Posted by: Rob Viens | November 24, 2012

Darwin, Rossini and a Disney Princess

It will make sense a little further down the page, but if you want to hear what Darwin was listening to tonight (while you read on), start the YouTube recording of Cenerentola below (from 1981). (I’d recommend jumping over the intro and picking some random place in the middle of the opera for more dramatic effect.)

On the 23rd and 24th of November Darwin was out of the fields and swamps and back fulfilling social obligations.  On Friday night he attended a ball celebrating the inauguration of the president of Uruguay (the very same president Darwin helped during a recent uprising (see A Good Man Goes to War II – A Man of Action)).

“At night there was a grand ball given in order to celebrate the reestablishment of the President.— It was a much gayer scene than I should have thought this place could have produced.— the desire which the inhabitants have on such occasions of appearing splendidly dressed is excessive: & to gratify it the ladies will spare no sacrifices. The music was in very slow time & the dancing, although most formal, possessed much gracefulness.— The ball was given in the Theatre; nothing surprised me so much as the arrangements of the house; every part not actually occupied by the dancers was entirely open to the lowest classes of Society.— so that all the passages to the boxes, back parts of the pitt, were filled by any people who liked to look on.— And nobody ever seemed even to imagine the possibility of disorderly conduct on their parts. How different are the habits of Englishmen, on such Jubilee nights!” (Nov 23)

The president was Fructuoso Rivera, who held the office from 1830 to 1834, then again in 1838/43 and 1853/54. Although well-respected at the time for his military career (he helped oust Brazil from Uruguay), he appears to have been a poor politician (see Reds, Whites and the Slaughter of Salsupuedes Creek). In any case, I like Darwin’s description of the theatre where the party took place .  It seems to be similar to his impressions earlier this month of the theatre in Buenos Aires (see Of Diplomats and Mutineers).

On Saturday night Darwin went to the theatre in Montevideo to see one of Gioachino Rossini’s classic operas:

“Went to the Theatre & heard the opera of Cenerentola.” (Nov 24)

Cenerentola refers to Rossini’s opera “Cinderella” (its full name is La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo) – hopefully, like Darwin, you are listening to it right now.

Gioachino Rossini (by Giorces via Wikipedia)

Gioachino Rossini

Rossini was born in Italy in 1792 and wrote virtually all of his 39 operas by the time he was 37 years old. Considering that his first opera was performed when he was 18, that’s an average of 2 per year. Six yearsafter his first success, in 1816, his most well know opera – The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia) – was performed in Rome. (Even Beethoven, who Rossini met, thought very highly of Barber and predicted it would stand the test of time.) It was one year later (in 1817) that Cenerentola was first performed.  So when Darwin saw the Opera in Montevideo it was still relatively new (especially to a South American audience). The story of Cenerentola is based on the Cinderella fairytale.  Though Rossini took out the magic and replaced it with plausible alternatives. He made several other creative changes, including changing the wicked stepmother to a stepfather (probably in order to create a male role). It ends with everyone living “happily ever after”.

In 1829 Rossini virtually gave up composing and spent most of the remainder of his life preferring seclusion. He died in 1868.

There is something picturesque about imagining Darwin sitting in a theatre in Montevideo – in a country still in the midst of periodic political turmoil – watching one of the most well-known operas of the day.  Sitting in his box, all dressed up with opera glasses in hand (or maybe he brought his field binoculars) thousands of miles away from home. In a month he would be amid “savages” in one of the most remote places on Earth. The contrast is wonderful. (RJV)

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