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8.660191-92 - ROSSINI: Cenerentola (La) (Cinderella)
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Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
La Cenerentola

On 29th February 1816 Rossini signed a contract with the Teatro Valle which obliged him from October of the same year to be in Rome and there to provide the music for a new libretto, the work to have its première on 26th December. Rossini was first able to come to Rome in the middle of December, as the première of Otello had been postponed. At the same time the choice fell on the fairy story of Cinderella, for which Jacopo Ferretti’s libretto, based on Charles-Guillaume Etienne’s Cendrillon, provided the foundation. Within a few days Rossini composed one of his finest operas, taking the overture from La gazzetta (Naples 1816) and part of the final aria Nacqui all’affanno from the aria Cessa di più resistere written for the opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816). The leading performers at the première were Geltrude Righetti Giorgi as Cenerentola, Giacomo Guglielmi as Don Ramiro, Andrea Verni as Don Magnifico, and Giuseppe De Begnis as Dandini. The bass at his disposal for the rôle of Alidoro did not meet Rossini’s demands, and he therefore let his collaborator Luca Agolini have the aria Vasto teatro è il mondo. At the new performance in 1820 this aria was replaced by Rossini’s Là del ciel nel’arcano profondo, since he could now count on the eminent singer Gioachino Moncada as Alidoro; this aria is also sung here in the present version. In addition to Vasto teatro è il mondo Agolini also wrote the recitative of the chorus at the beginning of the second act, as well as Clorinda’s aria Sventurata! Me credea, which we have omitted.

La Cenerentola:
Interplay of Intelligence and Fantasy

We do not know why Gioachino Rossini was tempted to tackle the most classical, most popular of fairy stories, Cinderella. From a composer who normally shunned realistic actions and rhetorical sentiment in his search for an ideal beauty, suspended somewhere outside the banality of everyday existence, we might have expected a poetic reading of the story, interwoven with abstract fantasies and enlivened by the play of imagination. What could have been more appropriate, therefore, than a story about fairies, elves, Prince Charmings and angelic creatures, struggling with the forces of evil in pursuit of the ultimate triumph of good? Here at last was a subject that would free the composer from the need to explore psychological interpretations, something that was foreign to his nature, and avoided the dangers associated with situations that were ill suited to the aristocratic reserve of his muse. Instead, when Rossini received the libretto by Jacopo Ferretti based on Etienne’s Cendrillon, he took the opposite course. He replaces the fairy godmother of the story with a knowing and wise tutor; he transforms the tender protagonist into a victim bullied by two stupid half-sisters and a wicked, arrogant father; he changes the routine figure of the tenor lover into a lover capable of real passion and outbursts of generosity; he complicates the simplicity of the story by introducing a character, Dandini, who instead of limiting himself to the old device of disguises, ventures into meta-theatrical situations, delving into the labyrinth of the subconscious. This preference for a realistic interpretation of the fairy tale, spurning the opportunity to undulge his propensity for the abstract, is yet again evidence of Rossini’s intelligence, something which never ceases to surprise.

Rossini realised that, with his kind of limpid, sun-lit music, from which the subtle contrasts of chiaroscuro are absent, it would be difficult to project in an imaginary world of fantasy the evanescent figures of the fairy story. So he uses day-to-day actions and real characters in order to achieve the miracle of transforming the topoi of the buffo genre into the absolutes of poetry. It is not by accident that in L’italiana in Algeri the climax of an entertainment of elegant refinement is reached in the comic ceremonies of the Pappataci. To this intuitive instinct Rossini here adds the calculated disorder of madness, mixing without restraint dramatic elements that seem irreconcilable.

The hysteria of Clorinda and Tisbe, a symmetrical and stylized representation of robotic vacuity, contrasts with the sad humanity of Cenerentola; she and Ninetta in La gazza ladra are the truest and most moving characters of all Rossini’s works. In the edgy figuration of Allegri, Concertati and Strette Clorinda and Tisbe find perfect mechanisms for the frenzied expression of their stupidity, while Cenerentola is sympathetically characterized through sincere and moving music of a kind rare in Rossini’s operas. Her path to happiness is marked by a vocal progress beginning with the ingenuous simplicity of the exit canzonetta Una volta c’era un re, a subconscious and consolatory anticipation of her own life story; passing through the gentle, dreamlike music of the duet with Ramiro, Un soave non so che, where the woman in her awakes; through the dramatic pages of the quintet Signore, una parola, where a conscious rebel is born; through the proud affirmation of Sprezzo quei don, where true nobility of feeling is expressed; through the generous plea of Ah, Signor, where the feeling of infinite goodness emerges, finally culminating in the truly regal Rondo Nacqui all’affanno. The sweetness of so many of Cenerentola’s melodic phrases sits perfectly alongside pure bel canto vocalism, enriching the latter with pathos, and achieving an ideal balance between dazzling, headlong virtuosity and singing which vibrates with the intensity of it sentiments.

Cenerentola is, from beginning to end, a character of opera seria who stands out precisely because she is contrasted with characters of the opposite type. Also belonging to opera seria are the characters with whom she establishes a positive rapport: Prince Ramiro, who will reveal to her the magic of love, and the worthy Alidoro, who directs his pupil Ramiro to the right choice of wife. The duet between Cenerentola and Ramiro constitutes a remarkable prototype of those wonderful fateful meetings in which love is suddenly born, that are the principal element of lyric opera. As often happens in Rossini’s love duets, the two young people do not speak directly to each other or touch each other, but the spark released is so strong as to make Cenerentola drop the dishes she is holding. Then Ramiro and Cenerentola sing independently of their own emotions with a tenderness, an intensity and restraint that leave no doubt as to the cause of their beating hearts. Cenerentola, guided by her feelings, plays the cards of a female seduction that is more credible and more convincingly articulated than that of Rosina, skilfully alternating frailty and haughtiness, tenderness and pride, sadness and happiness.

