Thursday, October 3, 2019


Wallis Giunta (Cinderella) and Jonathan Michie (Dandini). La Cenerentola, Oper Leipzig © Kirsten Nijhof
By Jonathan Dean 

La Cenerentola is Cinderella...almost. 

Rossini’s opera differs from most of the world’s many Cinderella stories because of a few key features: there is no magic, the traditional evil stepmother and fairy godmother are replaced with male counterparts, and the prince identifies Cinderella thanks to a bracelet, not a slipper. And then, of course, there’s Dandini, the prince’s clever and mischievous servant. He isn’t part of the standard Cinderella-story cast list. What is he doing in this opera? He provides a much-needed reality check; while in real life there are people as virtuous as Cenerentola, or as awful as Magnifico, mostly there are people like Dandini.

Dandini owes his inclusion neither to Rossini nor to his credited librettist, Jacopo Ferretti. These two collaborators threw this opera together in a last-minute rush. Rossini owed Rome’s Teatro Valle an opera, which was supposed to premiere on December 26, 1816. Delayed by a new opera for Naples, unpredictable travel, and the ever-interfering censors, Rossini and Ferretti finally chose the Cinderella story as a subject on December 23 and, miraculously, the opera did in fact open on January 25, 1817. Rossini saved time by recycling some music he had composed for other operas and farming out the recitatives (and a couple little arias) to another composer, Luco Agolini. Ferretti saved time by stealing the cast list and scene structure created by French playwright and librettist Charles Guillaume Étienne for Maltese composer Nicolò Isouard, whose French opéra-comique about Cinderella had been a hit in Paris in 1810. (Rossini had enjoyed an Italian adaptation given in Milan in 1814.)

Dandini’s name and plot function thus originate with Étienne. But Étienne’s Dandini is little more than a decoy for the prince; he’s a costume, not a character, and has no personality to speak of. In Nicolò Isouard’s 1810 opera, Dandini barely sings.


The Dandini you’ll meet in this performance, on the other hand, has personality in excess. This outrageous character all but stops the show with his over-the-top entrance aria—a ludicrous parody of "noble" poise, diction, carriage, and elaborate coloratura—enacted by a cheeky underling who can’t resist this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mock the upper crust. As in Étienne, he’s there as a decoy, to prove that Clorinda and Tisbe are attracted only by the trappings of nobility, while Cenerentola/Cinderella recognizes its essence in the disguised Ramiro. But Dandini is so charming and delightful, Rossini and Ferretti kept him around for later scenes where, honestly, he doesn’t have all that much to do. Instead, he ends up addressing the audience directly, sometimes making sarcastic comments about the show; he becomes a cross between a fourth-wall breaking Harlequin and The Muppet Show’s Statler & Waldorf. The story doesn’t really need the scene in which Dandini torments the foolish, wicked Don Magnifico by stringing him along and then bursting his bubble; but their ridiculous buffo duet is one of the opera’s highlights, a welcome bit of Barber of Seville-style zaniness sandwiched between more sentimental numbers sung by the lovers.

Karin Osbeck (Tisbe), Jens Persson (Dandini) and Marianne Hellgren Staykov (Clorinda). Photo courtesy of the Royal Swedish Opera. 
With Dandini, Rossini wrote himself into this beloved old story. Dandini’s sparkle and wit, his irrepressible élan (enthusiastic verve), his infectious joie de vivre, are the essence of Rossini. (Why does the French language have more words for this spirit than either English or Italian? If there's an answer, it may also explain why Rossini eventually left Italy and lived the rest of his life in Paris!) Like 

Dandini, Rossini came from humble origins but had to behave as though he belonged among the rich and powerful. Like Dandini, Rossini was no saint. Whereas Giuseppe Verdi stuck it out in Italy through the chaotic wars of Italian unification, helping forge a nation and becoming a national hero for his efforts, Rossini was enjoying life up in Paris, “living large,” as they say. In retirement, Rossini became well-known as a gourmand (that’s like a glutton, only wealthier). Dandini speaks for Rossini in the Act One finale when, first catching a glimpse of all the food at the feast, he sings, “Since I’m playing the Prince today, I’ll eat enough for four!”

Rossini’s first biographer, the French novelist Stendhal, complained that La Cenerentola lacked idealism. But another way of saying that might be, the character of Dandini rings so true, it requires a truly spectacular mezzo soprano in the title role to steal this opera back from him. It’s up to the singer playing Cenerentola to remind us that the opera’s subtitle is “Goodness Triumphant.” She provides the idealism, Dandini the reality. And as for Rossini, I think the gourmand/composer just hopes we’ll savor the delicious feast he has cooked up for us.


La Cenerentola' at Oper Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Waltraud Grubitzsch.

There was no female chorus at the Teatro Valle for the opera season of 1816/17, so Rossini wrote only for tenor and bass. Director Lindy Hume has chosen to add female characters, played by the male chorus, to this production as part of her interpretation. “In Victorian England, women and men played important roles in the aristocracy households, as well as, obviously, in the population as a whole. It doesn't make sense that they wouldn't be represented here,” Hume says. As a result, some of the female characters in this production are sung by men. 

Cinderella plays Oct. 19–Nov. 1, 2019 at McCaw Hall.
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