For Rossini in his mid-twenties, creative self-renewal was not a problem. in 1817 he composed four operas, each in a different vein: La Cenerentola and Adelaide di Borgogna for Rome; the opera semiseria (“semi-serious”) La Gazza Ladra for Milan; and Armida, a heroic-fantastic opera for Naples. Indeed, the commission to write an opera to be given during the Carnival season of 1816–17 at the Teatro Valle, Rome, found him fully occupied with a previous commitment, namely Otello, planned for performance at the Teatro del Fondo, Naples, early in December. Therefore, the clause in his contract that required his presence in the last days of October, the delivery of Act I by the end of November, and Act II by mid-December remained a dead letter.
Meanwhile, a libretto had already been chosen: Gaetano Rossi’s Nina Alia Corte, evidently derived from the French comedy Francesca de Foix. The Roman censors, however, deemed it immoral and so the librettist Jacopo Ferretti was brought in to clean up the text. But both he and Rossini declared this to be impossible without making nonsense of the plot. The stalemate continued until three days before the opera was due to open. Ferretti was summoned to the home of the impresario Pietro Cartoni, where Rossini was lodging. He himself takes up the story:
There we sat drinking tea all through that bitterly cold evening. I suggested twenty or thirty subjects for an opera, but one was considered too solemn since in Carnival time the Romans wanted a good laugh; another was rejected as being too complicated and another too expensive for the management’s purse… and another was unsuitable for the company engaged. Tired of making suggestions and practically falling asleep, I murmured in the middle of a yawn: “Cinderella.” Rossini, who had lain down on the bed in order the better to concentrate, sat bolt upright. “Would you be prepared to write me a Cinderella?” he asked. “And would you be prepared to set it to music?” I asked in my turn. “When can i have the program?” “Tomorrow morning, if I can keep awake.” “Good night,” and with that he wrapped himself in the bedclothes, stretched out his limbs and fell into a blessed sleep like that of Homer’s gods. I took another cup of tea, arranged my fee, shook Cartoni by the hand and hurried off home. There, a cup of good strong black coffee took the place of Jamaican tea. several times I measured the length and breadth of my bedroom with folded arms; and when, as God willed it, I had the picture before me, I wrote down the program and next day sent it to Rossini. he was quite happy with it.
Ferretti had intended to call his opera Angiolina, or the Triumph of Goodness. but again the censors objected, since Angiolina was the name of a well-known society beauty of the time who had indeed enjoyed many a “triumph,” but who could have retorted along with Mae West, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, honey!” so he settled for Cenerentola prefixed by the definite article— the traditional italian way of indicating a character of myth.
Rossini set to work at once, composing each number as it reached him and putting the finishing touches to the duet “Un segreto d’importanza” the night before the opening. Given the need for haste, it is understandable that he should have indulged in a little self-borrowing. the overture is identical to La Gazzetta, a comic opera written for Naples the previous year. the music, however, has a certain relevance to its new context since the “crescendo” theme—Rossini’s method of steadily turning up the volume and level of activity to the point where all the singers plus full orchestra are at full sound—is quoted in the Act I finale. Cenerentola’s concluding “non più mesta” began life as a virtuoso cabaletta for almaviva preceding the finale to II Barbiere di Siviglia; but as it quickly dropped out of performances there was no danger in transplanting it to La Cenerentola.
La Cenerentola had its premiere on January 25, having been written and rehearsed in just more than four weeks. The cast included Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi, who had created Rosina in II Barbiere the previous year, and the buffo baritone Giuseppe de Begnis, lately married to one of the great prima donnas of the age, Giuseppina Ronzi. Like II Barbiere, the opera was received badly at first, mainly because the cast had not had time to master its technical difficulties. But Rossini was undismayed. “before the Carnival season has ended,” he assured Ferretti, “everyone will have fallen in love with it.” Within two years, he predicted, it would be the delight of France and the wonder of England; prima donnas and impresarios would fight to get their hands on it. he was not mistaken.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, La Cenerentola vied in popularity with II Barbiere; thereafter, it fell behind. Rossini’s biographer, Giuseppe Radiciotti, whose monumental, three-volume study is, alas, out of print, ascribed its subsequent neglect to the libretto—“a hybrid confection of the probable with the improbable, the good with the less than mediocre, the highfalutin’ with the vulgar… faults that are naturally reflected in the music.”
A more likely reason is the vocal character of the heroine, a flexible contralto whose part lends itself less easily to upward transposition than does that of Rosina, sometimes assigned to a soprano. After 1850, contraltos and low mezzo-sopranos tended to become typecast as mother figures, such as Fides in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete, Azucena in II Trovatore, and La Cieca in La Gioconda. Their rich, velvety tones were best exploited outside the theater in pieces like Mendelssohn’s “O rest in the Lord” or Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody. It was the Spanish contralto Conchita Supervia, active in the 1930s, who first reminded us that the lower female voice is capable of all the agility of a coloratura soprano. Nowadays, it is the old-fashioned “oratorio” contralto that has become a rarity, while coloratura mezzo-sopranos can be found in every corner of the world.
