All Tangled Up

In Act II of La Cenerentola, a sudden thunderstorm causes Prince Ramiro to seek refuge in Don Magnifico’s mansion. There, he spots the bracelet that the servant girl Cenerentola is wearing—and recognizes the mysterious woman from the ball. Cenerentola and Ramiro are thrilled to be reunited, but the other characters onstage (Dandini, Don Magnifico, Clorinda, and Tisbe) are genuinely perplexed: The Prince appears to be in love with a maid. For this moment in the drama, Rossini provides a humorous sextet (an ensemble of six singers) to capture the group’s astonishment and provide a musical illustration for the events happening onstage.

One by one, the singers enter the musical fray. Each sings the same melody, resulting in a complex contrapuntal effect known as a canon. The singers articulate their words in short staccato bursts, while on several occasions, an embellished bel canto outburst in one singer’s line brings a particular character to the fore. Yet for the most part, the sung melody is very simple, making this scene stand out from the opera’s overall bel canto virtuosity. In the orchestra, too, the instruments provide a rhythmic foundation that punctuates and supports the vocal lines while avoiding the kind of lush accompaniment we find elsewhere in the score.

The stage direction also plays a role in the scene’s comic effect. The singers’ frozen facial expressions and abrupt hand gestures make them come across as lifeless robots. As the scene progresses, the singers become physically entangled by a ribbon—a staging element that echoes the “tangled knot” described by the libretto. Taken together, the music and staging create not only a humorous scene but also a sense of jaggedness and bewilderment, highlighting the group’s inability to grasp an unconventional romantic union. And by making the singers come across as automata rather than living, breathing humans, Rossini caricatures a society in which social class determines expectations about who should fall in love with whom.