FWO Archives: Gioacchino Rossini's 'Cinderella' Program Notes (2009 Festival)
Updated: Aug 14
FWOpera's sparkling production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) based on the fairy tale Cendrillon by Charles Perrault. Since the opera's premiere in Rome on January 25, 1817, at the Teatro Valle, this comedic gem has become part of the standard operatic repertoire, beloved by audiences across the globe.
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1863) is justly revered as one of the great Italian opera composers of the 19th century. But ironically, he is known much more for the first few minutes of his operas - the frantic, pulse-pounding overtures – than for his closing acts. Of the approximately 39 operas he composed, only a handful are performed in their entirety with any regularity today.
One of the exceptions is La Cenerentola, or Cinderella. Only his Barber of Seville, an opera he composed just a year before La Cenerentola, is heard more often.
This operatic setting of the classic fairy tale (with a few alterations) got off to a slightly rough start when it debuted in 1817, but it eventually found its audience and became an enduring, global hit. After being seen in all the opera capitals of Europe, La Cenerentola made it to New York in 1826. And, in 1844, it was the first opera ever presented in Australia.
Opera is a collaborative art, so there are certainly a number of people who deserve credit for making this work such a favorite - starting with the author of the original fairy tale, to the opera's librettist Jacopo Ferretti and, of course, Rossini for his magical score.
But, while all of these contributors are certainly worthy of our gratitude, there is another unsung hero who deserves our thanks: Stefano Pavesi.
STEFANO PAVESI (1779-1850)
You probably have not heard of this obscure Italian opera composer. But, by serving as a sort of unwitting operatic stunt double for Rossini, Pavesi may be a major reason that La Cenerentola, and its composer, are much more widely remembered than he is.
Although his operas are virtually unknown today, Pavesi was a prolific and successful composer in his day. He composed more than 70 operas, many of which were heard in major opera halls all over Italy.
And Pavesi was also appreciated outside of his homeland. One of his appointments was to a Vienna court, where he was taking over a job held by the famous, or infamous, Antonio Salieri.
But Pavesi also had his share of bad breaks. Early in his career, he was yanked out of music school and deported to France for political reasons. When he came back to Italy, it was as a soldier, not a musician. So the start of his professional music life was delayed for a few years.
He certainly tried to make up for lost time, averaging better than three operas per year over his first 20 years of composing. And judging by the sheer quantity of completed works, he must have been appreciated.
But what Pavesi was really good at was making other opera composers look good - especially Rossini.
The biggest success of Pavesi's lifetime, for example, was Ser Marcantonio - a work that is remembered today primarily as a probable source for Donizetti's Don Pasquale.
And Rossini used Pavesi like a footbal running back uses blockers. At least four of Rossini's operas, including La Cenerentola, used subjects Pavesi had already set to music. Pavesi's Tancredi, for example, appeared in 1812. Rossini's opera of that same name showed up in 1813 - and proved to be a major turning point in his career.
This sort of thing was not uncommon in that era. Composers borrowed from one another without fear of legal reprisals. But the practice was frowned upon in opera circles. Rossini came under a great deal of criticism, for example, when he debuted his Barber of Seville because the Beaumarchais story already existed in opera form in a popular work by Giovanni Paisiello. Feelings ran so high concerning artistic ownership of the work that fans of Paisiello tried to disrupt early performances of Rossini's version.
This habit of adapting stories that had already been field-tested by some other composer served one particular aspect of Rossini's composing art: speed.
It should be stressed that Rossini was not stealing the music of his predecessors. He was far above that. But rather he was creating shortcuts for his librettists. By allowing them to work from an existing template - the structural design of the previous version - Rossini sped up the creative process. So, actually, Rossini was exploiting librettists more than composers.
But because a composer is as attached to an opera as a captain to a ship, it is Pavesi who must bear the shame of having had so many of his operas subjects ultimately serve as springboards for Rossini's immortal career while doing so little for himself.
ROSSINI AND LA CENERENTOLA
Rossini composed La Cenerentola, during a particularly torrid period of his career. Fresh from his success of his Barber of Seville in 1816, it was the first of four operas he would debut in 1817. His gathering fame was reaching new levels.
As any artist might do when things are going well, Rossini overbooked himself. He was under contract with an opera company in Naples, but he also accepted a commission from a house in Rome.
