La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
Italian Opera in Rossini's Day
In 1815, Domenico Barbaja (1778-1841) secured Rossini's services under a multi-year contract to compose for the Neapolitan theaters (which included the San Carlo, Nuovo, Fondo and Fiorentini). The theater manager reaped the rewards of his gifted insight after Rossini's financial windfall, The Barber of Seville, soon came to town. During this period a number of Rossini operas had their premieres in Naples, including Armida, Mosè in Egitto, Ermione, La donna del Lago and Zelmira. La Cenerentola, however, did not — Rossini had a clause in his contract that allowed him a certain amount of time away from Naples so that he could compose and reprise his works in other cities throughout Italy. Still, the impresario worked him hard, requiring two new operas a year, as well as the remounting of previous hits. Rossini later quipped, "If he had been able to, Barbaja would have put me in charge of the kitchen as well."
Barbaja was not only an astute impresario, but also a gaming tycoon. Opera houses at the beginning of the 19th century were subsidized by legalized gambling, and part of Rossini's salary included proceeds from the tables. Located in the theater's foyer, the tables often provided a tempting diversion for opera patrons who attended the opera not only for musical entertainment but for social intercourse. Inside the theater the scene was very different from what it is today — people ate, drank and talked to and about one another during the performance. In fact, the original horseshoe-shaped design of the theater was specially engineered to give audience members the opportunity to watch each other as much as the activity onstage. The boxes, which were usually owned in perpetuity by patrician families, had private rooms behind them, lavishly furnished to provide a "home away from home."
The opera itself was constructed around this need for socialization. The lengthy overtures allow for the numerous late arrivals and dinners in the private boxes. Solo numbers, to which audience would actually stop to listen, were spread out uniformly, alternating with recitative and ensembles. An aria di sorbetto ("sherbet aria"), sung by a secondary character late in the opera, was provided to give ice cream venders an opportunity to sell their goods. In La Cenerentola, Clorinda's aria, "Sventurata mi credea," is the aria di sorbetto.
During the bel canto period, the singer was paramount. Often they were engaged by a particular theater long before an opera had been composed or a subject even considered. Composers were required to suit their music to particular singers, staying within a specific range and focusing on their particular strengths. The performer was free to embellish their arias at will — a practice that irritated Rossini so much that he was careful to write out and enforce his own embellishments as much as possible. Artists still might insert an aria of their own choosing, not written by the opera's composer at all, but a piece showing off their special skills. These became known as "suitcase arias."
If a particular artist wasn't suitable, or if a performance was at all substandard, the audience could very well riot. This might include catcalls, fist fights or even the throwing of food. Rather than booing, opera patrons would blow across the opening of their wine bottles, creating a hollow, haunting sound. As a result, a failed premiere became known as a fiasco from the Italian word for wine bottle, fiascone. (In La Cenerentola, Don Magnifico, the baron of Montefiascone, and a magnificent wine drinker, derives his name from the same word). Rossini would draw varying sizes of wine bottles in his letters to describe the degree to which a work had failed. Although these practices eventually fell out of practice, Giuseppe Verdi would still use the term to describe operas that had not had successful premieres well into the 19th century.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera