Plot and Creation: La Cenerentola
The Fairy Tale "Cendrillon" by Charles Perrault
Charles Perrault (1628–1703), was a civil servant and writer during the long reign of Louis XIV of France, yet he is best known today for one of his retirement projects. In 1697, just a few years before his death, Perrault published the Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Stories or Tales from Times Past)—and sealed his reputation for posterity.
The Histoires, which soon became known by their unofficial title of Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose), were a collection of literary fairy tales, including such modern favorites as “Puss and Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and of course “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper.” Perrault’s stories had little to do with the folk tales on which they were distantly based. Written in a polished, sophisticated style, they were intended to appeal to aristocratic audiences, who enjoyed hearing them read at gatherings of intellectuals and fashionable society events. Because the readers were primarily adults, Perrault attached cynical rhyming morals to each story.
Despite his intended readership, however, Perrault’s “Cendrillon” is essentially the classic version of the Cinderella story children know and love today—wicked stepmother, enchanted pumpkin, glass slippers, and all. (Walt Disney’s animated film from 1950, for instance, follows Perrault quite faithfully.) Yet the story underwent some major modifications on its way to becoming the libretto for La Cenerentola, most notably losing many of its supernatural elements and substituting a foolish stepfather for a wicked stepmother. In fact, Jacopo Ferretti, the librettist for La Cenerentola, wasn’t working directly from Perrault’s text. Under extreme time pressure, Ferretti borrowed liberally from the libretti to two then-recent operas based on “Cendrillon,” one French and one Italian. By doing so, he was able to write the text in just 22 days—and craft a libretto perfectly in tune with the opera buffa style for which Rossini was already famous.
Don Magnifico's mansion
Don Magnifico lives in a tumbledown castle with his daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, and his stepdaughter Angelina, referred to callously as “Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) because she is forced to work as their maid. The stepsisters squabble constantly over who is more beautiful, while Cenerentola is dressed in rags. Nevertheless, Cenerentola dreams of a better life. To cheer herself up (and, perhaps, to needle Clorinda and Tisbe), she sings a sad folk song about a king who chose a bride not for her wealth or status but for her goodness of heart. When a beggar knocks at the door asking for charity, the difference between the generous Cenerentola and her hard-hearted stepsisters becomes clear: The stepsisters tell the beggar to leave, while Cenerentola offers him breakfast. Suddenly, emissaries from the court appear and announce that Prince Ramiro is paying a visit to the household. He is looking for the most beautiful girl in all the land and will hold a ball that evening to choose his bride. The stepsisters cannot wait to tell their father the news, and they wake him from an odd dream featuring a flying donkey landing on a bell tower. Interpreting the dream as a good omen, Magnifico fantasizes about marrying one of his daughters to the Prince and restoring his family’s fortune.
Prince Ramiro enters alone, disguised as his own servant so he can freely observe the prospective brides. He runs into Cenerentola, and the two are immediately attracted to each other. He asks her who she is, and Cenerentola, suddenly bashful, runs away. Soon, the “Prince” himself arrives (he is actually Ramiro’s valet Dandini, dressed in the Prince’s clothes). Magnifico, Clorinda, and Tisbe go to absurd lengths to flatter him, and he invites them to the ball, hamming up his princely role outrageously. Cenerentola begs her stepfather to let her attend the ball, even if only for an hour, but he rudely refuses. Ramiro is shocked by the way she is treated.
The arrival of the Prince’s tutor, Alidoro, interrupts the argument. He announces that, according to the local records, there should be a third daughter in the Magnifico household. Magnifico lies through his teeth and claims that this third daughter is dead—to Cenerentola’s dismay. Everyone departs for the palace except Cenerentola, who is left alone and upset. But she is comforted by the mysterious beggar, who reveals himself to be none other than Alidoro in disguise. Alidoro tells her that he will take her to the ball and explains that one day soon she will be rewarded for her good heart.
Prince Ramiro's palace
Dandini, still disguised as the Prince, is fending off Clorinda and Tisbe. He has cleverly distracted their father by making him master of the wine cellar, where Magnifico is now demonstrating how much he can imbibe without falling over drunk. Dandini manages to sneak off to share his negative opinion of the two sisters with Ramiro. Both men are confused, however, since Alidoro is certain that the Prince’s bride will come from Don Magnifico’s household. Clorinda and Tisbe appear again, each desperate to be the chosen one. In an attempt to placate them, Dandini offers Ramiro (still disguised as a valet) to whichever sister the Prince does not marry, but the stepsisters are outraged at the idea of marrying a servant. Suddenly, Alidoro enters with a mysterious stranger, a beautiful, veiled lady. Dandini and Ramiro are both smitten. When the company prevails upon her to remove her veil, everyone is astonished: Surely, they say, she looks rather familiar! Unable to make sense of the situation, they all sit down to supper, feeling like they are in a dream.
