Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Cinderella: Director's notes

Wallis Giunta as Cinderella in the production directed by Lindy Hume. Photo courtesy of Giunta
By Lindy Hume, Stage Director of Seattle Opera's Upcoming Cinderella 

It’s nearly two hundred years after Rossini, a precociously brilliant 25-year-old celebrity, wrote Cinderella (La Cenerentola) in three weeks. He wrote it over Christmas, and it opened on January 20, 1817. Two centuries later, notwithstanding the speed with which it was written, and the worldwide fame of The Barber of Seville, for me Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant (the full original title) is his most wonderful creation.

Rossini’s Cinderella not only has a unique place in the history of opera in Australia—my homeland—the story of Cinderella has embedded itself in the Australian psyche, as it has all over the world. The upcoming production you’ll see at Seattle Opera seeks to respect two centuries of this opera’s performance history, while referencing popular contemporary entertainment styles such as the rom-com, the sitcom, and music theater—vernacular styles that speak to today’s audiences.

Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales notes the "contrast between surface simplicity and underlying complexity which arouses deep interest in the (Cinderella) 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.

Stage Director Lindy Hume
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 sanitization 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 folktales 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 encourages them to mutilate their feet through the cutting of toes and heels. 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.

Illustration from Cinderella: Retold by C. S. Evans, drawn by Arthur Rackham, 1919.
It's hard to grasp that Rossini and the Grimm brothers were contemporaries, (Rossini 1792-1868, J Grimm 1785-1863, W Grimm 1786-1859) so vastly different were their personalities. Given his innate connection with audiences and love for a witty, feisty mezzo-soprano heroine (Geltrude Righetti, his first Angelina/Cinderella was also 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. At 21, he had enjoyed a huge success with The Italian Girls in Algiers, 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 theater 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 favorite 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.

Gioachino Rossini featured on a cigarette trading card.
Discovering recently that Rossini's Cinderella was the first opera ever performed in my home country of 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. So what if, after the royal wedding, things go wrong—we still had to watch Diana and Charles, then Kate and William's kiss on the balcony (Meghan and Harry opted for chapel steps). 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.

Photo courtesy of Wallis Giunta
Novelist and social commentator Charles Dickens captured popular imaginations across all classes with his serializedse 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. 

In Rossini's marvelous creation there is lightness and darkness, cruelty and Goodness Triumphant. We rejoice with Cinderella when finally (as our chorus sing) "envy and pride are vanquished and goodness wins the day.” 

Cinderella plays Oct. 19–Nov. 1, 2019 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets & info:

Photo courtesy of Wallis Giunta