Concerning the Little Girl of the Cinders, there is the Rossini opera, the Massenet opera, the Prokofiev ballet, the Disney film, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical. Each of them is based on the rags-to-riches tale that exists in over 500 versions all over the world but which is known best in the form written by Charles Perrault in 1697.
Cinderella was originally a goose girl under the domination of cruel masters, in this case two sisters and an unfeeling father. In the earlier tales, she was helped to the ball either by an animal or the spirit of her dead mother. It was Perrault who introduced the Fairy Godmother and the midnight limit for the girl’s big night out. By a mistranslation, her “pantoufle de vair” (slipper of fur) became her “pantoufle de verre” (slipper of glass) that she drops as she runs from the palace. In other versions, it is a ring that she leaves behind. In one Zuni version, she is a turkey girl and her turkeys lend her their feathers in which to dress, but at midnight they come to reclaim them. Such is the nature of folklore.
The Disney version was laden with the usual anthropomorphic doorknobs and such and a stepmother far more frightening than the one in the French tale. Therefore, this Cinderella was much more vulnerable as she sang, “Cinderella, Cinderella, night and day, it’s Cinderella” and so on.
In the Rossini opera, “La Cenerentola,” there are no supernatural doings at all. A wise and old tutor to the Prince gives Cinderella her dress and transportation. All the while, a comic servant of the Prince, Dandini by name, poses as the Prince and is chased by the two social-climbing sisters and their idiotic but cruel papa throughout most of the work. Also, the fairy godmother becomes the wise old Alidoro and the glass slipper becomes a bracelet.
“La Cenerentola” is a much more human and sentimental work than are most of Rossini’s comic operas. In fact, the subtitle is “Goodness in Triumph,” and that is a clue to the nature of both the title character and the meaning of the play.
As I was interviewing the cast and crew of a recent local production, the conductor wanted to emphasize that “La Cenerentola” is not a children’s opera but a moral tale for adults in which human failings are studied rather than pumpkins that turn into coaches. The stage director agreed that the cartoon approach to this work that shows up in so many productions should be avoided and that one must humanize the characters. Cinderella, he says, should evoke great empathy from the audience. The mezzo in the title role went so far as to say that she sees in this role something of the Virgin Mary, who “also did not seek honor or coronation.” She falls in love with a man she thinks is a butler and winds up a member of the royal family! The singer sees the moral of the tale as “he who truly seeks love in his heart will reap countless treasures beyond imagination.”
You don’t get reactions like that about “The Italian Woman in Algiers” or even about “The Barber of Seville”!
Those who have seen the video with Frederica von Stade in the title role could quite agree with most of those comments. Those who have seen Cecilia Bartoli mug her way through probably could not. To each his own.
But why did Rossini choose to eliminate all the magic from the story? It has been suggested that it was because the work was scheduled to be given in a Rome opera house and that the Vatican censors would not permit any sort of magic that did not come from their concept of the Christian deity. Rossini biographer Francis Toye attributes the de-supernaturalization to Rossini’s own dislike of the fantastic. However, I have a feeling that the truth lies closest to the reason given by Bridget Paolucci on the Metropolitan Opera’s tape “Talking About Opera: La Cenerentola.” According to her, Rossini knew that the Valle Theatre, for which he was composing the work, simply did not have the physical facilities for special effects on their not-quite-state-of-the-art stage!
Regardless, the work has scarcely suffered from its emphasis on human beings and it remains one of opera’s most charming creations.