Detailed Plot Outline
In Rossini’s time, the overture was generally looked upon as an opportunity for the audience members to settle into their seats rather than being an integral part of the drama. Rossini sometimes recycled overtures from previous operas rather than writing new ones. Nevertheless, the overture to this opera is remarkable in its use of orchestration, especially the parts for the individual woodwind instruments, and it builds to a rousing climax, anticipating the frantic action to follow.
Rossini and Anelli set the opera in their own time period. The following description refers to the Lyric’s updated production.
The chorus, consisting of eunuchs of Bey Musstafa’s court, function as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action, with no consistent allegiance to one person or the other. They lament the fact that the Bey has decided to exile his wife, Elvira. Elvira laments the loss of her husband’s affection and is consoled by her attendant, Zulma. Mustafa enters and declares that his mind is made up and that he will indeed terminate his marriage.A rapid-fire ensemble, the first of many which characterize this opera, ensues.
The next dialogue is written in recitative, the sung speech which in Italian opera takes the place of spoken dialogue. Mustafa tells Haly to summon his prisoner, Lindoro, whom he intends to marry to Elvira. He ignores Haly’s objection, and he orders his deputy, on pain of death, to find him an Italian woman.
A shift of scene takes us to Lindoro, who, after a languid melodic introduction on the French horn, sings a melancholy aria “Languir per una bella,” lamenting his separation from his lost love. In typical bel canto style, the solo ends with an up-tempo section, referred to as a cabaletta. Mustafa enters and offers him an opportunity to return to Italy if he will agree to marry Elvira. However, Lindoro tells Mustafa that he is sure no woman whom he proposes can meet his standards. The two men banter back and forth in a lively duet.
The scene shifts to a desert oasis, where a bi-plane has crashed and fallen into the Algerians’ hands. The various passengers are led in, and finally Isabella makes her appearance. In the aria “Cruda sorte,” which has become a staple in the repertoire of any Rossini mezzo, she laments her cruel fate, but in the cabaletta she expresses her confidence that she will be able to use her feminine wiles to come out on top.
Taddeo, a somewhat older man who has been courting her, makes his entrance, and to protect him, she tells her captors that he is her uncle. Haly rejoices that an Italian woman has fallen into his hands. Left alone, Isabella and Taddeo have what could be described as a lovers’ spat, but they agree to work together to effect their ultimate escape.
The scene shifts back to the palace, where Mustafa reiterates his offer to Lindoro: passage back to Italy if he will marry Elvira and take her with him. While Lindoro is pondering his predicament, Haly enters and gives Mustafa the news of Isabella’s capture. Elvira tells Zulma that she still loves her husband in spite of everything, and she is cool to Lindoro’s advice that she will have her choice of lovers and husbands in Italy.
They exit. Mustafa awaits the entrance of Isabella. Seeing Mustafa, she sings a flirtatious staccato melody, which is echoed by Mustafa, and the two join voices at the end of the duet. Taddeo enters demanding to see his “niece,” and the three join in a trio in which all three are at cross purposes.
Elvira, Zulma, and Lindoro enter to say their goodbyes as they prepare to depart for Italy. Lindoro and Isabella are amazed to see each other. Learning that Mustafa is divorcing Elvira in order to court her, Isabella says she could never love a man who would be so cruel to his wife. She demands that Mustafa take his wife back; moreover, she asks that Lindoro be given to her as her personal slave.
It appears to have been a convention in Rossini’s time that the characters join in an ensemble in which they all express how confused they are. Such an ensemble occurs at the end of Act I of The Barber of Seville, and there are no fewer than three such ensembles in La Cenerentola. The ensemble which closes this act may be the wildest of them all. Elvira imagines that she hears bells ringing in her head, Lindoro hears a hammer going “tac tac,” Taddeo hears crowing, “cra cra,” and Mustafa hears a drum going “boom boom.” There is no point in making sense of all this; in the words of Melina Esse, “Many of these moments depend on the transformation of the human into something machine-like.” Paul Robinson goes even further, describing this ensemble as a satire directed at the conventions of opera buffa: “he satirizes the entire tradition of operatic ensemble by having his characters sing onomatopoetic noises, as if were instruments rather than voices…Rossini’s point is…what one normally hears in an operatic ensemble verges on the instrumental – a confection of homogenized, interwoven musical lines, whose inarticulateness grows more pronounced as the music moves toward a climax.” Elvira’s high soprano voice soars above the others as the curtain falls.
As in the first act, the chorus introduces the action, this time expressing their bewilderment at the way that the Bey has been possessed by love. Elvira, Zulma, and Lindoro concur. Mustafa enters, visibly lovesick, and asks for Isabella to be brought to him.
The scene shifts to Isabella and Lindoro, having their first moment alone together. Isabella fears that Lindoro has been unfaithful, but he explains that he has offered only to escort Elvira, not to marry her. Lindoro sings a brief aria expressing his joy at being reunited with Isabella.
They exit, and Mustafa enters. Taddeo rushes onto the scene, complaining that he is being pursued by one of Mustafa’s soldiers. However, Mustafa explains that the pursuit is based on Mustafa’s intention to honor Taddeo (in an attempt to get on Isabella’s good side) by making Taddeo his Kaimakan (governor). Taddeo reluctantly accepts, though he sings an aria expressing his discomfort in taking on this role.
The scene shifts to Isabella’s quarters, where Elvira enters to tell Isabella that she has been invited to have coffee with Mustafa. Taking pity on Elvira, Isabella tries to persuade her to be more assertive in her relationship with her husband. As her three potential lovers hide to observe her, Isabella sings the aria “Per lui che adoro” (for him whom I adore), allowing each of the three to believe she is singing of him alone.
Mustafa tells Taddeo that he wants to be alone with Isabella. He is to escort her to him and then leave when he gives the signal by sneezing. In the ensuing quintet (involving Elvira and Lindoro as well), Taddeo deliberately ignores the repetitive sneezes which become part of the music. To further foil Mustafa’s plans, Isabella has invited Elvira to join their tete-a-tete.
The characters exit in various directions, and Haly and Zulma are left on stage to express their own amusement at the situation. Haly sings an aria praising the charms of Italian women.
Lindoro and Taddeo now get together, and on the fly the devise a plan to allow for their escape. They will tell Mustafa that Isabella has decided that she will invite Mustafa to be her “pappatacci,” a made-up word which means something like “silent husband.” The induction ceremony will provide the diversion they need to plan their escape. They tell Mustafa of this supposed “honor.” The duty of a pappatacci, they explain, is to eat, drink, and sleep, and to ignore any shenanigans going on around him.
In the meantime, Isabella gathers the Italian captives and sings them words of encouragement, “Pensa alla patria” (Think of your country). Nearly thirty years before Verdi’s “Va pensiero” from Nabucco was to inflame Italian nationalism, this call for patriotism for a not yet independent nation must have seemed radical indeed. There was apparently no problem including this aria in Venice, which was controlled by the French, whom many Italians regarded as liberators; in productions in other parts of Italy, however, it was frequently banned.
The induction ceremony takes place as planned. To be sure that Mustafa has been sufficiently duped, Isabella flirts with Lindoro, and in compliance with the pappatacci code, Mustafa turns the other way. Isabella and Lindoro begin to board a hot air balloon, and Mustafa ignores the warnings he hears. Finally, when it is too late, Mustafa decides that he has had enough of liberated Italian women, and he reconciles with his wife. All (except maybe for Taddeo) are happy with the outcome, and everyone joins in a tribute to the cleverness of the female sex as the balloon flies away and the curtain falls.