I thought it might be nice to focus on the way different composers have treated the same story, so in this post I’m going to look at Cinderella, which has had a few notable musical treatments in opera and ballet over the past couple of centuries.
The Cinderella story is well-known to most of us, I imagine, from the version by Charles Perrault (published in 1698) and the later Grimm version of 1812. According to the Aarne-Thompson fairy tales and folklore classification system, the Cinderella story is classified as type 510, with the usual version known to most children in Australia being type 510A. The folklore specialist Marian Rolafe Cox describes it rather clinically as “a tale of a persecuted girl who becomes the recipient of magical assistance from uncommon sources, uncovering her actual value and enabling her to gain a mate of a higher social status”. I guess she still lives happily ever after…
An operatic treatment of the Cinderella story was composed in 1810 by the little-known Maltese-born French composer Nicolo (or Nicolas) Isouard. Isouard wrote about 40 operas in his short life and his Cendrillon is based on the 1698 Perrault version of the story. The libretto based on this story was written by Charles Etienne. Etienne’s version changes the make up of Cinderella’s family and has other differences as well, the most obvious being that there is no fairy godmother (or pumpkin or rats…). Rather the prince’s tutor, Alidor, is the person who manipulates all to make it possible for Cinderella to get her prince.
Isouard’s opera contains nothing that is earth-shattering but it contains nothing that’s bad either. He was an efficient and skilled composer, as the finale to the opera’s first act demonstrates. In this music, the prince (disguised as his own valet), the sisters and their father all rejoice at the prospect of going to the ball. Cinderella laments the fact that she can’t go, but the wise Alidor assures her that all will be well. [listen]
From Paris in 1810 we move ahead to Rome in 1817 and to an Italian opera which sets a libretto in part derived from that of Isouard’s Cendrillon. The Italian name for Cinderella is La Cenerentola, and Rossini’s opera of that name dating from 1817 is the third in a series of comic masterpieces which began with The Italian Girl in Algiers in 1813 and continued with The Barber of Seville in 1816. Between Isouard’s opera and that of Rossini, the brothers Grimm published their version on the Cinderella story. This is an altogether darker take on the story. Rossini’s opera (which he composed in three weeks) is more closely allied to Perrault’s story as set by Isouard, although his Italian librettist, Jacopo Feretti, made some astonishing changes. Most notably there is no glass slipper lost in Cinderella’s rush to leave the ball before midnight. Rather she gives the prince one of two identical bracelets, the means by which he recognises her later on. Again there’s no fairy godmother; Alidor in the French libretto becomes Alidoro in the Italian.
As might be imagined, Rossini’s style was perfectly suited to the comedy and the love interest of the story. The end of the opera contains the expected reconciliation between Cinderella and the step-sisters and step-father who mistreated her. The scene also contains a magnificent aria for Cinderella, expressing her happiness - quite a taxing showstopper coming as it does at the end of a demanding opera - but in the hands of Rossini it’s completely right and wonderfully timed. And no-one sings it like Cecilia Bartoli! [listen]
We return to Paris for the next musical treatment of Cinderella, the opera Cendrillon by Jules Massenet. Massenet wrote about 40 operas between about 1860 and his death in 1912. A couple of these are still part of the mainstream repertoire of late French Romantic operas, such as Manon and Werther, and one of Massenet’s most famous melodies, the Meditation, comes from another of his operas, Thaïs. The Cinderella opera was first performed in 1899 and it follows the Perrault version of the story more closely than either Isouard or Rossini. There is a fairy godmother - a role for coloratura soprano - but interestingly the role of the prince (here called Prince Charming) is written for a soprano. That is, the male character is sung by a female singer (like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro or the composer in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos).
Frederica von Stade recorded Cinderella’s beautiful act 3 aria in a recording of French arias early in her career. In this, Cinderella relives the glamour and terror of the ball the night before. [listen]
In the same year as Massenet’s Cinderella opera premiered in Paris, 1899, one of the most famous composers in Europe died. He was the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, composer of The Blue Danube, The Emperor Waltz, Die Fledermaus and so much more. At the time of his death, Strauss left unfinished a score for a full-length ballet on the Cinderella story, known in German as Aschenbrödel. He had been persuaded to write this by rather unusual means.