Rossini's effort to fill his Roman commitment was initially thwarted when censors shot down his first subject. So, when Rossini, librettist Jacopo Ferretti, and the impresario from Rome met in late December 1816, they were under a great deal of pressure and already on a tight deadline.
For hours, numerous ideas were thrown against the wall, but none stuck - until a weary Ferretti brought up La Cenerentola. Rossini, who had taken to his bed during this brainstorming session, sat up and enthusiastically accepted the idea.
What happened next was one of the most astonishingly rapid creative dashes in the history of opera, even by Rossini's standards.
Ferretti ripped out his libretto in 22 days. Rossini finished the music in 24. It had its premiere at the Teatro Valle on January 25, 1817.
This stunning feat was a study in operatic efficiency. Rossini out sourced the writing of the recitatives (the half-sung bits of dialog in an opera) and an aria or two to another composer (in most presentations today, those parts have been replaced or dropped). And this famous composer of overtures wasted no time penning a curtain-raiser for this opera. He simply borrowed one from one of his operas that had premiered just months before, La Gazzetta. Ferretti, meanwhile, turned to the libretto written for Pavesi, and other sources, to guide his creation of a text.
There can be no doubt that Rossini knew Paves i's opera Agatina, o la virtu, which also told the story of Cinderella. It had premiered just two years before in the same Milan opera house where Rossini was presenting two operas that season. So, although Rossini needed no help shaping the notes, he was not working from a completely clean slate. And that probably allowed the extremely facile composer to work even more rapidly.
But, other than the need to come up with something quickly, why was this subject chosen after so many other suggestions (most accounts say dozens of sources were considered before this one was chosen) were rejected?
Could it be that Rossini saw a bit of himself in the title heroine? He, too, had come from extremely humble origins. His father worked as a trumpeter and an inspector of slaughter houses while his mother supplemented the household's income with needlework and a brief career as an opera singer.
At different points in his youth, the unruly Gioacchino was shipped off to live with an uncle who ran a butcher shop and, later, a smith in an effort to provide the boy with discipline and a career path. History would suggest his parents didn't succeed in either endeavor.
When Rossini set out on a musical career, he did it the hard way. There were no cushy court jobs or royal subsidies. He played keyboards in theatres and for rehearsals and gradually worked his way into the world of opera as a composer. It must have been a hard climb, but once he got his chance, he took off like a rocket. Tancredi established him as a force to be reckoned with in Italian opera when he was only 21 years old and, three years later, Barber took him to a pinnacle that he never relinquished.
So perhaps he saw his own life as a sort of Cinderella story. It may be telling that Rossini eliminated the supernatural elements that are a common parts of the version most of us know (thank you, Mr. Disney). There are no glass slippers, pumpkin carriage or mice to pull it. His version is more realistic. And maybe that is because the idea of a humble child blossoming into the belle of the ball in a blinding flash did not really sound all that fantastical to Rossini - a man who himself lived a fairy tale life.
-Dr. Punch Shaw ©2009
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He teaches courses at TCU, co-hosts a monthly lecture/discussion group on classical music at Barnes & Noble and frequently contributes reviews and features to various publications, including the Star-Telegram.
CAST AND CREATIVE TEAM
Music by Gioacchino Rossini
Libretto by Jacopo Ferretti
Based on the fairy tale Cinderella by Charles Perrault
Sung in Italian
CONDUCTOR Scott Bergeson+
DIRECTOR David Gately
SCENIC DESIGNER Erhard Rom
COSTUME DESIGNER Jean-Pierre Ponnelle+
MAKEUP AND WIG DESIGNER James P. McGough
LIGHTING DESIGNER Kenneth W. Yunker+
ASSOCIATE LIGHTING DESIGNER Chad R. Jung
STAGE MANAGER Kurt Howard
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Karina Kacala
CHORUS MASTER Chris Devlin+
REPETITEUR & HARPSICHORDIST Mary Dibbern
ENGLISH SUPERTITLE TRANSLATION Michael Chadwick
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
CLORINDA Brandi Icard**
TISBE Alissa Anderson**
ANGELINA (CINDERELLA) Isabel Leonard+
ALIDORO Derrick Parker
DON MAGNIFICO Rod Nelman
PRINCE RAMIRO Michele Angelini+
DANDINI Andrew Garland