsunga Saga and classical mythology. Every story ends with a moralité, a moral message. Cendrillon has two: (1) always value graciousness over beauty (2) there is advantage to good breeding and common sense (and always respect your godparents). In addition to being didactic, the tales served as propaganda for the national language – the vulgar oral tradition of the illiterate was elevated to the more aristocratic written French of the nobility. A curious aspect of Perrault’s tales is that they were not necessarily conceived for children, but as divertissements, after dinner amusements for members of Louis XIV’s royal entourage. 

Closer to Rossini’s day, folk tales would have a new revival. Brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm assembled and published their Household and Nursery Tales at the beginning of the 19th century. Again, it seems as though Grimms’ Tales were not necessarily meant for a younger audience – in the brothers’ original edition, nearly every story includes either suggestions of sex and incest or overtly grotesque violence. The Grimms were scientific rather than fictitious in their mission to compile German folklore, a spoken ritual once spun out at the spinning wheel, in the fields or around the fire. At first Wilhelm and Jakob demanded literary fidelity, but perhaps envisioning a greater audience for the Tales, Wilhelm became more prudish in subsequent editions while retaining much of the brutality. For instance, the stepsisters of Aschenputtel (Cinderella) cut off their toes and shave their heels in order to cram their feet into the tiny slipper. Their deception is exposed on the way to the palace when the prince notices their feet bleeding. Later, after the royal wedding feast has taken place, two doves peck out their eyes, quite literally emphasizing the brothers’ recurrent theme of “an eye for an eye.” In other Grimm fantasies, the protagonist doesn’t always fare so well, but in the end, compassion is usually rewarded while villainy is punished with a vengeance. The stories were intended to be cautionary and the lessons are typically harsh. It’s hardly a surprise the Tales found their way to the nursery, not as much for entertainment as for preparing 19th-century youngsters  for the hard peasant life that awaited them. There is also the added benefit (if sometimes a vain one) that the diligently persistent moral messages may curb poor behavior – terrible things happen to rotten children.  

The Grimms’ version of Cinderella replaces the fairy godmother with a magic hazel tree, which houses helpful (and later punitive) turtledoves. The ball occurs over a three-day period, and though Aschenputtel gets to dance with the prince each night, she dashes off before he can learn her name. On the third night, he coats the steps with a sticky substance, hoping to ensnare her as she flees. He only gets the slipper, which in this case is gold. The sisters’ self-mutilation happens to each in turn as the prince makes his rounds in search of the mystery woman, who turns out to be Aschenputtel. 

Although it might be possible to connect the Italians Pavesi and Rossini and the Maltese-born, Italian-trained Isouard to Basile’s Pentamerone (Isouard suggests an Italian setting by using such names as Monte Fiascone and Dandini), Perrault’s Contes are generally assumed to be the antecedent of these staged works. The first known operatic treatment was a one-act vaudeville by Jean-Louis Laruette (Paris, 1759). Later, both Jules Massenet (Cendrillon; 1899) and Sergei Prokofiev (his Zolushka ballet; 1945) went in that direction, as did Pauline García Viardot, daughter of Manuel and sister to Maria Malibran. Both daughters would become great interpreters of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but when it came time to produce her own work on the same subject (Cendrillon; 1904), Viardot settled for a hybrid of the two traditions since she felt the need to incorporate the fairy godmother and glass slipper into a setting that more closely follows that of Rossini. The ballroom scene intrigued waltz king and Die Fledermaus composer Johann Strauss, who had begun a Cinderella ballet (Aschenbrödel) but died before it was completed. 

On the Grimm side, German opera would be most affected – a subgenre known as Märchenoper developed in the early 19th century in the works of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner, among others. A parallel also can be drawn to the works of Richard Wagner as many of his subjects relied on the folk tradition, and the composer specifically drew from the Grimms’ Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen for parts of SiegfriedA resurgence of Märchenoper occurred at the turn of the century, most notably in the works of Engelbert Humperdinck. Hänsel und Gretel (1893) is the most famous example; others include Die sieben Geislein (1895) and Königskinder (1910). A general trend into the early 20th century also showed an interest in the fantastic world and a disregard of historical or contemporary subjects previously enjoyed by 19th-century audiences, evidenced by musical settings of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot [set by both Ferruccio Busoni (1917) and Giacomo Puccini (1926)], and by Le rossignol (Igor Stravinsky; 1914) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (Richard Strauss; 1919), to name a few. 


Don’t miss out on Rossini’s Cinderella when hits the Ordway stage for 7 performances, March 27- April 11, 2021. Get your tickets at mnopera.org/cinderlla.

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