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Rags to Riches
"Once upon a time," the story begins. Once upon a time, long ago and far away, there was a poor cinders girl who went to a ball and enchanted a prince. We heard it first when we were young, and travelled nightly in pumpkin coaches drawn by mice to sparkling palaces where we really belonged. Courtiers bowed as we waved to adoring crowds.
The story has the magic of the moon at midnight. It's cast a spell over the centuries, touching German burgs, the Sun King's court of Versailles, Disneyland. The French call the cinders girl Cendrillon; the Germans, Aschenputtel; and the Italians always call her Cenerentola.
"Not exactly fresh," Gioacchino Rossini was thinking as he lay in bed trying to keep warm in the underheated house of his impresario on a winter day just before Christmas in 1816. He was twenty-four years old and the rising star in the opera world, though just then he would have preferred to forget the disastrous opening night of The Barber of Seville earlier in the year. He'd been laughed at for the quaint conducting suit he wore, the one with the big buttons that was part of his fee, and booed at the end.
Rome's Teatro Valle was expecting a new show from him in a few weeks' time, and he still didn't have a story, even after a long afternoon spent sipping tea with Jacopo Ferretti.
Ferretti was the librettist. It was he who had just whispered, "Cenerentola?"
Rossini sat up to think. Well, it was a story.
"When can I have the outline?" he asked.
"By tomorrow," Ferretti replied grandly. "If I skip sleeping."
Rossini said good night and promptly fell asleep--very soundly, according to Ferretti, who left a detailed report of the great creativity that then befell him as he had another cup of tea before rushing downstairs to extract a contract from the impresario. Then he ran home, switched to mocha, and sketched the outline of La Cenerentola, finishing on schedule as promised. He sat down and fleshed it out, often helping himself to an existing libretto already set by another Italian a few years earlier, which was itself based on yet another opera by a Frenchman. He failed to remember this for his memoirs, but the practice was hardly unusual.
Opera stories in those days were often based on other opera stories in the way that, say, a Hollywood producer in our own time will brilliantly decide to remake Sabrina about a garage dweller dreaming of the big house, or enliven the old German doctor's lab with the familiar lunkhead. Ferretti's plagiaristic impulse was perfectly acceptable, though we'd all be thankful if he'd pilfered the Mother Goose Tales of Charles Perrault instead. Perrault was the seventeenth-century French courtier best known for his rags-to-riches story of the kitchen drudge lifted up by mysterious fate to become queen of the land. The fairy godmother and her magic wand, the coach dipped in gold, the lizards transformed into coachmen, the ball gown of silver and gold cloth, and the tiny glass slipper are all part of Cendrillon's glistening world.
Maybe Ferretti wasn't drinking mocha. By the time he got done with La Cenerentola: ossia La bontà in trionfo (meaning "goodness triumphs"), he'd exchanged the fairy godmother with a tutor named Alidoro (Golden Wings) and dropped the pumpkin, the coach, even the slipper. A naked foot displayed on the stage might have been rejected as subversively erotic by Rome's ever-present moral monitors, the equivalent of today's thought police. Cinderella arrives at the prince's castle outfitted with a pair of decorous bracelets.
But Rossini was easy to please and, besides, he was in no position to complain. To save a little time, he stole an overture he'd written for a comedy about a newspaper and sat down with the diva, Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi, to work up a suitably fabulous finale. She had sung in the premiere of Barber and become fond of one of the tenor's tunes. Could he adapt it? He would be happy to! In a little more than three weeks, Rossini looked up from a score with music that dances, whispers, charms, and dazzles from beginning to end. He might as well have been writing with a wand.
"Once upon a time there was a king," Cenerentola sings as the curtain rises on her tumbledown mansion. Her mother has died, leaving her with a violent stepfather and his two screechy daughters. "Una volta c'era un re"--a lonely, sad king who searched far and wide for a suitable bride. Wealth and looks are unimportant, he declared. "But not a good heart."
