A Thousand Cinderellas

Classic Arts Features   A Thousand Cinderellas
 
As Rossini's La Cenerentola returns to the Metropolitan Opera repertory this month, Charles Sheek looks at a legend that is older than time.

For centuries the ancient legend of Cinderella has morphed and changed as it has passed from one generation to the next and from one culture to another. Today the story exists in more than 1,500 variations around the globe, and while today's audience may hear the name Cinderella and think it is simply a rags-to-riches story, what truly lies at its heart is the unbreakable bond between mother and daughter, and how a young girl overcomes loneliness and mistreatment at the hands of a cruel stepfamily through innocence and purity of spirit.

One of the earliest of the Cinderella legends is more than 1,200 years old and came from China. A girl, Yeh-hsien, befriends a fish and is upset when her wicked stepmother kills it and hides the bones. An old man appears and tells her where the bones are hidden and that if she keeps them, the bones will grant her wishes. Yeh-hsien wishes for clothes and jewelry and when she wears them to a party her stepmother and sister recognize her. As she runs off, she loses one of her shoes. The prince of a nearby kingdom finds the shoe and searches diligently for the owner. When he finds Yeh-hsien, the prince makes her his wife.

The first European printing of a Cinderella story was Giambattista Basile's Il Penatamerone, published between 1624 and 1636. The book was divided into five sections of ten stories each with each section being one day's worth of story telling. The sixth story on the first day was titled The Cat Cinderella. Written in a Neapolitan dialect that kept it out of the northern European tradition for two centuries, Basile's Cinderella (here named Zezolla) is convinced by her governess to murder her cruel stepmother. The governess marries the father and all goes well until the governess promotes her hitherto hidden daughters at Zezolla's expense and Zezolla becomes little more than a scullery maid. When her father has to go away he asks the daughters what presents they would like upon his return. The two sisters demand fine things, but Zezolla merely asks for him to commend her to the dove of the fairies. When he does so, the fairies give him a fig tree to give to his daughter. Zezolla finds that by reciting an incantation to the tree she is able to transform herself into a beautiful princess and soon meets a king who is bewitched by her beauty. After twice eluding a servant sent to find out where she came from, she drops a shoe. The king sets out to find its owner and once Zezolla is revealed to be the owner, he marries her.

Charles Perrault, a member of the Académie Française and a leading French moralist, wrote the version of the tale that has influenced most subsequent accounts. His Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper (1697), was published as one of his eight Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals that has the added title, Tales of Mother Goose. In his familiar telling Cinderella's widower father takes a second wife, a dominating woman with two daughters. She despises Cinderella's goodness as it reflects poorly on the selfishness of her own daughters. The Prince announces he is to give a ball for all the maidens of the kingdom. Cinderella, now a servant in the kitchen and forbidden to attend, helps her sisters prepare for the ball. Her fairy godmother appears and transforms a pumpkin, mice, and lizards into a coach, horses, and footmen for Cinderella. She gives her fine new clothes and warns that she must leave the ball before midnight. Her arrival at the palace is enchanting and her effect on the prince decisive, and that evening she returns home in time. The next evening she again goes to the ball but is late in departing for home. In her haste to leave she drops a glass slipper that is used to find her. In the final scene, and before the stated "moral of the story," Cinderella forgives her sisters and arranges for them to marry well.

The collections of folk tales by the Brothers Grimm, Kinder-und Hausmärchen ("Children's and Household Tales"), was published in two volumes in 1812 and 1814, and contain stories with elements of the Cinderella we know today. In Aschenputtel ("Ash Girl"), Cinderella's father again marries a dominating woman with two daughters who banishes Cinderella to the role of a housemaid. One day, when the father is going to the fair, the two sisters request he return with expensive presents and Cinderella asks only for the first twig that brushes against him. In this instance it is a hazel twig that she plants at her mother's grave. Her tears water the twig, causing it to grow quickly into a tree on which a bird lands and begins to grant Cinderella's wishes. The Grimm Brothers felt that folktales should be presented in print in a form as close as possible to the original oral tale. So, in the Grimms' typically "grim" version of events, the sisters cut off bits of their feet to make Cinderella's slipper fit. And, when Cinderella is reunited with her prince, the birds who witnessed the sisters' deception and tipped off the Prince to it, return to peck the sisters' eyes out.

Native North American Cinderella legends form an interestingly coherent group. From tribes of different geographic regions, including the Micmac, Algonquin, and Ojibwa (or Chippewa), come stories about the Rough-Faced Girl. In these versions of the legend the youngest of three sisters is forced by the other two to sit close by the fire and feed the flames, which results in the burning and scarring of her hair and skin. The older sisters want to marry an Invisible Being who is rich and powerful and lives across the village; but to do so, the cruel sisters must prove to his sister that they have seen him, which they cannot. The Rough-Faced Girl, however, sees the Invisible Being everywhere and can answer his sisters' questions about him. And in true Cinderella fashion the Invisible Being reveals the Rough-Faced Girl's inner beauty and the two are happily joined as one.

Stage versions of the Cinderella story may not date back as far as the fairy tale but there have been many adaptations seen in theaters. The date usually acknowledged for the first staged version of Cinderella is 1804 when it was presented as a pantomime at London's Theatre Royal. No sooner had the pantomime Cinderella made her London debut than her operatic counterpart appeared in Paris, in 1810, where Nicolò Isouard's Cendrillon became popular at the Opéra-Comique, followed in 1817 by Gioachino Rossini's influential La Cenerentola, ossia La Bontà in Trionfo ("Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant"). Rossini had little interest in the fairy tale elements of the story and instead focused on the comic stepfamily and the creation of Dandini as the friend of the Prince, while Cenerentola herself was a somewhat sentimental figure. In his version, it is a bracelet that is used to find this Cinderella. Elements from Rossini's production, with its acknowledgement of Italian Zezolla sources, reappeared in many subsequent versions although Charles Perrault's version, was an equally authoritative influence.

There were operatic versions of Cinderella derived from the darker version by the Brothers Grimm such as Ferdinand Langer's Aschenbrödel at Mannheim in 1878 but even that reverted to Perrault's reconciliation with the sisters at the end instead of mutilated feet and blindness. Other notable opera versions include Jules Massenet's 1899 Cendrillon for the Paris Opéra with its fantasy meeting for Cinderella and her Prince after the ball (which also features in the 1954 Hollywood film, The Glass Slipper) and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's La Cenerentola, first performed in Venice the following year.

Even now, Cinderella has not stopped its development. The popularity of Perrault's story may have slowed down the variations, and may have killed off certain individual tales in the process; but it has not brought the story to a standstill. Whether she comes to us as Cinderella, Cendrillon, Cenerentola, Aschenputtel, Yeh-hsien, Zolushka, Zezolla, Vasilisa, or Cinderfella, she is part of our collective unconscious and with us forever.


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