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by Luca

17th century France played a crucial role in the development of the European fairy tale. During the last half of that century, the oral traditions of the folk began to bubble up into the literary salons of the haute bourgeoisie and the aristocracy orbiting around Louis the XIV’s court. While writers like Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, Catherine Bernard, Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier, and Charles Perrault (among others) used folk and fairy tales to challenge aesthetic norms and comment on contemporary politics, particularly gender politics, they also found in these ancient tales insight into the universal fears and desires that unite us as humans. As we’ll see, details in any particular version of a fairy tale may change over time and space, but there are certain tales—like “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance—that, so old and ubiquitous, have spoken and continue to
speak to cultures across our little globe. Little Red—or “The False Grandmother,” or “Little Red Cap,” or “The True History of Little Goldenhood,” or et cetera, et cetera—concerns the crossing of thresholds that have existed since the invention of houses: the threshold between the often tedious safety of the home and the seductive danger of the wilderness; the thresholds between human and animal; between life and death; birth and childhood; childhood and adulthood, and again between adulthood and old age. An early French version of Little Red—most probably the version Charles Perrault grew up hearing in the 1630s features a werewolf called a bzou. He kills the grandmother, puts “some of her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her blood on the shelf,” and, when our heroine arrives, orders her to eat from the pantry and drink from the bottle. While she eats, a little cat exclaims, “For shame! The slut is eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood.” And yet, despite this admonition, our heroine undergoes a kind of transformation after her cannibalistic communion: she internalizes the wisdom of the grandmother and builds on it, for—in this early version- Little Red doesn’t die; she escapes the wolf as her grandmother couldn’t, using both wit and a childish, scatological playfulness. (Before the bzou can eat her, she tells him that she has to relieve herself. Of course, she’s lying. The werewolf suggests she “do it in the bed”—that is, in a bedpan—but Red insists that she has to “do it outside.” The bzou lets her go, calling after her, “Are you doing a load? Are you doing a load?” while she sneaks away to safety). Among those 17th century French literati working in the fairy tale form, Charles Perrault is undoubtedly the most famous, his collection of literary fairy tales— Histoires ou contes du temps passé—published just as the 1600s wound to a close. Perrault and his crew of contemporaries sought to class up the more vulgar impulses of the oral tradition (Perrault’s Red Riding Hood doesn’t eat her grandmother’s flesh, drink her blood, or escape by an appeal to her bowels. Red is eaten by the wolf, sure, but the horror is undermined by the jokey moral appended to the tale: “Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!”). Perrault and his colleagues sought to replace what they saw as the arid classicism of writers like Jean Racine with modern forms that grew from French soil; instead of looking back to the well-manicured gardens of Greece and Rome, they aimed to experiment, to make new, to find inspiration in the wilds of the French countryside. And make new they did, their experiments with the literary fairy tale becoming so famous, so ubiquitous, that they remain the bedrock on which even 21st century under-standings of the form are built. Of course, commenters on Rossini’s La cenerentola inevitably summon Charles Perrault, as it’s Perrault’s reworking of that ancient story—Cinderella, let’s call it—that serves as the rough architecture of Rossini’s collaboration with librettist Jacopo Ferretti. While Perrault’s version is perhaps the most famous of Cinderella stories, it certainly isn’t the oldest to see print, even in France (in 1558,four-teen years after he murdered himself with a sword, Bonaventure des Périers achieved posthumous renown for his collection of stories Nouvelles récréa-tions et joyeux devis, which contained the delightfully titled Cinderella tale, “Of a Young Girl Nicknamed Ass Hide and How She Got Married with the Help of Little Ants”). More famously, we have Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile’s “Cenerentola,” also published posthumously, a tale featured prominently in his Pentamerone (a two- volume collection of stories released in 1634 and 1636). Rossini had, prior to writing La cenerentola, regularly frequented Basile’s Naples, and thus it’s hard to imagine that Rossini—or Ferretti, for that matter—was ignorant of Basile’s Cinderella. Furthermore, Basile—neglected for some time after his death—saw in the 1800s a resurgence of interest predica-ted on a European fascination with folk and fairy tales, a fascination that grew directly out of those French experiments in the late 1600s. Basile was not only well known in Italy at the time, but throughout Europe. In the 1822 edition of their fairy-tale collection Kinder und Hausmärchen, the Grimm Brothers extoll the virtues of Basile’s work, calling it “the best and richest [collection of folk tales] that had been found by any nation.” While there’s not much evidence to suggest Rossini and Ferretti knew the Grimms’ work, the Grimms interest in Cinderella was, again, a symptom of a continent-wide fascination. The first, two-volume edition of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales had been published in 1812 (volume one) and 1815 (volume two), and by the release of the third edition it was already a best seller. Called “Aschenputtel” (in essence: an unkempt, ash-covered girl), the Grimm’s version of Cinderella is much more violent than many of its contemporaries. (From the very first edition, Aschenputtel’s evil sisters, in order to fit their lumpy feet into Aschenputtel’s golden slipper, lop off bits of their toes and heel, their crude surgeries exposed by magi-cal pigeons that point out to the prince the blood seeping from the seemingly well-fitting slipper. Yet the story grows darker still in the later editions of Kinder, the Grimms employing at the story’s end the same pigeons to peck out the sisters’ eyes, leaving them blind “for all their days.”) “Aschenputtel” was first published only five years before the debut of Rossini’s La cenerentola. Likewise, Cin-derella was immensely popular in En-gland during the first decades of 19th century. In 1803 and 1804, the Drury Lane Theatre in London produced several musical productions of Cinderella called pantomimes. Their playbills suggest Perrault’s influence, the December 1803 pantomime titled, “Cinderella; Or, The Glass Slipper” (the glass slipper, folklorists agree, one of Perrault’s signature innovations). Similarly, an 1804 Drury Lane production of Cinderella pro-claims, “The New Grand Allegorical Pantomime Spectacle of Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper, having been again received throughout with the most un-bounded and universal applause, […] will be repeated every evening till further notice.” The musical pantomime was performed for fifty-one nights. Cinderella was in the air. Thus it is no surprise that Rossini and Jacopo Ferretti turned to Cinderella when tasked to compose a new opera to be staged on St. Stephen’s Day at the Teatro Valle in Rome. Rossini was vexed to learn that his original idea—an opera based on the exploits of Françoise de Foix, legendary mistress of Francis I of France—was deemed too salacious by papal censors (Ferretti himself would later write that Francesca di Foix —as they were calling it—was “one of the least moral comedies of the French theatre in an epoch in which it was beginning to be known as an infamous school of libertinism”). Two days before Christmas, Rossini aban-doned Francesca, Ferretti suggesting instead the subject of Cinderella. Rossini immediately agreed. Ferretti reports that by … Christmas Rossini had finished the Introduzione. The cavatina of Don Magnifico on Saint Stephen’s day (December 26); the duet for the tenor and soprano on San Giovanni (December 27). In short: I wrote the verses in 22 days and Rossini the music in 24. This is quick work, even for Rossini, and while Ferretti’s libretto leans rather heavily on Charles- Guillaume Etienne’s verses for Nicolò Isouard’s opera Cendrillian (1810), both Rossini and Ferretti were able to riff so wonderfully on the story by virtue of its ubiquity. Ferretti attests to his know-ledge of the various versions of the tale in a note to the original publication of his libretto, alluding even to the “talking cat” of the early French version that inspired Perrault: If Cinderella does not appear in the company of a wizard who works fantastic miracles or a talking cat, and does not lose a slipper at the ball (but instead gives away a bracelet) […] it should not be conside-red a crimenalesae […] but rather a necessity of staging at the Teatro Valle and a gesture of respect for the delicacy of Roman taste which does not permit on the stage what might please in a fairy-tale beside the fire.
So. If, as you attend to Rossini’s La cenerentola, you find yourself preferring an evil step-mother’s scheming to Don Magnifico’s buffo comedy; if you’re bothered that Alidoro the philosopher works behind the scenes instead of a fairy godmother or magical pigeons; if you ache for slender feet slipping into glass (or golden!) slippers and chafe at the thought of matching bracelets; then attend carefully to Angelina’s canzone in the first scene, try to remember how varied fairy tales can be as she sings softly of a king who’s grown weary of a lonely, single life, listen to her sing of the one nobody knew, the modest, simple, ash-faced girl who was kind and true, focus less on La cenerentola’s diffe-rences from the tales you know and consider instead the ways it reflects and illuminates a tale as old and varied as the people who’ve told it. Consider the human heart that beats beneath these fairy-made garments and wonder at what that heart might tell us about ourselves.




Joseph Thomas is an English and Comparative Literature professor at San Diego State University and the Director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.
He is also the author of Strong Measures (Make Now Press, 2007) and Poetry’s Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry (Wayne State UP, 2007).




Maria Callas – “Nacqui all’affano e al pianto” Angelina Final Rondò – “La Cenerentola” – “La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo” (“Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant”) (1817).
LIVE in Paris 06/05/1963 Concert at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. M.° Georges Prêtre conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio-Television Française.