Just before the final scene of "The Barber of Seville," Rossini's most popular opera to this day, the tenor Count Almaviva has a virtuoso aria so difficult that it has been traditionally omitted in modern performances. Less than a year after the world premiere in 1816, the composer cannily capitalized on "The Barber's" success by rewriting that aria's catchy tune for mezzo-soprano in the finale of his next comic masterpiece, "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella").
Cenerentola's version, "Non piu mesta," quickly became that opera's hit tune. In Pittsburgh Opera's production of "La Cenerentola," opening Saturday at the Benedum Center, Vivica Genaux will be negotiating the demanding runs, roulades and trills in the role of her 2001 local debut, which has become her trademark part in the intervening years.
Not surprisingly, this showcase solo is Ms. Genaux's favorite moment in the opera. "It's at the end, and all the energy of the opera comes together," she says. "But it comes after a very fast and complicated costume change, which makes me nervous. Sometimes I'm out of breath when I go back on stage."
It was not unusual for Rossini to borrow from his own works (or from the works of other composers in those pre-copyright days). It was also common to have other composers write arias for minor characters -- as was the case in "Cenerentola" -- to save time in composition. Opera-going in 1817 Italy was much like movie-going in our time, and producers wanted new works at breakneck speed. Rossini was in fact known for his productivity. Later, in his retirement, when told that the younger Donizetti had composed an opera in two weeks, he replied, "I'm not surprised. He's so lazy."
Librettist Jacopo Ferretti based his Cinderella mainly on the famous Mother Goose tale by Charles Perrault, but Rossini had a distaste for anything supernatural, so in the present opera, instead of a fairy godmother, the Prince's tutor Alidoro is the catalyst for Cenerentola meeting the Prince, the wicked stepmother is made into Don Magnifico -- a venal stepfather who wants to marry off his own daughters for financial gain -- and the ball takes place only after Cenerentola and the Prince have been united.
And while the opera is mostly funny and effervescent, there are occasional moments of great sadness and pathos. When, for example, the Prince comes looking for a potential bride, it appears on the registry that Don Magnifico has three daughters living at home. In front of Cenerentola, who has been reduced to a housemaid, Don Magnifico coldly replies that his third daughter is dead, one of the opera's most poignant and heartrending measures.
"Some singers play Cenerentola aggressively," according to Ms. Genaux, "but for me there's no malice in her against her cruel relations. Her character has been forged by fire. She has strong beliefs in goodness, which are a psychological shield for her. The opera's subtitle is 'The Triumph of Goodness,' and that triumph has to come from her heart."
The singer adds that the opera's most difficult moment for her is the place where she asks the Prince to forgive her stepfather and stepsisters: "She has to show real compassion, after all the tumult and comedy." Ms. Genaux had mezzo Frederica Von Stade in mind as a model: "I watched her video as a teenager. She is so graceful, and the emotion is real and genuine."
"La Cenerentola" contains the familiar markings of Rossini's comic genius throughout. Don Magnifico has a buffo aria even more elaborate than that of Dr. Bartolo in "Barber." The tenor Prince has a coloratura showpiece that almost but not quite matches Cenerentola's grand scena. There is a brilliant sextet in Act 2 that capitalizes on the Italian rolled R's with hilarious effect. And the delightful Overture contains one of Rossini's prototypical crescendos that is put to use again in the ensemble that concludes the first act.
"This is a great first opera," Ms. Genaux contends. "It's great to bring your kids to, because they already know the story, and the supertitles make it easy to follow. Rossini's music is toe-tapping from beginning to end."mobilehome - music
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.