La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
Cinderella Through the Ages
It appears every culture and every continent has its own Cinderella story, identifiable by the following criteria: a family member in a miserable state, the intervention of a helper (usually supernatural), a glimpse at a better life, recognition by some object and improvement of the condition (usually a perfect union, such as marriage). Considered the oldest Cinderella story, the folk tale Yeh-Shen comes from the Chinese T'sang dynasty (618-907 c.e.). Yeh-Shen is orphaned and treated poorly by her stepfamily. She befriends a fish with whom she shares her precious bits of food. When the stepmother finds out, the fish is killed, but the bones prove their magic — they supply Yeh-Shen with the necessary garments to attract a husband at the village festival. She does quite well, capturing the attention of the king himself, but when spotted by her step-family, she escapes down the hillside, losing one of her shoes. As one might expect, the shoe later betrays her true identity.
Based on the 1895 collection of Zimbabwe Kaffir folk tales, John Steptoe's Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters tells the story of two sisters, one bad and one good. When Mufaro intends to offer one of his daughters to the king as a bride, the wicked one, Manyara, tries to gain an advantage by leaving before the appointed hour. As she scurries across the forest at night, she ignores tests of charity. The good daughter, Nyasha, leaves on schedule, encounters and successfully completes the same tests, and approaching the palace, passes her sister running the other way, screaming. On the throne Manyara has seen a monster, but when Nyasha enters, she finds the snake, Nyoka, who protected her garden from predatory animals. The snake is transformed into the king and they live happily ever after.
Several Native American legends allude to a "rough faced girl," who is mistreated by her sisters. In the end she ends up with the valiant warrior, not because of beauty but due to her display of honesty and merit. In Russia , Vasilisa's stepfamily sends her into the woods on an impossible errand — to the hut of the notorious Baba Yaga, the cannibalistic old crone of lore — expecting, of course, she will never return. Vasilisa manages to stay alive by demonstrating her resourcefulness and eventually wins her freedom. Having now mastered some marketable skills, she supports herself by weaving cloth, which attracts the attention of the Tsar, whom she eventually weds.
The earliest Italian version of Cinderella appears to be Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone (1634-36), which predates Perrault's story and is strikingly similar &emdash; the French author may have had this collection in his mind when he crafted his Cendrillon. A touch more graphic, Basile incorporated a murder into his tale — Zezolla/Cenerentola is encouraged by her loving governess to break her evil stepmother's neck with the lid of a chest after drawing her into a trap. The rest of the story follows the expected pattern. With Zezolla's assistance the governess becomes the new stepmother and brings to the household her previously undisclosed six daughters, who all mistreat their new stepsister. The conduit of magic is a fig tree her father brings back from Sardinia — by housing the Dove of the Fairies, the tree produces the necessary transport and clothing for a series of royal feasts. After meeting the king for a third time, Zezolla loses her slipper, and when the king summons all the women of the realm before him, the shoe magically finds its owner.
Charles Perrault came along later in the century, publishing his Les histroires ou Contes du temps passé in 1697. It is generally assumed that these are drawn from popular tradition, though Cendrillon and the other contes in the collection can be traced to earlier works by Basile and Boccaccio and to the Volsunga Saga and classical mythology. Nearly every story ends with a moralité, a moral message [Cendrillon has two: (1) always value graciousness over beauty (2) there is advantage to good breeding and common sense (and always respect your godparents)]. In addition to being didactic, the tales served as propaganda for the national language — the vulgar oral tradition of the illiterate was elevated to the more aristocratic written French of the nobility. A curious aspect of Perrault's tales is that they were not necessarily conceived for children, but as divertissements, after dinner amusements for members of Louis XIV's royal entourage. When crafted with a more subtle flare, fairy tales also could be used for political critique.
Closer to Rossini's day, folk tales would have a new revival. Brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm assembled and published their Household and Nursery Tales at the beginning of the 19th century. A comforting sense of Volk was craved by the German people as the horrors of Napoleonic conquest and occupation drew to a close. Again, it seems as though Grimms' Tales were not necessarily meant for a younger audience — in the brothers' original edition, nearly every story includes either suggestions of sex and incest or overtly grotesque violence. The Grimms were scientific rather than fictitious in their mission to compile German folklore, a spoken ritual once spun out at the spinning wheel, in the fields or around the fire. At first Wilhelm and Jakob demanded literary fidelity, but perhaps envisioning a greater audience for the Tales, Wilhelm became more prudish in subsequent editions, yet he retained much of the brutality. For instance, the stepsisters of Aschenputtel (Cinderella) cut off their toes and shave their heels in order to cram their feet into the tiny slipper. Their deception is exposed on the way to the palace when the prince notices their feet bleeding. Later, after the royal wedding feast has taken place, two doves peck out their eyes, quite literally emphasizing the brothers' recurrent revenge theme of "an eye for an eye." In other Grimm fantasies, the protagonist doesn't always fare so well, but in the end compassion is usually rewarded while villainy is punished with a vengeance. The stories were intended to be cautionary and the lessons are typically harsh. It's hardly a surprise the Tales found their way to the nursery, not as much as for entertainment, but to prepare 19th-century youngsters for the school of hard knocks that awaited them. There is also the added benefit (if sometimes a vain one) that the diligently persistent moral messages may curb poor behavior — terrible things happen to bad little children.
The Grimms' version of Cinderella replaces the fairy godmother with a magic hazel tree, which houses helpful (and later punitive) turtle doves. The ball occurs over a three-day period, and though Aschenputtel dances with the prince each night, she dashes off before he can learn her name. On the third night, he coats the steps with a sticky substance, hoping to ensnare her as she flees. He only gets the slipper, which in this case is gold. The sisters' self-mutilation happens to each in turn as the prince makes his rounds in search of the mystery woman, whom, of course, he soon discovers is Ashenputtel.
Although it might be possible to connect the Italians Pavesi and Rossini and the Maltese-born, Italian-trained Isouard to Basile's Pentamerone (Isouard suggests an Italian setting by using such as names Montefiascone and Dandini), Perrault's Contes are generally assumed to be the antecedent of these staged works. Later, both Massenet (Cendrillon, 1899) and Prokofiev (his Zulushka ballet, 1945) went in that direction, as did Pauline García Viardot, daughter of Manuel and sister to Maria Malibran. Both daughters would become great interpreters of Rossini's La Cenerentola, but when it came time to produce her own work on the same subject (Cendrillon, 1904), Viardot settled for a hybrid of the two traditions, feeling the need to incorporate the fairy godmother and glass slipper into a setting that more closely follows that of Rossini. The ballroom setting intrigued waltz king and Die Fledermaus composer Johann Strauss, who had begun a Cinderella ballet (Aschenbrödel), but he died before it was completed.
On the Grimm side, German opera would be most affected — a subgenre known as Märchenoper developed in the early 19th century in the works of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner, among others. A parallel also can be drawn to the works of Richard Wagner as many of his subjects relied on the folk tradition, and the composer specifically drew from the Grimms' Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zulernen for parts of Siegfried. A resurgence of Märchenoper occurred at the turn of the century, most notably in the works of Engelbert Humperdinck. Hänsel und Gretel (1893) is the most famous example; others include Die sieben Geislein (1895) and Königskinder (1910). A general trend into the early 20th century also showed an interest in the fantastic world and a disregard of historical or contemporary subjects previously enjoyed by 19th-century audiences, evidenced by musical settings of Carlo Gozzi's Turandot [set by both Ferruccio Busoni (1917) and Giacomo Puccini (1926)], and by Le rossignol (Igor Stravinsky, 1914) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (Richard Strauss, 1919), to name a few.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera