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Where Has the Magic Gone?

What Cinderella owes to Rossini and Nureyev — By Simon Hatab and Cyril Pesenti

This winter, Cinderella parades her rags, coach and fairy godmother at the at Opéra Bastille, in Rudolf Nureyev’s Cendrillon, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, and at the Palais Garnier in a revival of La Cenerentola by Rossini directed by Guillaume Gallienne. Two very different adaptations but which both so disrupt the world of Perrault’s tale as to turn it on its head. Octave provides an overview allowing you to recover your glass (velvet?) slipper. 

The French expression “vivre parmi les cendres” (to live among the cinders), as Bruno Bettelheim points out in his Psychanalyse des contes de fees (Psychoanalysis of Fairy Tales), once meant “to occupy an inferior position within a family”. That perfectly sums up the miserable life of Cinderella, the orphan obliged to serve a harsh master and his two obnoxious daughters. Every evening, after a day of drudgery, it is by the fire, which one imagines to have gone out, that the poor child tries to glean a little comfort. In Charles Perrault’s tale (1697), it is magic that comes to her rescue, in the form of a good fairy, providing her with a dazzling change of fortunes as she rises from the condition of a servant to that of a princess. The recipe is the same in the 1950 Disney cartoon: with a wave of the magic wand, the pumpkin turns into a coach, the mice become horses and the lizards are transformed into coachmen amid a shower of twinkling stars.    

Spectators of Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev, and La Cenerentola, Rossini's opera directed by Guillaume Gallienne, will be surprised to find neither fairy godmother nor magic wand. Or so it would seem, for the magic has not disappeared: it has just taken on other attributes and – like the prince who can see beyond outward appearances to find the young girl with the glass slipper – those who take the trouble to stop and reflect will find ample recompense for their pains.

When Rossini composed La Cenerentola in 1817 to a libretto by Ferretti, the fairy godmother was replaced by Alidoro, the prince’s generous tutor. Neither pumpkin nor rats have any say in the matter. As for the glass (or is it fur?) slipper which has generated a celebrated controversy, it is replaced by a bracelet, in order, we are told, to avoid shocking 19th century audiences who could not have countenanced the denuding of the performer’s foot as she tried to slip it into the aforementioned slipper. Against all expectations, the story of Cinderella gets on very well without magic; its essence does not lie there, and Bettelheim confirmed that one should see that lavish display of special effects invented by Perrault as a form of irony intended to fool the more naïve of his readers. So be it. In fact, depriving opera of that sort of cardboard cut-out magic incites us above all to seek the real magic in the music. In Rossini, it is this that conveys Angelina’s gradual metamorphosis. Rossini’s heroine knows her classics – which gives her a certain advantage over her sisters – and she has certainly reread the fairy tale, perhaps in the Italian version by Giambattista Basile: during her first scene, the “Une volta c’era un re” that she sings to herself contains both the plot and its denouement:    

There once was a king
Who tired of being alone.
By dint of searching, at length he found,
But three women wished to marry him.
What did he do?
Disdaining wealth and beauty,
He threw in his lot
With innocence and goodness.

That says it all: ultimately Prince Ramiro prefers innocence and goodness to social prestige. But in this song, which takes the form of a tale, there is neither ornamentation nor floweriness: Angelina’s song is simple and plain. Later, Angelina’s voice takes on increasingly virtuoso and shining colours: at the end of the first act, Angelina finally envisages the possibility of going to the ball. Her vocal lines take wing. Her character acquires a certain grandeur. At the ball given by Don Ramiro, Cinderella appears transformed. Her voice now takes on a noble register, reserved in Rossini for characters of high rank. Hardly surprising that in these circumstances, nobody recognises her. Guillaume Gallienne also aims to transform the cinders into fire by imagining for the finale of Act I a volcanic eruption: the cinders that once seemed to condemn Angelina to misery become the very blaze of her anger. Caught up in a thoroughly Rossinian fire, Cinderella vents her fury almost to the point of collapse. After an act of forgiveness, her only vengeance, Cinderella celebrates her new-found happiness in a final display of vocal prowess. And if all this were but a dream?

Dreams also constitute the marrow of the Cendrillon choreographed by Nureyev, revived this season by the Paris Opera Ballet on the Bastille stage. Here, it is cinema that allows Cinderella – flanked by her alcoholic father and two actress sisters, mediocre extras with no future – to escape her condition, in the tradition of the well-known 20th century myth. In the wake of the crash of 1929 – Prokofiev composed his ballet between 1941 and 1944 – the great Hollywood dream factory provided a form of escapism during the Great Depression. In Nureyev’s ballet, Cinderella, finding herself by chance at the cinema studios, comes across Charlie Chaplin and King Kong before being spotted by a producer on the look-out for talent who casts her in her debut role in front of the cameras. Cinderella owes her success exclusively to her own virtuosity.

Although magic has disappeared, the themes of social advancement, of the passage from one world to another, are, on the other hand, firmly present and haunt this Cendrillon both in its music and its choreography. For Prokofiev, the forties meant the return to the USSR, after his American parenthesis – the composer had exiled himself in San Francisco in 1918 to escape the Russian Revolution. As Nureyev pointed out, “Prokofiev felt heavy nostalgia for the West. Cendrillon is not very Russian.”
As for Nureyev, coming from a modest background, he had followed a similar itinerary in leaving the USSR for France. One can easily imagine that he put much of himself in the character of Cinderella. In these exiles dictated by the vagaries of History, there is doubtless something extraordinary that far surpasses any form of magic.    

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