A motherless child. A wicked stepmother and other nasty relations. A benevolent supernatural spirit as rescuer. The transformation of a tattered outcast with nothing and no one into a glittering princess with a kingdom at her feet.
Cinderella, the oppressed, unloved little maid who ends up having it all. How many young girls, over how many centuries, have pretended to be her? The answer: More than you’ll ever count. And there have been countless incarnations of Cinderella — she’s the heroine of innumerable fairy tales, as well as cinematic, musical, theatrical and balletic works. And she even has a psychological complex named for her. (Now that’s fame.)
Cinderella returns soon to Seattle Opera with a song in her heart, and on her lips. She will be trilling through Gioachino Rossini’s much-loved opera based on the legend “Cenerentola” (Italian for “Cinderella”). She’ll go from rags to riches in the local premiere of an intriguing recent mounting of the work which emphasizes physical clowning and cartoonlike whimsy, including some pratfalling giant rats. (Staged by Spanish director Joan Font, the production is designed by his countryman Joan Guillén, who happens to be a satirical cartoonist.)
So it’s a fine time to ask: who was the “real” Cinderella?
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What we know as the basic Cinderella story of ill-treated-girl-makes-good extends back to, at least, ancient Greece. As recorded by Herodotus and other Greek scribes: a poor maiden’s slipper is snatched by an eagle who drops it in the lap of a king. The king finds the shoe so attractive, he takes it as an omen and hunts far and wide for the owner — whom he will take as his bride.
Countless variations appeared in other eras, and in other cultures. For example, Norway, Portugal, Vietnam, Serbia and Germany have their own retellings of the myth. (The German one is set down by, naturally, the Brothers Grimm.)
Several tales about girls oppressed by step-relations appear in “The Arabian Nights,” a medieval compendium of Middle Eastern fables.
In a Filipino variant, the fairy godmother is the deceased mother of Maria (the Cinderella figure). The mother appears in the form of a crab to rescue her daughter from terrible step-kin. In the Chinese version, the mother returns as a fish, and her daughter falls for the prince at a New Year’s celebration.
For many more interpretations, curious readers can skim English folklorist Marian Roalfe Cox’s compilation, “Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O’rushes.”
But the best-known tale in the West derives from “Cendrillon,” committed to paper by 17th-century French author Charles Perrault, in a collection of fairy tales. It is from Perrault’s account that we get the pumpkin-turned-coach that conveys Cinderella to the ball, as well as the glass slipper that triggers the prince’s search.
This is the version refashioned into ever-popular Disney films, picturesque ballets (including the recently revived Pacific Northwest Ballet production of “Cinderella” choreographed by Kent Stowell) and a popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
It’s also the inspiration for modern reworkings of the myth — from a “Hello Kitty” feature from Japan to the recent movie musical “Ella Enchanted.”
But the Italians have had their own vision of Cenerentola (Cinderella), as illuminated in Rossini’s comic opera. Seattle Opera will present it in a well-traveled, family-friendly staging noteworthy for its use of the physical, crowd-pleasing antics of Italy’s gift to comedy, commedia dell’arte.
Composed by Rossini while in his mid-20s, in the then-trendy music style of bel canto, “La Cenerentola” has a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti, which departs in some respects from the version of the story most Americans know.
Angelina (the Cinderella character) is under the thumb of an evil stepfather, not a stepmother. Don Ramiro, the handsome prince of Salerno, masquerades as a servant to check her out before the ball occurs, after hearing of Angelina’s sweetness and charitable nature. And a bracelet leads to the Prince’s discovery of the girl’s true identity, not fancy footwear.
In Seattle, the colorful rendition co-produced by the Houston Grand Opera, the Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Grand Théatre de Genève will feature lauded Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Pini in her U.S. debut, singing the challenging coloratura arias of Angelina (sung in the silver cast by Karin Mushegain), and tenor René Barbera (Edgardo Rocha in the silver cast) as princely Don Ramiro.
As for the so-called Cinderella complex, it’s a pop psychology term that refers to woman’s unconscious fear of autonomy, and desire for a “prince charming” to woo and care for her.
Some might say that’s not a bad syndrome — that is, if you’re a gal who’s stuck at home picking up after her nasty stepsisters, and constantly sweeping all those cinders from the hearth. Just sayin’.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org