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Filippo Falciatore - Tarantella at Mergellina (c.1750) - Detroit Institute of Art

The Rise of Neapolitan Comic Opera


During the eighteenth century Naples was one of the largest and most vibrant cities in Europe. Hot, dirty and overcrowded, it was a city of teeming life and colour that flowed from court and church to the streets. To the French traveller Charles De Brosses, writing in 1739, it was Naples, not Rome that had the aura of a capital:


To my mind, Naples is the only city in Italy that really feels like a capital. The traffic, the large population, the continuous noise and chaos of the very many carriages, a brilliant court, the magnificent bearing of the local nobility… everything conspires to give Naples the lively and animated aspect which is possessed by London and Paris but which is totally absent in Rome.


Like many other visitors, De Brosses was also captivated by the wealth of musical activity he found in the city, which he declared to be ‘the capital of the world’s music’. Music had long played an integral part in the life of the city, not just at court and in its churches, but in taverns and streets that resounded to the sounds of singing and dancing. On major feast days the church itself came to the streets, bringing to them processions and musical entertainment.  It has indeed been justly observed that Naples itself was one huge theatre, its inhabitants the perpetual players on a stage on which the curtain never came down. In view of this it is perhaps strange to relate that the city was relatively slow to adopt the Baroque dramatic form par excellence. During the seventeenth century Naples was largely content to follow the capital of the operatic world, Venice. The first operas to be seen in Naples, one of which may have been Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (there is some dispute on the matter), were mostly imported from Venice in the early 1650s, a pattern that was to be largely followed for most of the remainder of the century. By the mid-1650s ‘Febi Armonici’, an operatic troupe who had been encouraged to move from Rome to Naples by the Spanish viceroy of Naples, were presenting opera at the S. Bartolomeo theatre, an innovation succeeded by various companies who acted on its stage until 1737, when the theatre was pulled down.


There can be little doubt that the true founder of Neapolitan opera was not Alessandro Scarlatti, as has sometimes been claimed, but Francesco Provenzale (c1626-1704). Provenzale’s earliest operas date from the 1650s and the likelihood that they were at least in part adapted from operas by Cavalli only emphasizes the close interaction between Venetian and Neapolitan opera during this period. Provenzale’s activities as an opera composer were curtailed by the arrival of Scarlatti in Naples, the latter’s appointment as maestro di capella in 1684 causing the disappointed Provenzale to resign his post in a protest that also resulted in a number of other members of the chapel choir leaving the establishment. However, as will later be seen, Provenzale is an important figure in the move toward the creation of comic opera.


The Commedia dell’arte and Commedia Erudita

Only an accident of history has deprived us of a work that might have changed the history of comic opera. In 1627 an opera entitled La finta pazza Licori was proposed for the court of Mantua. The composer was none other than Claudio Monteverdi, the librettist the renowned Giulio Strozzi. Sadly, neither text nor music survives, and it seems likely that since there is no record of it having been performed, the work was never completed. We are left, tantalizingly, with only the composer’s reference to it in a letter as a ‘thousand ridiculous little inventions’. Yet the title alone is revealing, for the words ‘finta’ (feign or bogus) and ‘pazza’ (madness) are both closely associated with what would become stock ingredients of comedy in opera and, ultimately, comic opera itself. Both feigning and comic madness have their roots in the most significant of all influences on comic opera, the commedia dell’arte. A semi-improvised theatrical entertainment, the commedia dell’arte first became popular in the early part of the sixteenth century. Its essence lay in the skill of masked professional actors in stock roles to improvise within a predetermined scenario. These stock characters were associated with various regions of Italy, including Naples, frequently speaking in local dialect not fully understood by other members of the cast, thus creating the confusion and misunderstandings central to the development of the plot. As we will see, the use of local dialect would become one of the defining characteristics of Neapolitan comic opera. Confusion and imbroglio was also created by the frequent employment of gender role reversal, another feature that would be incorporated into many a comic opera.


Because many of the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte found their way in recognizable form into comic opera, it will be helpful to identify them. Essential was at least one pair of young lovers, who appeared unmasked. Their trials and tribulations before achieving a happy union were assisted by ziani, scheming and quick-witted male servant types of whom Arlecchino is the best-known example. Mozart and Rossini’s Figaro is a famous descendent. Opposing the lovers and often a father or guardian of one of them was a foolish old man, frequently a doctor or lawyer (the prototype of Figaro’s adversary, Dr Bartolo) who is the butt for the mockery and tricks of other cast members. The paradigm of such characters was Pantalone, who can also frequently be found foolishly courting a much younger girl from a lower social order, often a servant or peasant. Her most famous manifestation in the commedia dell’arte is Columbina, an exemplar who combines a mixture of sentimentality, charm and knowing pertness with an element of the shrewish. Comic opera’s adoption of the Pantalone and Columbina archetypes represents one its mainstays, their counterparts immediately recognisable in the most famous of all early Neapolitan comic pieces, Pergolesi’s La serva padrona.


In the important respect of improvisation comic opera could not, by definition, emulate the commedia dell’arte, and commentators have also drawn attention to the influence of fully written out spoken comedies. Known as commedia erudite (literary comedy), these drew substantially on acknowledged classical models such as Terence, a favourite theme being the trials of courtship experienced by young men. Examples of commedia erudite being rare, it is difficult to assess their direct influence on comic opera, but it is probably fair to say that while it had some relevance to the few surviving seventeenth century works and the comic scenes inserted into serious operas, true opera buffa owes a substantially greater debt to commedia dell’arte.

Comedy in Seventeenth Century Opera

The constant mining of forgotten archives and attendant rediscoveries makes assertion a dangerous game, but to date it can justifiably be claimed that no notable comic opera of the seventeenth century is known. The role of comedy in opera became that of a foil to set against the high minded subject matter of serious operas. Lowborn characters provided earthy contrast to the elevated sentiments and actions of gods and nobly born around whom the central plot revolved. Such distinctions were even maintained in sacred dramas, an apparent dichotomy explained by the zeal of the counter-Reformation to propagate its message in widely varied forms. A typical and outstanding Neapolitan example is Provenzale’s La Columba ferita, an opera sacra first performed at the royal palace in Naples in 1670. Ostensibly a mystical morality in which the heroine Rosalia opposes marriage to an earthly suitor because of her passionate desire to be wedded to Jesus, the opera includes comic scenes between two servants, Scacci (a Neapolitan) and Calabrese (a Calabrian), both of whom employ native dialect. At the end of Act I, Provenzale guys himself by having the pair sing a madrigal composed by ‘Lord Maestro Provenzale’ to the accompaniment of a guitar and colascione, a theorbo-like instrument popular in seventeenth century Naples. The performance of popular, dance-like songs or even dramatic works within the opera by comic characters not only marks one of the earliest moves towards closed forms, but also looks to the opera buffa of the future.  Indeed, the servants’ scenes in La Columba ferita suggest that far from being the old-fashioned composer of repute, Provenzale presaged many of the features that would become associated with comic opera.


There can be little doubt that audiences thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of seriousness and humour that becomes increasingly integrated in the operas of Venetian composers such as Cavalli and Cesti, but many of the literati with higher academic pretensions did not. Towards the end of the century a reaction set in. It was specifically articulated by Giovanni Mario Crescembini, the author of the first history of Italian literature, who, citing Cavalli’s Giasone, particularly deplored the ‘placing side by side, with a monstrousness never heard before, kings, heroes and other illustrious characters, and buffoons, servants and folk of the lowest extraction’. Such sentiments heralded the beginning of the end for the frequently subtle intermingling of heroism and comedy, of nobility and satire that had delighted seventeenth century opera audiences. Henceforth the serious would be serious, and comic opera would be forced to find its own way. Its true birthplace would be not Venice, the home of comedy in opera, but Naples.

The Rise of Opera in Naples

The rise of Naples as a major opera centre unquestionably owes much to the arrival of the twenty-three year old Alessandro Scarlatti in the city in 1683, although as already noted Provenzale had done much toward creating a distinctive Neapolitan operatic style. Scarlatti, however, would become a far more influential figure who, as maestro di cappella, was responsible for cementing the recently established links between the city’s opera and the royal chapel, a union that would have critical importance for both sacred music and opera. Interlinked with this development, another major factor that needs to be taken into account is the excellence of musical training available at the four conservatoires in Naples: S. Maria di Loreto, S. Maria della Pietà dei Turchini, Poveri di Gesù Cristo, and S. Onofrio a Capuana. Originally founded in the sixteenth century as orphanages with the objective of providing free board and education, the conservatoires differed from the famous Venetian ospedale in being for boys rather than girls. During the course of the seventeenth century music became an important part of the curriculum and a training ground for singers in the city’s churches. By the middle of the century, the conservatoires were strongly focussed on music, employing prestigious musical figures in the city as maestri – Provenzale, for example, was maestro of the Loreto from 1663. In addition to providing musicians, the conservatoires were also frequently the venue for the performance of sacred operas, thus providing valuable experience in the dramatic arts.


