We thought the fairy godmother's makeover of Cinderella was impressive. Here are five reasons to catch Rossini's radical transformation of the fairy tale this August, which has been recast again with limitless imagination and stunning effects.
1. A dramatic backstory
All the best stories involve a little drama, and accounts of how La Cenerentola came to be written deliver the goods...
Rossini had had his initial opera commission vetoed by the Vatican censor, and needed to compose a new show in a matter of weeks. Ferretti, a librettist whose work Rossini previously snubbed when he submitted it for The Barber of Seville, was reluctantly brought in to help write a brand-new piece.
For hours the two sat together, Rossini lying in bed to help himself concentrate, and Ferretti throwing out one idea after the other only to have over 20 topics refused by the composer. Eventually, between yawns, the poet suggested Cinderella. Rossini sat bolt upright and challenged Ferretti on whether he dared to write a libretto for the fairy tale. Ferretti shot a similar retort back, and promised to have text ready for the next day. The result of this fractious partnership was, of course, one of the most popular operas of the 19th-century.
2. A kind of (stage) magic
Rossini agreed to compose an opera for La Cenerentola on one condition – the story would be rid of all magic, due to the technical constraints of the opera house in Rome, which had commissioned the piece. No more fairy godmothers, no pumpkins, no mice or magically transformed gladrags – just a sympathetic philosopher named Alidoro, who recognises the prince’s ideal partner in Angelina.
Two centuries on, the production coming to Edinburgh remains faithful to Rossini’s stripped-down fairy tale, but the director Stefan Herheim also has a few tricks up his sleeve that the original composer could only dream of. Renowned for his imaginative revamps of classic operas, Herheim brings La Cenerentola to life with a video-projected fairy tale castle designed by fettFilm, a gigantic mechanical fireplace, and an appearance from Rossini himself – suspended from the ceiling on a cloud no less.
3. Great patter
Rossini was a famous wit, but while this is very much on display in La Cenerentola the patter we want to talk about is the fast-paced style of singing. The technique gives maximum comic effect to this opera, like when the clownish step-father Don Magnifico lists the riches he could gain by marrying one of his daughters to a prince. So excited is he that he works himself up into a tongue-twisting frenzy that looks nigh on impossible to enunciate. It is an impressive and hilarious feat to watch.
4. Damsels doing it for themselves
Gone is the helpless heroine who relies on a benevolent fairy godmother to get her happy ending. With the magical elements of the story swept away, Rossini’s lead must rely on her own cunning to escape her cruel step-family. She actively seeks out the prince to give him her bracelet and then challenges him to come and find her – and of course he does, because who can resist a person who knows what they want? Played by the critically acclaimed mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier, Cinderella loses her sugar-coated damsel persona and rises as a richly sung, formidable princess.
5. An epic storm scene
Rossini loved a good storm in an opera, and the one in La Cenerentola does not disappoint. Its deafening ferocity is brought to life by the orchestral swells and rumbles in Rossini’s score and, in this particular production, dramatic video projections and a smoke machine operated by the ugly step-sisters. Rather conveniently, the storm breaks Prince Ramiro’s carriage right in front of Cinderella’s house, helping him to find his princess and return her bracelet to her.
La Cenerentola is on 24-26 August at 7.15pm in the Festival Theatre.
With thanks to The Cambridge Companion to Rossini and OperaGlass for the historical anecdotes.