In the present recording Alidoro sings an extended aria of great difficulty, Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo, that Rossini wrote for a performance of Cenerentola in December 1820 at the Teatro Apollo in Rome. At the première in January 1817 at the Teatro Valle Alidoro had a much more modest aria, Vasto teatro è il mondo, written by Luca Agolini, Rossini’s collaborator in the opera as well as the composer of the unaccompanied recitatives. Rossini had probably refrained from composing the more taxing aria because the singer available to him could not guarantee a level of performance in line with the importance of the occasion. When he was able to count on the excellent Gioachino Moncada in the repeat performances of 1820, Rossini wrote for the Alidoro a tripartite aria, preceded by a long accompanied recitative that calls for superior bel canto technique and a fine high register, difficult to reconcile with the rest of the rôle, conceived for a real bass. Rossini had Luca Agolini write two other numbers of less weight: the knights’ chorus Ah! Della bella incognita that opens the second act in an appropriately dramatic manner, and an aria for Clorinda, Sventurata! mi credea, here omitted so as not to affect the symmetry of the rôle with that of Tisbe. Cenerentola does not succeed in establishing a dialogue with her step-sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, blocked at the outset by their indifference and contempt, nor does she find any return of affection from her father, although she seeks it desperately up to the final bars of the opera, when she invites him to share her triumph. With Dandini the contact remains deferential and polite, yet distant and formal. The impossibility of communication is rendered by Rossini with an inspired device: when Cenerentola, after her appearance at the palace, turns with accents of great nobility to the supposed prince, Dandini finds no better way of answering than by repeating in caricature the same vocal figurations and identical repeats. This is an irresistible comic invention to imitate an aristocratic tone that is alien to him, but it is also the admission of an existential emptiness, the monologue of a person who does not exist. Don Magnifico too is a character from opera buffa, but of a different code from that which marks Clorinda and Tisbe: his gargantuan boasting, plebeian exuberance, selfishness and the maliciousness of decadent nobility put him in the category of comique significatif, indicating a type to be found again in the songs of Spaccanapoli, far removed from the abstract and mechanical world of the comique absolu, in which Cenerentola’s step-sisters drift around.

This mixture of styles, this cohabitation of characters who belong to planets far removed from each other, rather than giving rise to an unconvincing patchwork of heterogeneous ideas, has created a masterwork of exceptionally expressive tension and coherent organic unity. The variety of emotions forced Rossini into a giddy whirl of musical inventiveness, stimulating to the maximum a creativity which rebelled against the normal paths which logic would have dictated, resulting in flashes of originality, unexpected developments, and surprises that open up the rules of melodramatic dramaturgy.

No one is surprised that the search for the ideal bride, solemnly proclaimed in the kingdom, should be limited, with a contemptuous challenge to good sense, to a girl possessing every goodness and virtue and two step-sisters who are sinks of vice. Nor is it surprising that Cenerentola enters the competition, the only feminine presence, in a kingdom inhabited solely by men, an absurdity certainly brought about by the absence of a female chorus at the commissioning theatre, but accepted by Rossini without demur, happy to challenge yet again the rules of common sense.

It is difficult to classify this opera. To reject the usual category of opera comica and to place it in the genre of opera semiseria is just juggling with words. The description dramma giocoso assigned to it by Ferretti, and the classification Mozart and Da Ponte adopted for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, is nearer the mark. La Cenerentola is, however, a key opera for investigating and focussing on the principal characteristics, the expressive potentiality of Rossini’s music, and his unique capacity to adapt to the most disparate situations without ever sounding the wrong note and without ever losing the significant force of the work. It is one of the few operas that we are always ready to listen to, as each time it is able to recreate the wonder and freshness of its perfect symmetry, one of the few where Rossini did not have recourse to selfborrowing, to his usual parodies. The literary text, considered without the transfiguring help of the music, is manifestly the fruit of clever work, but it is lacking in higher inspiration. As support for Rossini’s theatrical work, however, it shows itself to be ideally suited to the inspired course of his musical invention, intelligently and happily devised to making the sparks fly that light up so many parts of the opera. In the second act sextet Questo è un nodo avviluppato, for example, the music preserves the onomatopoeic character of the words, so that the ‘intreccio’ (plot) of this ‘nodo avviluppato’ (tangled knot) ‘sviluppa’ (disentangles) and ‘inviluppa’ (tangles up), ‘sgruppa’ (unties) and ‘raggruppa’ (ties up again) in an amusing tongue-twister that seems never ending. The uniformity of the cadenced movement that proceeds with the unconcern of a steam-roller to overwhelm every musical rule and to create an effect of hypnotic suspension, is brought to life again with the entry in canon of the voices and the sudden flashes of rapid fourths that leap up and down, entrusted in turn to different characters. Then the inexorable drumming resumes up to the closing cadences, accentuated by the customary crescendo and electrified by a richer use of instrumental inventiveness. There is a fine example of how Rossini succeeds in obtaining the effect of immobility, of a total arrest of events, paradoxically by recourse to movement. The contradiction is achieved by enclosing the musical discourse in a framework of strict symmetry, where the forward propulsion is cancelled out by turning in on itself, as happens with the uniform motion of a spinning-top. This results in an accumulative weight of emotion that creates in the listener an indescribable tension that usually explodes into liberating applause – a provocation that demands the iconoclastic genius of Rossini and gives pleasure to the listener, invited consciously to take part in this game of intelligence and of fantasy.

Alberto Zedda
English version by Keith Anderson and Peter Bromley

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