By the turn of the eighteenth century the conservatoires were producing a steady stream of gifted composers, many of whom would subsequently become renowned figures in the realms of both serious and comic opera in addition to composing sacred music. Michael F. Robinson’s seminal study Naples and Neapolitan Opera lists no less than forty notable opera composers (a by no means comprehensive catalogue) who were products of the Neapolitan conservatoire system. Many are today forgotten, but the list includes a number who are at least familiar by name and who would come to figure prominently in the story of comic opera, among them Nicolo Porpora (1686-1768), Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730), Leonardo Leo (1694-1744), Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), Gaetano Latilla (1711-1788) and Nicola Jommelli (1714-1774). A slightly later generation includes two of the principal composers of opera buffa, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801).


The Birth of Comic Opera


Early moves to expel comedy from ‘serious’ opera coincided almost exactly with the arrival of comic opera. They are closely associated with the reform of literary standards propagated by Crescembini and furthered by a group of academics and artists in Rome who styled themselves the Arcadian Academy. Alessandro Scarlatti was among their number, as was the poet Apostolo Zeno, the poet principally associated with the reform of the operatic libretto. The earliest examples of independent comic insertions date from the 1690s, when several Venetian operas introduced entr’actes whose subject matter bore no relationship to that of the principal plot. Generally although not invariably these were divided into three scenes inserted into the main opera at the ends of the first two acts, or, in the case of the final scene, within the last act. Known as intermezzos, by the first decade of the eighteenth century their librettos were being published separately from that of the main opera. They consisted of a dialogue between two characters, a woman (soprano) and a man (bass), whose principal objective was to gain ascendancy over the other. After much verbal sparring, marriage generally ensued by the end of the piece, although in some instances they were married off at an earlier point to allow the librettist to show the disadvantages of their union. This framework, with variants, would provide the plan for virtually all intermezzos. Readers familiar with Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, the most famous of them, will instantly recognise this prototype scenario.


In Naples comic scenes were retained in opera rather longer than was the case with their Venetian counterparts. Robinson draws attention to three Scarlatti operas of the 1690s which each included no less than five comic scenes, and as late as 1726 Sesostrate, the first opera composed by Johann Hasse for Naples, incorporates comic scenes played out by servants who are associated with the characters in the main opera. Notwithstanding such vestiges of seventeenth century tradition, by the time Sesostrate appeared comic opera was already well established in Naples. The earliest known full-length comic opera to be played in Naples in fact dates back as far as 1706 or 7, when La Cilla by Francesco Tullio (1660-1737) was given at the home of a Neapolitan nobleman. The music of La Cilla is now lost but the extant libretto reveals that the opera was sung in Neapolitan dialect, thus creating a precedent that would not only be widely followed, but one which establishes a clear line of demarcation with the intermezzo, which was invariably sung in ‘pure’ or Tuscan Italian.


La Cilla represents a landmark, but the crucial moment for the establishment of Neapolitan comic opera arrived a couple years or so years later. In October 1709 an opera by the name of Patrò Calienna de la Costa with music by Antonio Orefice (fl 1708-34) was staged at the Fiorentini theatre, long the home of spoken drama in general and commedia dell’arte in particular. The staging of a comic opera represented a new departure for the Fiorentini, which had abandoned spoken drama in favour of rivalling the home of serious opera in Naples, S. Bartolomeo, some three years earlier. Such was the success of Patrò Calienna that it led directly to the management of the Fiorentini abandoning its rivalry to S. Bartolomeo to concentrate on comic opera. Thus Naples had its first home for comic opera and as the vogue for the genre escalated during the 1720s the Fiorentini was joined by two smaller theatres built to satisfy demand, the Della Pace and the Nuovo, both of which opened in 1724.

