Where would opera be without myths, legends, and fairy tales for its subject matter? From Baroque opera and Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel and Philip Glass’ take on the Brothers Grimm tale The Juniper Tree, opera has willingly seized upon fantasy and fable as a way of integrating music, drama, dance, and visual effects into an art form that still remains enticing after 400 years.
We must include in our list of operatic fairy tales the story of Cinderella, a folk tale first published by Charles Perrault in 1697 as “Cendrillon” and subsequently revisited by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. A number of composers—Jules Massenet, Nicolas Isouard, and Stefano Pavesi—have found fertile ground in the story, but none has had the success of Gioachino Rossini and his 1817 comedy, La Cenerentola, or Cinderella.
After Rossini’s success with The Barber of Seville in 1816 at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome, the prolific composer, still in his mid-20s, was approached by a rival theater, Teatro Valle, for an opera buffa for the following season. Beset with censor difficulties, the theater management enlisted the librettist Jacopo Ferretti to assist in finding appropriate subject matter.
“I proposed some 20 or 30 subjects,” Ferretti wrote in a memoir. “But one was too dramatic for the carnival season, another too tricky, another required an expensive staging or did not suit the singers.… Sick of proposals and nearly prostrate with weariness, I yawned: ‘Cinderella.’ [Rossini] abruptly stood up like Alighieri’s Farinata and said: ‘Would you have the heart for writing me a ‘Cinderella’?”
Rossini found Ferretti’s first draft to his liking, but insisted on more fully realized characters and the removal of most of the supernatural elements, for the sake of naturalism. Ferretti’s work was based on the Perrault fairy tale, but was also influenced by earlier operatic treatments, including Pavesi’s Agatina (with a libretto by Francesco Fiorini), and Isouard’s Cendrillon (with a libretto by Charles-Guillaume Étienne).
Ferretti finished the libretto in 22 days; Rossini, known for his composing speed, finished the score in 24 days. He also picked up some time by re-using music from a previous work, La gazzetta, and by using work from a collaborator, Luca Agolini, for the recitatives and several arias.
The premiere in Rome in January of 1817, little more than a month after the work was begun, received a disappointing response from critics and the public, probably because of a cast exhausted from the rehearsal pace as well as the work’s departure from the magical connotations of the well-known tale. But like The Barber of Seville, audience enthusiasm for Cinderella increased with each performance and its popularity spread over Europe; La Cenerentola made its U.S. premiere in New York eight years later.
Audiences will find a few twists to the story they probably know very well. The evil stepmother is, in Rossini’s work, an evil stepfather, Don Magnifico, who has two bickering, husband-seeking daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, and a stepdaughter/maid, Angelina, whom the family calls Cinderella. The fairy godmother character has been refashioned into the philosopher Alidoro, who masquerades as a beggar and is the tutor to Prince Ramiro. The Prince himself masquerades as his valet, Dandini, to judge the honesty and goodness of the sisters.
In the Knoxville Opera production of Cinderella—which will be sung in English—the role of Angelina/Cinderella will be sung by mezzo-soprano Leah Wool. Audiences may remember Wool’s naïve but audacious Rosina from 2010’s Rossini Festival production of The Barber of Seville. New to Knoxville Opera is tenor Michael Dailey, singing the role of Prince Ramiro.
Baritone Andrew Garland is also returning to Knoxville Opera from the 2010 Barber of Seville, singing the role of the valet, Dandini. The stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, will be sung by Donata Cucinotta and Dixie Roberts. Bass Kevin Glavin will sing the role of Don Magnifico.
Stage director for Cinderella is James Marvel, who also directed the 2010 Barber and is currently director of the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre. KO executive director Brian Salesky will conduct the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.