A Rossini Cenerentola program note

As Edmonton Opera no longer carries historical program notes in its opera program booklets (instead there are always interesting introductions by the director of the production), we’ve included here an historical program note on Rossini’s Cenerentola (Cinderella), as an introduction to Edmonton Opera’s new production.

Rossini: Cenerentola (Cinderella)
Edmonton Opera
Saturday, February 4, 8 pm
Tuesday, February 7, 7.30 pm
Thursday, February 9, 7.30 pm
tickets: www.edmontonopera.com

Program note
Mark Morris

The Cinderella story has long captured the imagination of composers, notably of Massenet in his opera Cendrillon of 1899, Wolf-Ferrari in his Cenerentola of 1900, and Prokofiev in his ballet of 1940. All the musical treatments can be ultimately be traced back to a 1697 collection of stories, ostensibly by the French writer Charles Perrault, a major celebrant of the Golden Age of King Louis XIV, but quite possibly co-authored with his son. A Cinderella opera by Laruette appeared in Paris in 1759, followed by three in the early 1810s: one by Isuoard in Paris (1810), with a libretto by Étienne, set simultaneously by Seibelt for a St.Petersburg opera in the same year, and, most celebrated of all, Rossini’s La Cenerentola of 1817.

The composition of La Cenerentola must constitute something of a record. Rossini’s librettist, Jacop Ferretti, wrote the libretto in three weeks. Rossini took twenty-four days for the music. Even in an era when operas were written fast, that is a breathtaking speed, and inevitably the original creation had elements of a patchwork. Ferretti drew the libretto from Perrault, but also from Étienne (notions of copyright had not yet arisen), at the same time altering some of the characters so that the cast had more similarities with the tradition of commedia del’ arte that Italian audiences were used to. The stock figure of the step-father (Don Magnifico) replaces the step-mother, the fairy Godmother becomes Alidoro, the court philosopher, while the slipper is transformed into a bracelet.

For Ferretti (who suggested the subject to the composer) and Rossini were creating an out-and-out comedy, as far from the dream world of Massenet or the magical creation of Prokofiev as can be imagined. Indeed, some productions have cut Alidoro’s pre-storm solo and the duet between him and Cenerentola, so that even the magic storm becomes earthbound. The subtitle (la bontà in trionfo – `Goodness Triumphant’) gives the game away. And for Italian comedy one must have the figure of the valet (think of Figaro or Barber) – Dandini – and exchanged identities and status (the Prince swapping places with him). Anything other than a comedy could not have written so quickly, and even then Rossini had to farm out some of the pieces to the composer Luga Agolini, and rework others from his earlier operas (the overture is that of La gazetta – cut in this production by Edmonton Opera – while sharp ears will recognize reworkings of Barber in some of Cenerentola’s music). He further complicated matters by adding another aria in a 1821 revival; consequently the long-standard older Ricordi edition is often given with substantial cuts, while the modern edition by Alberto Zedda excises all the Agolini contributions, although Rossini never seems to have objected to them.

The reason for the haste of composition was that Rossini was late with a commission and swamped with work. The Barber of Seville was less than a year old. La gazzetta was premiered September, 1816, and Otello, now forgotten but in the 19th century one of Rossini’s triumphs, on December 4, 1816 in Naples. He had contracted to deliver a new work to impresario Pietro Cartoni of the Theatro Valle in Rome for performance on December 26, 1816, and Cartoni, having announced a new work, was understandably fraught when it wasn’t ready. As it was, La Cenerentola was premiered only a month late, on January 25, 1817, and was an immediate flop.

Fortunately, revivals proved otherwise; it was first heard in London in 1820 and in New York in 1826, and quickly became established as the most popular Rossini opera after Barber and alongside L’Italiana in Algeri. The libretto is no match for that of Barber (but then who could match Beaumarchais as a source?), but the essential ingredients for Rossini brilliance are there: strong situational comedy with plenty of twists, characters whose tradition is so well established (the pompous stepfather, the Prince and the pauper lovers) that they don’t need depth, the opportunities for marvellous ensemble writing.

It was Rossini’s genius to combine brilliant musical wit with equally brilliant displays of the vocal art, and in this La Cenerentola entirely succeeds, even if it doesn’t achieve the extra dimension of incipient disturbance or tragedy of a Mozart comedy, Verdi’s Falstaff, or Britten’s Albert Herring. In place of such tinges of darkness, Rossini adds a warmth and tenderness, especially in the love music: the duet when the Prince and Cinderella first set eyes on each other and instantly fall in love is a marvellous creation of initial Rossini humour that opens out into a sympathetic empathy, as if the composer started out observing the characters and then became caught up in their situation.

But the spellbinding nature of this opera is in the sheer verve and brilliance of the vocal writing, making great demands on the singers. While commanding the florid lines (often at breathtaking speed), they must at the same time be busy with comic acting. He never allows the pace to flag: time and time again the situation expands to add more and more voices, the speed picking up, for this is not an opera with a memorable solo aria – apart from Cenerentola’ s opening ballad (Una volta c’era un rè) – but an opera of memorable ensembles. The highlights are the wonderful quintet of Act I, Scene Six, the hilarious duet between Dandini and Magnifico as the latter explains the demands made on a Prince (Act II, Scene III), and the extraordinary sextet a little later, where Rossini uses the voices almost like pizzicato strings, with a solo line regularly spinning off in florid decoration, the words superfluous except for the sounds they make. Perhaps only the very ending seems a little tame; the best has already been.

The Act I quintet is an unusual creation: Rossini uses the music from the end of the overture of La gazetta, but in that opera the music is heard only in that orchestral form. Ferretti must, therefore, have been fitting his words to the music – not an easy thing to do in such a quintet – and it was a marvellous stroke on Rossini’s part to reprise, in vocal form, the purely instrumental writing at the end of the reused overture.

Rossini actually wrote the title role for a contralto, but as the era of contraltos with a sufficiently high range and florid singing style is past, the role is almost invariably taken by a mezzo-soprano. This allows a flexibility necessary in Rossini, but some of the effect of the darker voice (particularly compelling in Cenerentola’s first aria) is lost, as is the trio of soprano/mezzo-soprano/contralto in the three sisters. Indeed, it is easy to overlook how Rossini so often depends on lower voices: here the other soloists are two basses, a buffo bass (here lower baritone range), and a tenor. It is a very different line-up from later Italian opera, but its secret is to oppose in timbre the higher strings that are so dominant in Rossini’s orchestration. This was also the era in which recitative was about to come to an end; there is limited recitative in Cenerentola, but it invariably gets quickly taken over by ensemble writing, and at one point even Rossini seems to give a gentle dig as Dandini, instead of starting the expected recitative (as the continuo does), launches into a patter song.

Rossini once commented about Wagner’s Tannhaüser “It is music one must hear a number of times. I am not going again.” One only needs to hear the music of La Cenerentola once to want to go again, and again.


copyright Mark Morris 2017. Not to be used or distributed without permission


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