Taking the simple song as her guide, she gives breakfast to a beggar who knocks at the door. Strangers keep appearing, always in disguise. The valet is the prince, the prince is the valet, and the beggar turns out to be Golden Wings, the tutor. But nothing can disguise true human nature, and with Golden Wings leading the way ("Your life will change," he announces) Cenerentola moves ever closer toward the shiny castle of her dreams--and one of the great display pieces ever written: "Nacqui all'affanno."
"I was born to sorrow and tears," Cenerentola sings. "I suffered with a silent heart; but by some sweet enchantment, in the flower of my youth, swift as a flash of lightning, my fortune changed." Minutes of cascading coloratura reflect the silvery splendor of her new life. "Non più mesta accanto al fuoco," she sings. "I'm no longer sitting sadly by the fire." Placed thrillingly at the end, when Cenerentola has married her prince and forgiven her beastly family, it should bring the audience to its feet.
But as Righetti-Giorgi herself reported, the opening on January 25, 1817 did not go well at all. While a few tunes met with approval, the night still ended in a feast of booing and whistling--a bad thing in Italy.
Librettist and composer stumbled into the night, Ferretti close to tears. "Fools!" Rossini exclaimed. "Before Carnival ends, everyone will be enchanted. . . . One day it will be fought over by impresarios and prima donnas throughout the land."
He was right. There was a time when Cenerentola eclipsed even Barber and the nineteen other operas he went on to write. Then, after composing his most magnificent and ambitious opera, William Tell, in 1829, Rossini quit, taking the most mysterious early retirement in the history of music. Nobody knows exactly why he did so. But he was rich and sickly, musical tastes were changing, and he probably didn't anticipate living another four decades as the beloved, ill-wigged, and increasingly immense fixture of Parisian music life. Rossini was what the Italians call a buon forchettone, who always cleaned his plate. Occasionally, he would still compose--charming piano pieces and the lovely Stabat Mater--but he was mostly renowned for his Parmesan cheese, his kindness and wit, and the soirées at his Paris apartment.
"Have him come in, but tell him to leave his C-sharp on the coat-rack. He can pick it up on his way out," he once said, as a top-note strutting tenor was about to visit.
Friends in the Rothschild family took care of his fortune, which had been boosted early by a funding concept we might reconsider in our own era: the impresario of the Naples opera house gave him a percentage of the gambling tables set up in the foyer. Think of how much livelier our nights at the opera would be with roulette tables next to the bar and people betting on whether Fathilde will hit her C in the next act!
By the time Rossini's cortège trundled through Paris in 1868, twilight had set on bel canto--or "beautiful singing"--when embellishments, fluid scales, interpolations, and good taste were expected even of tenors. Cenerentola slowly disappeared into history's memory hole along with so many of his other dust catchers, serious works like Tancredi and Semiramide, and those clever comedies L'italiana in Algeri and Il turco in Italia. The world of opera was changing.
Full-bellied Wagnerians, lusty singers of clowns, baby-killers, and Moors slowly pushed aside the delicately trilling, octave-jumping heroes and heroines who inhabit the flowery realm of Rossini and his two major contemporaries, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. Bellini's Norma and Donizetti's Lucia stayed around, but most of their friends disappeared, replaced by Aida, Violetta, Otello, Tristan and Isolde, Carmen, Tosca, Mimì, Elektra, and the Marschallin. High-minded conductors hammered a few more nails into Rossini's coffin. They found (and many still do) the lightly orchestrated scores too insignificant for their important orchestras. Rossini sounds perfectly splendid played with a small orchestra of forty, less than half the forces the gods require for their stately entrance into Wagner's Valhalla.
By the time I started going to the opera in the mid-1960s, taste had started changing once more, thanks to Maria Callas--La Divina to her worshipful followers. Born in New York in 1923, trained in Athens, and soon the queen of whatever opera company she wasn't feuding with, Callas stoked the embers of bel canto with her searing voice and high theatricality. Her soprano was not conventionally beautiful and was often reviled by fastidious puritans, but she was excitement incarnate on the stage and off, a fabulous actress with huge, black--if very myopic--eyes, a bad temper, and a flair for fashion.
I once saw half of her at a Norma concert performance at Carnegie Hall in the late 1960s. Elena Suliotis, a young singer with a short career, had just run off stage followed by boos and the rest of the cast. The audience kept hooting. Suddenly Callas, who once owned Norma's sandals, leaned down from her box and thundered, "Silenzio!" The goddess had spoken! People piped down; the performance continued. Right about that time, Callas had almost stopped singing and had suffered the humiliation of being dropped by Ari Onassis so he could marry the widow Kennedy, though Callas got a good line out of it: "Girls with glasses don't marry Onassis," is what she reportedly said. I'm told she once clasped radishes to her bosom flung at her during a curtain call thinking they were roses. The opera world is animated by passionate fans with expressive needs, and great aim.
Fortunately, the bel canto revival continued with the Australian Joan Sutherland, who made opera history when she sang Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959 and then began a tour of moldy libraries and basements the world over with her mentor, husband, and favorite conductor, Richard Bonynge, rescuing long-forgotten heroines from oblivion. The cause was joined by the jolly Catalán soprano Montserrat Caballé and the high-flying, late-blooming Beverly Sills, who supplemented the Sutherland queens, priestesses, and sonnambulists with portraits of their own. Sills's thrilling assumption of Donizetti's royal "hat trick" of Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda, and Anna Bolena was a high point of New York cultural life in the early 1970s.
Luckily, many of these operas provided equally virtuosic opportunities for a second lady of sterling vocal qualities, which were now assumed by mezzo-sopranos. (The nineteenth century did not make such neat vocal divisions.) Marilyn Horne was waiting in the wings with a voice of incredible flexibility and warmth. The Sutherland-Horne duo became the stuff of legend, one of the glories of the bel canto revival.
As for Cenerentola, already in the 1930s the bewitching Conchita Supervia made a hit of "Non più mesta" and even set up a little touring company that played all of the piece. And slowly the opera began reappearing whenever a mezzo with enough high notes and clout arrived on the scene. Giulietta Simionato, then Teresa Berganza, Lucia Valentini Terrani, Agnes Baltsa, and Frederica von Stade all made Cenerentola glitter again. (Von Stade also stepped out as Cendrillon in the gossamer French setting of the fairy tale by Jules Massenet.)
Today it is easier to cast operas by Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini than Verdi or Wagner, which require muscle and volume instead of fleetness and light. Especially, mezzo-sopranos who can sing high and low while performing the vocal equivalent of high-wire acts without a net are sprouting like mushrooms in the forest. You'd need a jumbo coach to fit them all: Jennifer Larmore, Anne Sofie von Otter, Lorraine Hunt, Susan Graham, Susanne Mentzer, Sonia Ganassi--with a little red cart attached for the young kids on the block, singers like Vesselina Kasarova or Angelika Kirchschlager.
But in October 1995, when this story begins, the mezzo who sparkles most brightly in all the land is Cecilia Bartoli, born in 1966 in Rome. An influential record producer for the Decca recording company discovered her at a talent audition in Milan. Decca (called London in the United States because of trademark restrictions), was just then planning to record The Barber of Seville and somewhat incredibly still casting about for a Rosina. Bartoli got the job. She was just twenty-two years old--mature by pop standards, but startlingly young in an opera world where thirty-five-year-olds still fill out grant applications.
The set came out in 1989 and I remember looking at it with dread--another Barber recording and I already had eight--but I also had a Christmas column to write and so I put the CDs into the machine, skipping directly to Rosina's entrance. A wily orphan living with an old buffoon who's scheming to marry her, Rosina has other plans involving a comely lad who has just pleased her with a serenade. Her lines in this scene are nothing much, but in the next she gets her chance.
"Una voce poco fa," she sings: The voice I heard just now has thrilled me to the core.
And so it was with me. In our era of trained-to-death singers, there are professionals by the dozen who can hit the tricky notes Rossini wrote; the ones who can play with them, caress them, color them are as rare as hen's teeth. Here was a special voice--a smooth, glimmering truffle of a voice, astonishing in its virtuosity and range. She had something few singers have today: personality, and a timbre that was all her own.
