The tale of Cinderella comes in many versions, from Rossini and Massenet to Perrault and Prokofiev, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Walt Disney and beyond. Often aided by magic and enchantment, but at other times simply possessed of spunk and virtue, the young woman treated most horribly by her family eventually finds her way to happiness, fortune, and love. And we love that.
Rudolf Nureyev famously managed to mix up genres of this beloved classic by making the Fairy Godmother a Hollywood Mogul in his 1987 ballet version for the Paris Opera. For generations we have loved Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren, and Brandy as Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein's touching television musical. On the big screen, we almost loved Gemma Craven as she found a princely Richard Chamberlain in The Slipper and the Rose. The French loved Jerry Lewis as Ciderfella, and in Cinderelmo many loved, well, Elmo in the title role. Leslie Caron, Kathleen Turner, Keri Russell, Drew Barrymore, and Hilary Duff have been variously charming, or not, as the public's affair with Cinderella continues.
On the page, one of the earliest and certainly the strangest variation on what must surely be an ancient myth comes to us from Naples: Gianbattista Basile's 1634 Cenerentola, part of his classic collection of fairy tales known as the Pentamerone. Basile's was an allegory of envy, of virtue and its rewards. It was a violent feline affair. Most other Cinderella tales stay close to the magical outlines first celebrated by Charles Perrault in his 1697 Tales of Mother Goose, where the poor orphan's now legendary pantoufle de verre was first lost at midnight on the palace steps as she hurried home from the ball.
Cinderella's unusual footwear, an apocryphal anecdote has it, may well have been the result of a misunderstanding: When Perrault first heard the tale, some say he mistook the phrase pantoufle de vair (a sort of Medieval fur slipper) for pantoufle de verre (the glass slipper he actually gave his heroine when he wrote down the story). Mistake or not, Perrault's glass slipper, as well as the magical properties of the stroke of midnight, became inextricably linked to the growing Cinderella tradition. Just to be contrary, the Brothers Grimm kept almost everything except the glass slipper when they rewrote the tale. But Disney's classic 1950 film version, codified Cinderella for our time: glass slipper, Fairy Godmother, magical pumpkin, singing mice, and all.
Before and after Perrault, the constant is the sweet search for justice and validation by this sweetest of heroines. Jules Massenet's lavish Cendrillon keeps most of the magic, adds some Gallic wit of its own, and improbably emerges as the operatic version most touchingly suited for children. But it is Rossini's La Cenerentola, which The Dallas Opera presents this month, that truly has captured the hearts of opera lovers since its premiere in Rome on Christmas Day, 1816. For all its hilarity‹and, make no mistake, this is one of opera's great comedies‹Rossini's is perhaps the most adult and daring of all the versions of Cinderella. It is the most human. No magical pumpkin, no fairy godmother, just a kindly philosopher called Alidoro who teaches young Prince Ramiro to follow his heart. And his heart belongs to Angelina, nicknamed Cinderella, a girl of decidedly humble station but also a dazzling paragon of beauty and virtue. Even Rossini's celebrated extended finale, "Nacqui all'affano…. Non più mesta," relies not on the supernatural bounties of the familiar tale but rather on the pathos of this young woman's journey to hard-won happiness. The real magic comes in the composer's music, a witty miracle of invention that only serves to thrill with the tale's heartbreaking humanity.
In the ballet world, Sergei Prokofiev's dark 1945 Cinderella rules. With Rostisllav Zakharov's Bolshoi version and especially with Konstantin Sergeyev's for the Kirov Ballet, but also with later stagings by Frederick Ashton, Ben Stevenson, and Nureyev, this is the unlikely cool and silvery Soviet sound that has provided the musical fabric for a danced Cinderella in our time. It has even inspired the profoundest stage deconstruction of the tale: Maguy Marin's dreamy Cendrillon, set to Prokofiev's score but also laced with amplified baby sounds and giddy electronics that highlight Cinderella's hope for the future.
Prokofiev's is doubtless the best-known Cinderella ballet score but it is not the only one, and it was not the first. True, the music as well as the steps for many earlier ballet versions have been lost. Cinderella turned up in St. Petersburg in 1815, and in Paris in 1822 and 1824. The Royal Danish Ballet staged its first Cinderella in 1910, although its score by Otto Malling is noted by history mostly because it was the great Carl Nielsen who conducted the premiere. London's Ballet Rambert tried its feet at Cinderella in a 1935 version, now lost, set to a pastiche of music by Carl Maria von Weber, with a youngster named Frederick Ashton in the role of the Prince. It is anyone's guess what these ballets looked and sounded like, but we do know more about at least one other major dance treatment of the Cinderella tale, and it comes as a lovely surprise.
Achenbrödel (Cinderella), choreographed by Josef Hassreiter in Vienna in 1908, was the only ballet score by Johann Strauss Jr., a man who knew a thing or two about dance music. The libretto was a witty modernization of the familiar tale, with a department-store magnate named Gustav charming the slippers off a young clerk named Cinderella. Strauss's music, as one might expect, has none of the bittersweet melodies and acid harmonies of Prokofiev's score, offering instead a feast of waltz and shmaltz. The ballet did not remain long in the Viennese repertory, but it has been reconstructed, with happy results. First came a 1981 Paul Mejia children's version in Chicago that gave the sublime Suzanne Farrell a rare full-length dramatic vehicle. Then came Pedro Consuegra's 1996 staging for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, a tribute to Marius Petipa that teetered on the edge of camp without giving up any of the fairy tale's charm. A glorious affair, this waltzing Cinderella has been acclaimed throughout Europe and seems headed for a long life in the 21st century.
And our culture's affection for Perrault's spunky, put-upon orphan shows no signs of cooling. There have been two movies this year loosely inspired by Cinderella, both hits aimed at the crucial teen and pre-teen set: Ella Enchanted and A Cinderella Story. For teens of all ages, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet just unveiled Val Caniparoli's charmer of A Cinderella Story, a full-length ballet choreographed to a new arrangement of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The original R&H version is currently in the New York City Opera repertory at Lincoln Center, while its original 1957 television performance with Andrews is being rebroadcast by PBS this month.
Then, of course, there is the opera. As long as there are adorable mezzos who can tackle Rossini's fiendishly difficult, bittersweet but life-affirming and witty music, La Cenerentola will be with us. Vivica Genaux and Margaret Lattimore fit the bill and share the title role in The Dallas Opera's current Cinderella, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's iconic production directed by Mark Streshinsky with Edoardo Muller conducting. Perhaps only Marin's ballet version comes close to this opera in celebrating the human condition, sorrows, hope, and all. In one, the humanity is in the movement. In the other, it's in the music. Non più mesta indeed. It seems we can't get enough of this girl.
Octavio Roca has been a music, dance, and theater critic for various publications. He also teaches philosophy at the University of Miami.