Strauss’ opera Ritter Pásmán had been premiered in 1892 and the success of the substantial ballet scene in the third act of this led several people to suggest to Strauss that he write a full-length ballet. He was not overly keen on the idea until the editor of the Viennese newspaper Die Wage, Rudolph Lothar, ran a competition with a large cash prize which gave people the opportunity to suggest a ballet scenario for the Strauss to set to music. Talk about being painted into a corner!
The panel of judges included the Artistic Director of the Vienna Court Opera, one Gustav Mahler, and the 718 entries were narrowed down to three, from which Strauss chose Aschenbrödel, a modern treatment of the Perrault Cinderella story.
By late 1898 Strauss had finished the rough draft of the whole score and begun the orchestration, but only a few scenes were completed by the time he died of pneumonia in June of the following year. The work was completed from Strauss’ sketches by Josef Bayer, Director of the ballet at the Vienna Court Opera, and after various intrigues and reworkings the ballet was premiered in Berlin in May 1901. It had its Viennese premiere in 1908.
The story is updated from ye olde fairy tale times to 1900, and set in the Four Seasons department store. The Cinderella character is Grete, a milliner at the store. The prince figure in the story is Gustav, the store owner, who hosts a ball. The fairy godmother is replaced by Grete’s pet doves, who help her get ready for the ball. There’s the lost slipper and the usual happy ending, and the music for the ballet is delightful from start to finish.
This is the prelude to the ballet’s third act, one of the sections of the score Strauss completed himself in full orchestral score. It contains one of the last waltz melodies he ever wrote. [listen]
Forty years later, in 1940, the Kirov ballet commissioned a new score from Sergei Prokofiev on the Cinderella story as a follow-up to the huge success of his ballet Romeo and Juliet. Composition of the ballet was interrupted by the second world war and the composition of his mammoth opera War and Peace. It was eventually completed in 1944 and premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1945. The Perrault version of the story is followed pretty closely, complete with fairy godmother and lost slipper. The two step sisters have the Russian names of Khudyshka and Khubyshka - which I’m told mean Skinny and Dumpy - but the flashes of humour in the scenario shouldn't suggest that this is a shallow or thinly-inspired score. Prokofiev’s Cinderella is a masterful and symphonically constructed work which stands alongside the better-known Romeo and Juliet and deserves to be heard more often. I’ll just discuss the plot briefly here, and at the end append a link to a complete recording on YouTube.
There’s a beautiful moment from early in the first act, in which we are introduced to Cinderella after encountering the two sisters quarrelling. Cinderella uncovers a portrait of her dead mother and remembers her happy childhood.
The fairy godmother is introduced initially disguised as a beggar. The two sisters treat her badly but Cinderella shows her kindness. After the sisters attempt some dancing lessons in preparation for the ball, Cinderella is left alone in sadness. The beggar woman appears only to transform herself into the fairy godmother and provide Cinderella with magic slippers. These in turn transform Cinderella into the glamorous creature she needs to be to attend the ball. The first act closes with the fairy godmother’s stern warning to be back before the final stroke of midnight. The act ends with a waltz which sees Cinderella leave for the ball.
The second act is the ball scene, a scenario tailor-made for ballet. The romantic highlight is the pas de deux for Cinderella and the prince, a moment which draws from Prokofiev music of great beauty and elegance.
The waltz from the end of the first act is then repeated before the horrifying moment of midnight. On the final stroke of twelve Cinderella’s beautiful garments disappear and a figure in rags flees the ballroom. The prince finds the slipper as the theme representing Cinderella brings the second act to a close. This is a brilliant moment in the score. [listen]
The third act of course tells of the prince’s search for Cinderella, the trying on of the slipper and the happy ending. The music which brings the final act to a close is simply ravishing, transcending any thought that this is a mere children’s story. The ability of Prokofiev’s music to make us feel that these are real people with real emotions is uncanny. This recording of the complete ballet has a list of the movements and timings so you can dip in and out of the score as you wish. [listen]
Such a good story and such a wonderful range of musical responses spanning less than 150 years. When I made the radio version of this program, I didn’t have time to include one last track, but here I can. Walt Disney’s Cinderella was released in 1950 (only five years after Prokofiev’s ballet) and one particular song became a hit. Here it is, sung by Verna Felton, who sang it on the movie soundtrack. (As an aside, Felton had an amazing career. You can read about her here.) If you’re near my age it’ll bring back many childhood memories (although I didn’t quite see it on first release!). It makes a fascinating comparison, and it’s just a lot of fun, too. [listen]
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2006.