The rate of her climb since then has been astonishing. Bartoli immediately followed up Barber with a disc of showy Rossini arias and her first Mozart album, which sold two hundred thousand copies in one year. At one point she had three albums on the classical charts, pushing aside Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle. And though her voice is modest in volume, the singer who comes with it--a dark-haired, vivacious bundle invariably topped off by a large black bow--is so radiantly, appealingly communicative, she lights up the stage.
La Cenerentola is her role. She sang it first at Bologna's Teatro Comunale in 1992, and the closing bravura aria has become Bartoli's Greatest Hit, revisited in concert programs and frequently trotted out as an encore in recitals.
The stylishly downtrodden outfit of the cinders girl is one she would like to wear again, and the Houston Grand Opera has imported the Bologna production just for her. The company's general director, David Gockley, can make his stomach turn humming the overture. He's more interested in unusual directors and cutting-edge shows like John Adams's Nixon in China. But Bartoli sells tickets and he's a savvy businessman. There was not a ticket to be had for the opening on October 27, 1995.
Now he was waiting for her train to arrive from Ann Arbor, where she was giving a recital.
Bartoli flies only under duress and once pondered the logistics of driving to Japan--from Rome. Earlier in the year, Decca arranged for a private rail car to be attached to the Amtrak train leaving New York for California. She learned some new songs and enjoyed the scenery. "I need to feel the ground under my feet," is how she explains it, and while this creates advanced logistical nightmares for her manager, it might extend her singing days. Singers invariably step off airplanes with their vocal cords dried up and incubating their sniffling seatmate's germs. But basically, it's just that she's scared to fly.
It does no good to point out that remarkably few singers have failed to arrive at their destination. The last opera star to crash was Grace Moore in 1947, though I suppose a plane could also be implicated in the death of Lina Cavalieri, another beautiful if excessively materialistic singer. On her way to the safety of an air shelter during a World War II bombing attack, Cavalieri remembered her jewels, turned around, and traipsed back to her villa.
At least flying phobia (which I also suffer) has saved us both a lot of money. "I can't possibly leave you," I would say to my dogs, feeling my back go out as I stared in dismay at a steerage ticket marked Tokyo or São Paulo. Fortunately refundable. An epigastric hernia kept Bartoli out of Japan in January of 1995; chicken pox deflected her from South America in the summer of that year.
Even so, Bartoli and I saw quite a bit of the world together and separately during the two seasons that passed between Cenerentola in Houston in 1995 and Cenerentola at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997. We had no formal arrangement. I wanted to write about the life of an opera singer in the fast-moving, high-pressure opera world of today, and she consented to make herself available when she felt like it, once asking her manager with alarm if I was planning to spend my vacation with her. In return, she got to read what I wrote with no pressure on either of us. I'd describe our relationship as cordial.
As we rolled along, Bartoli's story became intertwined with others, most inescapably that of Pavarotti, the crumbling monument on this tour d'horizon. The sight of the great tenor, the embodiment of opera for millions, drifting reluctantly toward the last curtain call everyone eventually must take was painful to witness. The panicky search for a star successor, however, was pretty amusing. Opera's ancient heart needs new voices to keep thumping. Many step forth to take their curtain calls; few are called back again and again. The singers who become adored, and ultimately the stuff of legend, are those who project more than the correct notes (though often we're grateful just for that). I saw a soprano I first encountered in Omaha, Nebraska, finally step center stage; I followed an ex-waiter to Paris and a dieting diva into cyberspace. Another detour took me backstage to the Metropolitan Opera for one of the strangest galas in music history.
In opera, we see writ large the extremes of human emotion and the workings of fate carried to the greatest heights of absurdity and soul-stirring tragedy. Some of the people who live in this world travel pretty close to the rim. Is there another art form that attracts so many sublime sufferers and so many nuts? Just before starting Cinderella & Company, I quit writing criticism for the Wall Street Journal after sitting in aisle seats for nearly twenty years, and I worried that backstage might not be as diverting as the shows I saw onstage. What could I have been thinking?
From the Trade Paperback edition.