Rossini’s was not the first musical setting of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale. It had been the subject of a comic vaudeville of 1759 by the French composer Laurette. In 1810 the Maltese Niccolò Isouard produced a Cendrillon that for a time became the rage of Paris, and which many years later the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick pronounced superior to Rossini’s work. But it was Felice Romani’s libretto for Stefano Pavesi’s Agatina, Ossia La Virtu Premiata (1814) that would serve Ferretti as a model. Romani first turned Perrault’s “conte” into a modern comedy of manners with no pumpkin coach and no fairy godmother, but instead a philosopher who makes all the necessary arrangements. For the slipper he substituted a rose, which in Ferretti’s libretto became a bracelet. it was Romani, too, who abolished the odious Madame de la Haltiere, Cinderella’s stepmother, for the very reason that in Italian opera of the time, mothers—step- or otherwise—are traditionally saintly and usually dead. The villain of the piece is therefore the stepfather. This likewise conforms to the conventions of the mixed genre to which La Cenerentola essentially belongs, and in which the basso buffo (“comic bass”) is not just an old booby, easily duped, but downright malevolent. in the present opera he combines both characteristics in full measure. Again it was Romani who invented the valet Dandini, with whom the prince exchanges clothes in order to test the respective characters of the three daughters.
All this, according to Romani’s biographer Mario Rinaldi, amounts to a “huge plagiarism” on Ferretti’s part. but we should remember that librettists were not expected to show originality of thought, the best of them being content to aim at “what oft was said but ne’er so well expressed.” Ferretti’s verse is as sharp and vivid as Romani’s and his humor, far from lapsing into vulgarity, it is often refreshingly modern. Indeed if Ferretti never achieved the fame of his predecessor, that was partly because he seems to have confined his activity to rome.
The first three decades of the nineteenth century were the age of virtuosity par excellence. The castrato—a singer castrated in boyhood to preserve the soprano or contralto range of his voice—had almost vanished from the scene, but the expressive value associated with his voice type still prevailed. In opera seria (“serious opera”) his place was at first taken by the female contralto, with her propensity for cool heroics. not until the 1830s did the tenor hero become the rule, singing throughout in the natural register of his voice. in opera buffa (“comic opera”) and semiseria he had long held sway as the juvenile lead; but it was a lighter tenor that did so, with a technique that permitted him to rise to high D and E flat in what was then called “falsetto” (today we would call it “head voice”). Together with the other voices he was required to command total flexibility. All this made possible a certain “instrumentalization” of the voice such as Rossini exploits to delightful effect in the sextet from La Cenerentola (“Questo è un nodo avviluppato”) with its threads of coloratura passing from one singer to another.
But let no one think that the opera is all vocal mechanics. Within the conventions of the time, many of which were of Rossini’s own forging, the characters are convincingly drawn; nor are they two-dimensional. the duet “Un soave non so che” between Cenerentola and Don Ramiro perfectly evokes the dawn of young love. but it is a more mature prince who sings in Act II “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro,” a heroic aria in three short movements similar to what Rossini had brought on the protagonist of his Otello. Don Magnifico alternates between pomposity and chattering buffoonery with moments of cruel sarcasm when addressing Cenerentola. Dandini has something of the amused detachment of Figaro, relishing to the full his royal disguise (“Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile”), not to mention his unmasking before the outraged Don Magnifico in the buffo duet of Act II (“Un segreto d’importanza”).
Moreover, the drama is beautifully paced. Within the compass of a single number, the “introduzione,” we are shown the shallowness and vanity of the two stepsisters (there is no need for them to be ugly) and the sad simplicity of Cenerentola, depicted in her somber, minor-key ditty (“Una volta c’era un re”). Not only that, the same piece finds room for her first encounter with Alidoro, who has come to the door disguised as a beggar. Clorinda and Tisbe chase him away, but not before Cenerentola has had time to slip him a mite of breakfast, only to receive a slap from the sisters. a few moments later a chorus of knights brings the invitation to the Prince’s ball; at once Cenerentola is sent scurrying hither and yon to fetch fine clothes and jewelry. Thus from the outset we do not have to take the heroine’s kindness and subjection for granted; we have already seen both in action, and the interest gains accordingly. indeed, the title role is unusually varied and wide-ranging in its expression, combining sorrow and dignity with occasional flashes of spirit. Her final aria (“Nacqui all’affanno”) envelops the scene in a glow of tenderness and so makes a fitting conclusion to what Rossini biographer Richard Osborne rightly calls one of the richest and most humane of the composer’s scores.