The original rags-to-riches fairytale will burst into sparkling life in Lindy Hume’s quirkily eccentric new production of Rossini’s dazzling creation, characterised by pyrotechnic arias, breathtaking musical ensembles and a huge heart. Dan Potra’s magical design evokes a childlike wonder, inspired by the characters, grime and bustle of Dickensian London.
Our downtrodden heroine falls in love with the Prince’s servant, who turns out to be the Prince himself. But on the eve of the royal wedding, how does Cinderella, so cruelly bullied into servitude by her nasty stepsisters and drunken stepfather, exact her revenge?
Setting off the vocal fireworks in an exciting Opera Queensland debut, Fiona Campbell stars as Cinderella, with a fabulous cast of popular local artists including Virgilio Marino, Jason Barry-Smith, Andrew Collis, Emily Burke and Deborah Rogers. Charismatic Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam and British conductor Wyn Davies, Music Director of New Zealand Opera, make their Australian debuts.
Cinderella marks the first of several trans-Tasman co-productions resulting from Opera Queensland’s new partnership with New Zealand Opera.
Don Magnifico's vain daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, are primping. Their step-sister, Cinderella (whose real name is Angelina) sings a song about a long-ago king who chose a good and innocent bride. When a beggar (actually Prince Ramiro’s tutor, Alidoro) appears, the step-sisters chase him away but Cinderella makes him welcome. There is an announcement that Prince Ramiro, in search of the most beautiful girl in the land to be his bride, will soon pay a visit. The sisters order Cinderella to get them ready to receive him, and their squabbling wakes Don Magnifico. In so doing, they have interrupted a dream which he interprets to mean that good fortune will soon visit the family. His premonition seems vindicated when he learns of the Prince’s visit. Magnifico exhorts the girls to capture the Prince's heart to save the family fortunes. Disguised as his own valet, the Prince arrives alone so that he can observe the women of the household incognito. He meets Cinderella and is enchanted. Dandini (the real valet) arrives disguised as the Prince, enjoying his new status, and invites the fawning sisters to a ball. Cinderella begs her step-father to take her too but Magnifico brutally orders her to stay at home, to Ramiro's shock. Alidoro, now in his true identity, questions Don Magnifico about his third daughter. Magnifico tells Alidoro that she is dead. After everyone except Cinderella has left, Alidoro reveals his identity and transforms her for the ball. At the palace, Magnifico discovers the wine cellar. Clorinda and Tisbe continue chasing Dandini, but scornfully reject Ramiro. All are enchanted by the arrival of a mysterious, veiled lady. When she unmasks they are struck by her uncanny resemblance to Cinderella.
Ramiro is smitten with the newly-arrived guest. He overhears Cinderella refusing Dandini’s attentions because she loves his ‘valet’ and delightedly steps forth to declare himself. Cinderella gives him one of a pair of matching bracelets, saying he will find her wearing its twin before rushing away. After she leaves, Ramiro relinquishes his false identity and vows to find her. Dandini, now reduced to his former servant status, smashes Magnifico’s dreams of grandeur and turns him out of the palace. Returning home, Magnifico and the sisters resume their cruel treatment of Cinderella as a storm hits. Dandini appears at the door telling them that the Prince’s carriage has overturned outside. Cinderella realises her "valet" is Prince Ramiro; he in turn recognises her bracelet. Don Magnifico, Clorinda and Tisbe can hardly believe their ears when Ramiro announces that Cinderella is to be his bride. Cinderella intercedes to protect her step-father and step-sisters in the face of Ramiro’s anger.
After the wedding, Cinderella persuades the Prince to pardon her family. As the people welcome their new Princess, Cinderella reflects on her dramatic change in fortune and rejoices.
In The Uses of Enchantment - The meaning and Importance of Fairytales, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim notes the "contrast between surface simplicity and underlying complexity which arouses deep interest in the story and explains its appeal to millions over centuries". The most popular version of Cinderella is the 1950s Disney animated film with its cute talking animals and yellow-blonde heroine, and every couple of years Cinderella spin-offs like Pretty Woman and Slumdog Millionaire reinforce the rags-to-riches narrative in the popular psyche. Since Ancient Egyptian and Greek stories told of an anonymous girl selected for royalty by fitting into a slipper, hundreds of variations have been documented, with striking similarities and radical differences between versions, most obviously between the two most famous retellings until Disney - those of Charles Perrault in 1697 and the Brothers Grimm in 1812.
The divide between the gentle Perrault Cinderella and the graphically violent Grimm tale, is explained by their audiences. While the Grimm Bothers were cultural researchers of traditional folktales, Perrault, a member of the Académie française, wrote for children of the nobility and aristocracy. His stories delightfully reinforce the superiority of the noble classes over peasants, and the Catholic necessity for pure, repentant, sin-free women in decent society. Perrault's sanitisation is scathingly dismissed by Bettelheim: Perrault's Cinderella, like Disney's, is "sugar-sweet and lacks initiative", denying children the lesson in resilience and self-reliance of the original fable. Saved from her situation by a fairy godmother, Cinderella is only loveable when dressed as the Prince's social equal. Once she is crowned Queen, she remains a model of obedience, forgives her sisters for their cruelty, even rewarding them with positions in her court. Perrault's moral is that "beauty is a treasure, but graciousness is priceless".