The Intermezzo

As we have noted, the intermezzo was at first associated with Venice, but it was in Naples that it gained its greatest prominence. During the 1720s the form gained its independence from the main opera, its structure following largely in the steps of its Venetian cousin with the exception that it was now generally divided into two rather than three parts inserted between the acts of the principal opera. In addition to the two singing characters, one or more non-singing roles were frequently added, often servants to the male singing character cast as a mute who is the butt of his master’s ill temper and whose efforts to make himself understood add to the complications of the plot. Vespone in La serva padrona is a typical example, while in Hasse’s La Contadina (1728) the efforts of Don Tabarano’s servant Corbo to warn his vainly besotted master that he is being swindled by the scheming Scintilla are frustrated by his inability to speak. Some later intermezzos such as Jommelli’s Don Trastullo (1749) are expanded both in length and by the addition of a third singing character, in this instance a captain (Giambarone) who not only acts as the object of the scheming girl’s matrimonial ambitions but also as a foil and opponent for the eponymous Don.


The female characters in intermezzos follow closely the Columbina prototype. She is always young, pretty and vivacious, usually a servant or a peasant and a schemer who is aware of her ability to have her own way through employing a mixture of guile and feminine charm. Serpina, the maidservant from hell in La serva padrona, is only articulating the sentiments of dozens of her counterparts when she exclaims to the hapless Uberto: ‘Am I not beautiful? Am I not charming and attractive enough for you. Just look at my grace…’ The objective of these pert girls is invariably marriage, preferably to an older man with money (La serva padrona), or to swindle a wealthy man out of his money in order to marry her lover (Don Trastullo). Variants on these themes occur in Pergolesi’s Livietta e Tracollo (1734), where Livietta for some reason sets her sights on Tracollo, a brigand on whom she has sworn revenge for robbing and half killing her brother, and La Contadina, in which the cowardly flight of Scintilla’s lover Lucinda (a non-singing role) leads her to settle for marriage to her wealthy foppish suitor Don Tabarano, the man she has spent the piece trying to defraud. While Arsenia (Don Trastullo) eventually gets to marry her Giambarone after defrauding Trastullo (and she makes it clear that this is not her first such amoral act), there is no doubting that although this is a ‘love match’, it is she who will wear the trousers. Indeed, in all these instances there seems little doubt that developments after the curtain goes down will not be to the advantage of the man.


This clear ascendancy of women over men is in marked contrast to comic scenes in seventeenth century opera, where it is frequently women who are tricked or duped. While the treatment meted out to the male characters deriving from Pantalone is frequently cruel and morally indefensible, sympathy for them is frequently mitigated by their gullibility, extreme vanity and absurd pretensions. La Contadina opens with Tabarano extolling his merits as a dancer and his looks in a mirror produced by his servant Corbo, while at the start of the second intermezzo of Livietta e Tracollo, the latter sings a mock grandiose aria while disguised as an astrologer. Don Trastullo emerges as an especially pretentious fool who speaks high-flown nonsense, it being ‘natural and innate in me to speak in metaphors, in conceits, in allegories’, to use his own words to Arsenia. The centre piece of the first intermezzo takes the form of a remarkable cantata he sings to Arsenia, who he addresses as Helen of Troy in an attempt to prove his love for her, showing off his (inevitably flawed) knowledge of mythology. (The full original title of the work was in fact La Cantata e disfida di Don Trastullo [The cantata and challenge of Don Trastullo]). Uberto in La serva padrona cuts a more sympathetic figure, a wealthy elderly man whose worst sin is perhaps his ill treatment of his servant Vospone. Tracollo is another variant, a knave who has some relationship to Arlecchino, being not above a stratagem or two of his own and having no obvious attraction for a woman. Yet ultimately he is still tricked into marriage, being no match for the wily Livietta. The introduction of a third singing character to Don Trastullo allows for a new twist to the plot, the expression of rivalry for the girl, a turn of events presaged in La serva padrona with Serpina’s introduction of the fearsome if silent ‘Capitan Tempesta’ (in reality Vospone in disguise). In Don Trastullo this rivalry is played out as a mock duel between Trastullo and Giambarone, each assuming a stance of valour while actually quaking with fear.


