While the Cinderella fairy-tale may be universally known, it is not familiar because people have dutifully read the original 17th-century French story by Charles Perrault or the truly grim adaptation by the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm of 1812. Walt Disney’s 1950 Cinderella, the critically admired animated musical fantasy film whose box office success saved Disney from bankruptcy, has become the acknowledged gold standard version of the tale.
But opera lovers know a least two operatic versions of the Cinderella tale, and San Diego Opera is bringing the more popular one, Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, to the Civic Theatre stage October 22 to 30, 2016. Lindy Hume, the production’s stage director, explained that she wants the audience to experience more than Disney’s deftly sanitized, sweetness and light version of the story, in which Cinderella is raised to the Prince’s station through the magic of her Fairy Godmother and a host of singing animals come to her aid.
“They may come expecting the Disney version, but the opera offers something more. In the opera, it is Cinderella’s good character, her humanity, that is the catalyst for change. Don Ramiro, the Prince, falls in love with her, but he has to work to get her love—he has to make himself worthy of her. And at the end of the opera, when she marries the Prince and forgives her family, they have to change. She really is the catalyst for change.”
In his opera La Cenerentola, Rossini eliminated the Fairy Godmother and replaced her with Alidoro, a philosopher and tutor to the Prince who brings Cinderella to the ball without magic. The evil stepmother also becomes a male character, Baron Don Magnifico, the head of the household and Cinderella’s mean stepfather. According to Hume, Don Magnifico’s character clearly exhibits those darker, violent themes found in the Grimm Brothers’ version of the story.
In the Grimm Brothers’ version, for example, Cinderella’s stepmother is so eager to become part of the royal household by marriage that she slices off her daughter’s toes to make her big foot fit into the tiny glass slipper the Prince’s servants have brought to locate the young woman who charmed the Prince but disappeared at the stroke of midnight at his ball. [Spoiler alert—Rossini and his librettist eliminated Cinderella’s glass slippers and substituted a matching bracelet that the Prince gives to Cinderella so he will be able to identify her.]
“In Don Magnifico’s treatment of Cinderella,” Hume explained, “we see that he is an abuser of children. He hits her and even threatens to kill her. He keeps her locked up in the house and even erases her from the royal census.” This dark character led Hume to set the opera in 1840s London, the dark, Dickensian world of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, two young fictional protagonists who also suffered society’s mistreatment a mere generation after Rossini wrote his opera.
Hume stated that we do not know for certain if Rossini or his librettist Jacopo Ferretti actually knew the Brothers Grimm version of the story. “But they were contemporaries, she noted. The Grimm stories were published in 1812, and Rossini’s opera opened in January of 1817.”
Hume also made the point that Rossini did not hide his politics in his operas. “He had a keen sense of social justice and was at one with the man or woman on the street. You’ll note that he champions the working class in both The Barber of Seville and Cenerentola, while making fun of the higher-ups. He also had a fondness for feisty women at the center of his operas.”
When asked my today’s audiences know Rossini’s The Barber of Seville so much better than his La Cenerentola, Hume attributed it to the Barber’s notorious aria. “It’s all about Figaro’s famous ‘Largo al factotum,’ which even found its way into cartoons, and the Marx Brothers had an act based on it,” she observed. “There is no big hit song in La Cenerentola. I would say that Barber is more obvious, and Cenerentola is more subtle—but Barber is not as complicated or as deep.”
While Rossini’s The Barber of Seville appears on the San Diego Opera schedule with regularity, this is only the second time San Diego has produced La Cenerentola—1996 was the only other season San Diego Opera audiences saw this opera.
The production of La Cenerentola that San Diego Opera is using this season was designed and premiered in 2013 for Brisbane’s Opera Queensland, the company of which Hume is Artistic Director. She and her scenic designer Dan Potra chose the year 1840 in which to set the opera because in her research about the history of opera in Australia, she learned that Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the first opera performed in the country—by a touring Italian opera troupe, no less.
“For the Brisbane production, we sang the opera in English, although San Diego’s will be sung in the original Italian. In 2015 I did this production in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand, and in February of this year, Leipzig Opera staged it.”
Hume began her career as a ballet dancer, and she explained that even if dancers were not dancing in a particular opera, they were frequently used as extras—or supernumeraries, to use opera lingo.
“I was an extra in a production of Norma at the Sydney Opera, and when I heard Joan Sutherland sing ‘Casta diva.’ I immediately fell in love with it. Opera is a hierarchical world, and I jumped through all the hoops. At first I danced in operas; then I did choreography for opera. After I served as an assistant director for eight years, I started to get to direct my own operas. I love to do comedy—it makes me happy.
“I think if someone offered me to direct a Ring Cycle, I would run away as fast as I could.”
San Diego Opera’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola opens Saturday, October 22, 2016, and is repeated on October 25, 28, and 30. All performances are in the San Diego Civic Theatre.