Prince Ramiro's palace
Magnifico fears that the arrival of the stranger could ruin his daughters’ chances of marrying the Prince, but he soon begins daydreaming again about the riches he will possess once he becomes a member of the royal family. Cenerentola, tired of being pursued by Dandini, tells him that she is in love with his servant. Overhearing this, Ramiro is overjoyed and steps forward. Cenerentola, however, says that she is returning home and does not want him to follow her. She gives him one of two matching bracelets, keeping the other for herself. If he truly cares for her, she declares, he will find her. She also adds that she will only consent to marry him if he loves her for who she really is. Cenerentola leaves, and the besotted Prince resolves to find the mysterious girl and win her hand. Meanwhile Magnifico, who still thinks that Dandini is the Prince, confronts him, insisting that he decide which of his daughters he will marry. When Dandini reveals that he is in fact the Prince’s servant, Magnifico is furious.
Don Magnifico's mansion
Magnifico and the sisters return home in a terrible mood and order Cenerentola, once again dressed in rags, to prepare supper. A thunderstorm breaks out, and Alidoro cleverly arranges for Ramiro’s carriage to break down in front of Magnifico’s mansion so the Prince has an excuse to take refuge inside. Cenerentola and Ramiro, now no longer disguised, recognize each other immediately by their matching bracelets: They are overjoyed, but everyone else is utterly confused by this apparent romance between a prince and a maid. When Ramiro asks to marry Cenerentola, Magnifico and his daughters respond with cruelty and scorn. Ramiro threatens to have them punished, but Cenerentola asks the indignant Prince to forgive them. The Prince and Cenerentola reappear in wedding finery, and Cenerentola joyfully reflects on how suddenly her fortunes have changed: She was born into hardship and misery, but her days of sitting by the fire are finally over.
Charles Perrault is born in Paris to a well-to-do family. He will spend much of his life as a civil servant and member of the Académie Française, an organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the French language.
In his retirement, Perrault publishes a collection of literary fairy tales for aristocratic audiences. Generally known by the nickname Les Contes de Ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose), the collection includes such classics as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Cinderella.”
Gioachino Rossini is born on February 29 in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Both of his parents are musicians, his father a trumpet and horn player and his mother an opera singer.
The Rossini family moves to Bologna. Young Gioachino, a talented musician who already enjoys an active career as a performer, begins formal studies in composition.
Rossini’s first major success, Tancredi, premieres in February at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Overnight, Rossini’s reputation as Italy’s foremost composer is made.
On February 20, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) premieres at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. The opening night performance is a flop, but in August, following slight revisions, the opera is revived in Bologna, this time to thunderous acclaim.
In December, Rossini agrees to write an opera for the Teatro Valle in Rome. After considering more than a dozen possible subjects (including one rejected by the city’s censors), Rossini and the librettist Jacopo Ferretti finally settle on “Cinderella.” Ferretti bases his libretto on Perrault’s story, but he also borrows liberally from two recent operas on the same subject. Rossini completes the opera in less than a month, borrowing the overture and other bits and pieces from his own prior works.
La Cenerentola, ossia la Bontà in Trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) premieres on January 25 at the Teatro Valle. History repeats itself: As with Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the opera is initially given a frosty reception but soon becomes one of Rossini’s most beloved works.
Rossini’s last Italian opera, Semiramide, premieres in Venice.
By the age of 32, Rossini has written 34 operas and enjoys international acclaim of staggering proportions. In a biography of the composer published the following year, the French novelist Stendhal writes that “Napoleon is dead, but a new conqueror [Rossini] is now spoken of from Moscow to Naples, from London to Vienna, from Paris to Calcutta.” Rossini officially relocates to Paris.
Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell), premieres in Paris, following which he retires from composing for the stage; for the remaining four decades of his life, he will never write another large-scale opera. Instead, he turns his attention and accumulated wealth to cooking and exchanging recipes with famous chefs—and to hosting a glittering musical salon at his home in Paris.
After a short illness, Rossini dies at the age of 76. His last years have been marked by an emergence from his self-imposed musical silence: He has written more than 150 short pieces of music, mostly in a humorous vein, under the general title Péchés de Vieillesse (Sins of Old Age).
Two decades after Rossini’s death, his widow, Olympe, transports his remains to Italy. In May, they are reinterred at the church of Santa Croce in Florence, where his final resting place may still be visited today.