La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
But where is the classic tale by Charles Perrault? What happened to the glass slipper, fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage and helpful rodents? As it turns out, by the first decade of the 19th century, Perrault's story had already undergone significant revision. Both Pavesi and Isouard's operas replaced the ethereal godmother with Alidor/Alidoro, a byproduct of the Enlightenment, the philosopher who sagely guides the two lovers' union and transformation by way of prudent advice. It's true the magic elements exist only by the slightest implication in La Cenerentola, something that already had started to fade in Isouard and Pavesi's works — their only supernatural effect is a subtle red rose that renders Cendrillon/Agatina unrecognizable. By dispensing with that component completely, Ferretti and Rossini introduce the possibility that Angelina could be recognized by her family at the prince's ball, adding a touch of veracity, tension, and later, abuse.
Thus by removing the fairies, La Cenerentola no longer is a "fairy tale" The drama becomes something more substantial, a comedy of manners with some real gravity. Still, some comic traditions had to be preserved. Hardly evil (though at times not very pleasant) Don Magnifico is a benign replacement as the bubbling and oft-drunken stepparent, coming straight out of the Italian commedia dell'arte. His control and squander of money (and Angelina's fortune) draws an interesting parallel to Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, though his task is much easier — he is able to snatch Cenerentola's dowry by way of their sketchy familial relationship, rather than the more time-consuming (and in Bartolo's case, fruitless) task of courtship. Dandini shares some of his more devious traits with the stock player Brighella, and his masquerade as well as the doubly disguised Angelina and Ramiro at the prince's ball are further commedia tricks. Patter song, a requisite of the opera buffa genre, is obliged by not one, but two arias given to Don Magnifico as well as a marvelous duet, where he faces off with his buffo adversary, Dandini. In spite of the rapid fire of Magnifico's notes, the even dramatic pacing is another aspect of the work as being both real and human — there is no fretful stroke of midnight to bring the party to a sudden end. Angelina demands the prince play according to her terms in order to determine if his love is genuine.
Finally, there is the absence of the glass slipper, which some say might not have been glass at all. According to those sources, the French word for glass, verre, was mistranslated from its near-homonym, vair, or "squirrel fur." This theory has since been debunked by the latter's utter lack of elegance (remember Perrault's story was originally set during the era of Louis XIV), not to mention the fur's elasticity, which could more easily adapt to a variety of foot sizes. The inflexible, more petit glass slipper reinforces a stereotype of the feminine ideal — the smaller the foot, the more beautiful (and in some cultures, the more submissive) the woman. The reason they decided to omit it? Roman decency forbade the exposure of a woman's bare ankle in the drama's penultimate scene. Ferretti and Rossini had to settle for two matching bracelets.
Isouard, Pavesi and Rossini's operas turn the story away from fantasy and emphasize its virtue — virtù, in fact, is spotlighted in the title of the second work and bontà (goodness) in the third. By the mid-century, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) had become enormously popular throughout Europe and was tremendously influential on all the various art disciplines. Pamela is in the servant in the House of B, and it becomes quite clear early in the novel she is one of exceptional character. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of her mistress's son, who retains Pamela's services after his mother's death. Mr. B's inappropriate behavior creates discord in the household and puts the title character's virtue to the test. After a series of awkward episodes, Pamela earns her master's respect by way of her letters (which he secretly reads) and her steadfast unwillingness to submit to his amorous advances out of wedlock. Crossing all social barriers, B acquires a greater respect for his maid, and the couple eventually marries. Richardson's novel ignited a great literary controversy, with "Pamelists" and "Antipamelists" in heated debate. In part to settle this dispute, the author wrote a sequel, Clarissa, which also has attracted the interest of later composers (including Georges Bizet, though he left his work incomplete).
Among Pamela 's many adaptations is a libretto by opera buffa master Carlo Goldoni, set to music by Niccolò Piccinni in 1760. La buona figliuola maritata tells a similar story of a low-bred, orphaned girl, Cecchina. Her employer's brother, the Marchese della Conchiglia, is fixated on the young maid, in spite of his sister's misgivings. For her part, the marchesa cannot marry her boyfriend, the Cavaliere Armidoro, if her brother marries outside his class. Things turn out in a tidy fashion — Cecchina is identified as a long-lost descendant of a German baron (by a birthmark on her arm, not unlike Figaro), and everyone lives happily ever after. Piccinni's opera was immensely successful and was mounted all over Europe.
To complete the circle, a similar tale, Griselda, was treated by both Boccaccio and Perrault, and set as an opera by Piccinni is 1793. This story also involves the testing of a young maiden, this time the patience and virtue of a shepherdess, by her princely husband. The original tale precedes Richardson's novel and is believed to have provided some inspiration.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera