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Surreal, modern and meta: the radical designs for a transformed version of Rossini's La Cenerentola

The designer of Opéra de Lyon's La Cenerentola explains the details of the radically transformed version of Rossini's opera

La Cenerentola
©Jean-Pierre Maurin

La Cenerentola displays the art of singing on an Olympic level. With arias that do not serve to enhance the plot, it is more about showing the composer's genius and the singer's talent than about the actual story. The opera's subtitle Il Triompho la bonta (Goodness Triumphant) is a reference to the quality of singing, rather than the purity of character: the idea is to delight the audience with music, using singers to fuel the operatic machine.

In the overture we witness an empty stage, the entrance of a modern-day cleaning lady and the spirit of Rossini coming down as deus ex machina from a cloud, luring the cleaning lady into his story of Cinderella. The set ingredients for this story are easy: an old book, a shiny shoe and a dirty fireplace in need of cleaning...

The handsome prince and the entire cast appear from the ashy fireplace as flames, brought back to life by the maestro's magic quill with which he is composing the music and directing the whole opera. As the music repeats and builds up to the famous Rossini crescendo, the stage also repeats itself and the fireplace grows into a portal, sucking in all the singers as human fuel, and at the end the stage is blank again.

To start and end with an empty stage is always very demanding

To start and end with an empty stage is always very demanding and influences the whole design. For instance, a vital but unseen element is the floor and the tracks, which have to be made invisible. But we wanted to display opera as a machine, we wanted to show all set changes. Rossini later changed the opera from three acts to two – which meant we could display the complicated seesaw between the house and the palace in the middle of acts rather than during intermissions.

The model box for La Cenerentola

The opera takes place inside a set of ever-growing concentric fireplaces. Once the biggest fireplace was installed, we looked into a staged world with two sides: one displaying the house of Don Magnifico (Cinderella's step-father) in a quite ironically overdone operatic style; the other one shows the palace of the prince, seen in the projection, made from repetitive parts of the fireplaces. Both sides are made from the same elements in different sizes, which quotes the baroque idea of fake perspective in theatre.

In the Finale – "al tabola" – the singers' heads are served as a dish for Rossini to eat

This in turn mirrors the repetitive and the ever-increasing music of Rossini, which sounds at times almost industrial – like a locomotive engine – and influenced the design even further. The smoke from the fireplaces become the steam of our operatic machine, best seen in the "Zitto Zitto" scene, which is constantly powered by the singers and stirred by maestro, with the aim to make the music faster and faster.

In the Finale – "al tabola" – the singers' heads are served as a dish for Rossini to eat. We prepared a lot for that scene: from the magnets and tables to the domes and cutlery, everything had to be made to meet its specific needs. So that the singers can go underneath the tables, they had to be designed much higher than usual. Then we had to raise the upholstery and prolong the legs of the chairs so they still look proportional even though everything is totally out of proportion! A thousand thanks to all the makers involved in the Oslo opera, who made it all possible at short notice.

Many of the theatrical illusions are produced by the cast themselves – such as in the "Tempesta" scene where the singers use props, wind and thunder machines. And as all men appear in disguise all the time, the audience could be led think that the wedding and the happy ending is also just a stage invention: who in society actually benefits from a permanently retold fairytale about a devoted, hard-working woman waiting for her Mr Right to get married to in a beautiful dress? Don't the bracelets – donated by the priest, replacing the crystal shoes – rather look like handcuffs?

La Cenerentola runs at the Festival Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival

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La Cenerentola
©Jean-Pierre Maurin