La cenerentola
By John Rizzo

It is well known by any opera fan that the three most prominent composers of the so-called Bel Canto period (c.1810-1850) were Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Of the three, the one whose operas are performed least is Gioachino Rossini, although neither of the other two scored a lasting hit of the magnitude of Il barbiere di Siviglia. A number of Rossini overtures are also played regularly in the concert hall and recordings of these beautiful pieces are to be found in the collection of virtually every classical music lover. This indicates something of the composer’s greatness and his gift for melody, which is the most important element in opera. And yet it is rare that any of his operas, other than the immortal Barber, are performed in the major opera houses.

Rossini really stands apart from Donizetti and Bellini in a number of ways. The basic sound of his music is more classical than romantic. The purity of his harmony and the easy interaction of his voice leading are always a sheer delight for the ear. His pleasing melodies flow endlessly, underpinned by firm and creatively varied rhythms that (like all truly great composers) give the listener an unmistakable sense of direction. Unlike his successors, Rossini not only employed the ubiquitous recitativo accompagnato (musical speech, in free rhythm, backed up by a full or significant part of the orchestra), that one finds in operas through Puccini, but he also made good use of recitativo secco (recitative accompanied only by an improvising harpsichord and one or two bass instruments.) Like Mozart, Rossini used the secco for the continuity of the story and the accompagnato for the more dramatic moments. This may produce a more delicate sound than opera audiences are used to, but the contrast between the two types of recitative subconsciously intensifies the dramatic interest for the listener.

Then there is the famous “Rossini crescendo,” a vital and unique characteristic of the composer’s music. This is not just filler or a cheap effect, but a fundamental element in the texture of the musical fabric. No other composer could get away with repeating the exact same four or eight bars up to three times even when the dynamic level is increased progressively. It’s a magical kind of effect that is just incredibly fun to experience and detracts not at all from the quality of the music.

La Cenerentola (1817) is a fine example of Rossini at his best. The libretto, by Jacopo Ferretti, is yet another treatment of the Cinderella myth that is most amusing if not all that creative. It provides Rossini with a very suitable canvas for his considerable musical artistry. One criticism that is leveled at the composer undeservedly is that he plagiarized his earlier works. He certainly did it in this opera, but so what? This was a common practice of composers of the time and, if Rossini composed a nice piece of music for another city that would be otherwise forgotten, why not resurrect it for an opera that was more likely to succeed? Like he did on so many occasions, Rossini used an overture for Cenerentola that he had written previously, in this case the one for his La Gazetta (1816). He also appropriated one of Almaviva’s arias from Il barbiere, “Ah, il più lieto”, transforming it into Angiolina’s “Non più mesta.” (This was indeed unusual, because his Roman audience may well have recognized it.) After a rocky opening night, the opera became quite popular, enjoying 20 performances on its initial run, and being staged all over Europe, South America and in New York within ten years.

It could very well be that so many wonderful Rossini operas are not performed because the music is so difficult to sing. And this is one of the most exciting things about an opera like La Cenerentola - virtuosity is always a thrill to experience, especially when the music is so appealing.

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