The Grimm version - designed as folk-tales are, to teach life-lessons to children through metaphor and moral example - is brutal. Cinderella's step-family are torturers. When she begs to go to the ball they dole out cruelly impossible tasks. Desperate that her daughters squeeze into the slipper, the step-mother mutilates their feet - cutting off the toes of one, the heel of the other. Blood oozes from the slipper, revealing their deception. Punishment for their wickedness comes on the way to Cinderella's wedding: Pigeons peck out the sisters' eyes and they remain blind for the rest of their lives.
It's hard to grasp that Rossini and the Grimm brothers were contemporaries, so vastly different were their personalities. Given his innate connection with audiences and love for a witty, feisty mezzo-soprano heroine (Geltrude Rignetti, his first Angelina/Cinderella was also two years earlier his first Rosina), I imagine Rossini's challenge was finding a human reality to the character - a girl who is virtuous, yet three-dimensional and appealing to contemporary audiences. Rossini was just 25, already a major star in the theatre world, when he wrote Cenerentola, ossia la Bonta in Trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) in 1817. At 21 he had enjoyed a huge success with l'Italiana in Algieri, featuring a dynamic female lead, Isabella, who quite wipes the floor with several macho types, singlehandedly frees all the Italian slaves and sails off with her boyfriend to Italy. This is not a composer who is afraid of a strong woman. Unsurprisingly, Rossini's Cinderella is cheeky, strong-willed, adorable, but certainly no victim. Giving a steely edge to Perrault's final act of public forgiveness, at her wedding she elevates herself to even higher moral ground: "As I am to be your partner on the throne, let me render myself worthy by making my revenge... their forgiveness". Very cool, and triumphant indeed.
Conscious of his theatre producer's budget, Rossini and his librettist Ferretti reworked the Perrault story to avoid expensive magic/ transformation scenes. In the process they created a no-frills version that is funny, moving, thought-provoking and yes, transformative. As mythology guru Marina Warner says, "metamorphosis defines the fairytale" - there must be the possibility of radical change for the character and his/her circumstances. In Rossini's Cinderella there are no magic tricks, no fairy godmother, no glass slipper. The transformation from abused child to confident young woman takes place within Cinderella. Dr Bettelheim states: "one of the greatest merits of Cinderella is that ... the child understands that it is through her own efforts, and because of the person she is, that Cinderella is able to transcend her degraded state." One of my favourite moments in the opera is the pep-talk that Alidoro gives to Cinderella about allowing her inner beauty to shine, which invariably reminds me of Born This Way, Lady Gaga's anthem to the outsider kid: "There's nothing wrong with loving who you are....so hold your head up girl and you'll go far." When Cinderella goes out there and knocks them dead, we are all on her side.
Discovering recently that Rossini's Cinderella was the first opera ever performed in Australia, by a touring Italian opera troupe in 1840, was pure poetry. Australians "get" Cinderella - we love it when someone from a hard-knocks background has a break. We love commoners mixing it with aristocracy. When a girl from Tasmania met her Prince in a Sydney pub, we thought "good on you". So what if, after the royal wedding, things go wrong - we still had to watch Kate and William's kiss on the balcony. We embrace the Cinderella story for what it is, an indulgence of the lonely child within us, a gratification of the human need for happy endings.
For Transylvanian/Australian designer Dan Potra and I, the year of that first Australian performance - the very year of Queen Victoria's wedding to Prince Albert - inspired our imaginary setting for Cinderella. Indulging Australian audiences' love of period costumes and royal weddings, we could connect our contemporary world view with that of London in the late 1830s. Our Cinderella scrubs filthy floors in a world undergoing seismic social change. It's the beginning of the end of extreme class divisions after the French Revolution had given the European aristocracy the fright of their lives.
Novelist and social commentator Charles Dickens captured popular imaginations across all classes with his serialised Cinderella story, Oliver Twist (1837-1839), inspired by his own brutal experience of childhood poverty. Look at Cinderella through the eyes of Rossini and Dickens, and Cinderella's escape from her degraded state turns political. Using the same light touch he applied to make the revolutionary character Figaro so charmingly subversive in The Barber of Seville, the composer shows another scratchy master/servant team in Dandini and Ramiro. In overcoming the vast social polarity that separates her from the prince without compromising her principles, perhaps Cinderella's triumph is a win for the working classes.
But in Rossini's marvellous creation there is also transformation, the power of love, a celebration of dreams coming true....and Goodness Triumphant. We hope you will find joy and delight in tonight's performance, and rejoice with Cinderella when finally (as our chorus sing) "envy and pride are vanquished and goodness wins the day".
30 below available for July 9, 11, 18 and 22 performances
Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, South Bank.
Sung in English with projected surtitles.
New translation by Lindy Hume and Narelle French.
The performance lasts approximately two hours and forty-five minutes including one twenty-minute interval.
Image of Fiona Campbell as Cinderella created by Damien Bredberg.