American Ballet Theatre, ballet, Christopher Wheeldon, Cinderella, dream, fairy tale, folk tale, Joyce DiDonato, La Cenerentola, Melody S. Owens, Metropolitan Opera, myth, opera, Prokofiev, Rossini, San Francisco Ballet, singing, stories, theatre
What is it about stories that improve with repetition? Nearly every culture has its narratives, and the retelling of a beloved tale seems to be universal. Greater minds than mine have grappled with this question and there are hundreds of studies on the profound cultural importance of myths, fairy and folk tales. Anyone who has been around children knows that the favorite stories are the ones that are read over and over. These fables and yarns, told and retold, provide structure, moral compass and understanding of our place in the greater world.
This comes to mind because of the omnipresence of Cinderella in New York these days. Rossini’s La Cenerentola just finished a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera. An updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is running on Broadway. Last fall, the San Francisco Ballet brought a new version of the Prokofiev Cinderella by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to New York. And in its 2014 spring season, American Ballet Theatre will be presenting Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella to the same score.
Why does this particular story exist in so many interpretations? When attending any version of Cinderella, there are always dozens of little girls present – it does seem to be a story that resonates especially with them. Is it the party dress and the prince and the happily-ever-after? Is it trusting in a magical someone or something to help in times of trouble? Is it the promise of transformation? Is it overcoming adversity and finding one’s own way in the world? Is it being alone and persecuted, then rescued?
To my thinking, the 20th century renditions of the story have done it some disservice. The Disney and – bless them – Rodgers and Hammerstein versions seem to focus overly much on dressing up for the prince, and escaping through a wedding. In the 21st century, there has been an unfortunate backlash, applying pop feminism to this tale in an effort to make the title character seem less passive, more in charge of her own fate, determined, feisty and brave. Of course, to endure loneliness and difficult times is to be brave, and in the century in which the story originated, the only path to security and well being for a young woman was marriage. The kernels of both those ideas are there, in the story.
Both extremes miss something at the core, though, and this was apparent to me in the transcendent performance of Joyce DiDonato as the title character in the Met’s Cenerentola last week. Ms. DiDonato had announced last month that she was retiring this role, and I attended the final performance. The house was full of her fans, abuzz with energy and anticipation. To hear her, now at her absolute peak, sing this difficult and glorious role was extraordinary – she has effortless technique and beautiful tone, and it seems that Rossini wrote the role just for her. But what I noticed even more, and this is a tribute to her acting abilities, was the sweet longing in her character’s desire to be recognized and valued, by her family, by the mysterious visitor, by the valet, by someone.
To be recognized and valued – isn’t this what we all want? Herein lies the deep connection to the Cinderella story. Cinderella is, in every variant, emotionally and psychologically invisible to those around her. She wants someone to see her, to acknowledge her, and of course to appreciate what she has to offer. How this is achieved, by magic, rescue or self-determination, matters less than that familiar longing – for a place in the world in which one is understood and treasured. It is a dream we all share.
©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.