Great moments in opera: La Cenerentola

May 26, 2011

La Cenerentola (Cinderella) was once one of Rossini’s most popular operas. It suffered due to the relative dearth of top-shelf mezzo-sopranos in the early and mid-twentieth century, but has been making something of a comeback in recent decades. I had never heard it before this week, when I acquired a recording featuring Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. I have really enjoyed it.

In its basic outline  this is the familiar Cinderella story: there are wicked sisters, a ball, a prince, a lost item (a bracelet rather than a slipper), and a happy ending. Yet, rather oddly and unfortunately, the fantastic elements of the plot have been removed: there is no fairy godmother. Her role has been converted into that of Alidoro, an old philosopher. As such, the charm of the love story is still in evidence, but some of the magic is gone, so to speak.

There is no lack of magic in the music, however. It is as effervescent and winsome as one could hope for, with that seemingly effortless lilt and charm that is so characteristic of Rossini’s music. Astonishingly, it took him only about three weeks to write the entire score.

Here is a lovely scene from near the beginning of the opera in which Cinderella, at her labours, sings about a king who marries a common girl — her own story, of course, in forecast. This clip, like those that follow, is taken from a 2009 Metropolitan Opera production starring Elina Garanca in the title role, with Lawrence Brownlee as the Prince. (Brownlee does not appear in this first clip.)

Later in Act I the Prince arrives, seeking the most beautiful woman in his kingdom to become his bride. In order to have leisure to observe without being himself scrutinized and flattered, however, he and his butler have exchanged roles. In this scene, which I think is one of the finest in the opera, he and Cinderella meet for the first time, neither knowing who the other is, and over the course of the scene they fall in love. This duet is a bit long, but worth it.

Finally, skipping over all of the complications, let us go directly to the happy ending. Here is the final scene, in which Cinderella, at her wedding to the Prince, rejoices at the thought that she shall never again be obliged to do thankless servile labour. Here is Cecilia Bartoli singing the part; not everyone likes her style — I myself do sometimes find her manner to be overly emphatic, and her heavy aspiration can be a distraction — but I have to admit that she sings the heck out of this aria.

For comparison, here is Elina Garanca singing exactly the same aria in exactly the same production. It is quite amazing how differently the two singers come across: Bartoli dominates the stage with her larger-than-life presence; Garanca is more modest, but her voice no less lovely. (Skip to 4:30 to hear only the same segment as in the previous video.)

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