The use of disguise was central to the plots of intermezzos, where the characters spend much of their time play-acting in one way or another. Frequently asides are cast to the audience by the characters to remind it they are not being serious or quite what they seem, a well-known example being Serpina’s aria in the pathetic style ‘A Serpina penserate’, where the sentimental strain is both interrupted and to some extent undermined by her asides telling us she believes Uberto is starting to weaken. The ‘cantata’ Don Trastullo sings to Arsenia is constantly interrupted by the girl’s asides as she barely manages to suppress her mirth at its ridiculous content. Disguise had the double purpose of facilitating complications of the plot and allowing for the possibility of introducing corruptions of other languages. Livietta e Tracollo opens with both the main characters disguised, Livietta, who is attempting to trap the thieving Tracollo, as a French peasant, while the brigand himself has assumed the unlikely disguise of a pregnant Polish woman. This allows Livietta to employ a kind of fractured French, while Tracollo’s opening aria employs heavily Polish-inflected rhythms. Disguise also plays an important part in La Contadina. In the second intermezzo Don Tabarro, having been defrauded by Scintilla, assumes the personage of a Turkish pirate in an attempt to catch the girl and her partner Lucindo as they attempt to flee with their newfound wealth. Again this allows only for the introduction of a ‘Turkish Dance’ in which Tabarro twirls delightedly in his exotic costume, but also for the use of pigeon ‘Turkish’ as Tabarro and his fellow ‘pirates’ capture Scintilla and her boy friend.


Formally, if not stylistically, intermezzos were content to follow established operatic procedures. The alternation of recitative and da capo aria was retained and although arias are generally shorter than those of serious opera in earlier intermezzos, several of those in Don Trastullo are extended pieces demanding a high degree of virtuosity from the singer, Arsenia’s ‘Se voi siete’ being a notable example. One convention that was not applicable was that of the exit aria, which would hardly be applicable to a genre that relies on constant interaction between two characters, a feature that also makes pointed and well projected delivery of secco recitative of prime importance in performance. But the major difference is, of course, one of pace, the action moving forward much faster than it does in serious opera and in the numerous instances of arias where the action is advanced having a directly opposite purpose to the static nature of opera seria arias. Because they incorporate a high degree of mobility and flexibility, texts are commonly considerably longer than those of heroic opera. Duets are generally restricted to the end of each intermezzo, that coming at the end of the first being one of confusion and conflict that provides a kind a ‘cliff-hanger’ before the second intermezzo followed after a considerable lapse of time. That confusion is resolved by a final duet that inversely mirrors the first by providing a tidy resolution to what has preceded it.


The musical style of the vocal numbers is overwhelmingly dictated by text and frequently responds to an ever-changing sequence of events, again providing a diametric contrast to the arias of serious opera, which sought to paint a single broad picture. This frequently resulted in shorter phrase lengths and contrasted thematic material, which along strong melodic appeal and orchestral writing that embraced simplified textures (complex counterpoint was are hardly appropriate to comic opera) gives the music a more modern feel than much Baroque music. Indeed, there is no doubt that there is much in the intermezzo and comic opera that points forward to the emergence of the Rococo and pre-Classical style. Notwithstanding such individual characteristics, it has to be remembered that all Neapolitan composers of comic opera were also practitioners of serious opera. As such they were not afraid to import features of seria style into their comic works. The most frequent way to do so was to parody or distort various features of the serious style, numerous and varied examples of which can be heard in the works so far under discussion. When Livietta wishes to test the reactions of Tracollo, she does so in aria (‘Caro, perdonami’) in which she stages a mock collapse, the sighs, fractured words (l’al… ma spi… rar) and pregnant pauses sufficiently poignant to do credit to any grand lady in genuine distress. The cantata of Don Trastullo includes passages of dramatic accompanied recitative depicting the fall of Troy that would not be out of place in opera seria, were it not for the absurd words and the interpolations of Arsenia. Such passages tread an exquisite and sometimes fine line juxtaposing farce and drama that can only be appreciated with knowledge of the conventions of opera seria. Tracollo’s fine accompanied recitative and aria ‘Misero!… Ecco il povero Tracollo’, a pathetic minor key plea to Livietta not to turn him in to the law, not only invokes the gods and spirits of the underworld familiar from heroic opera, but features the wide range common to many of the bass arias found in intermezzos. We might also note the rapid parlando style that is not uncommonly mixed with more lyrical passages (Serpina’s famous ‘Stizzoso, mio stizzoso’ is a famous example) and the deliberate use of sentimentality that at times touches on a melancholy vein particularly associated with Pergolesi and sometimes cited as a defining characteristic of the so-called Neapolitan style.

Opera Buffa

While the intermezzo remained wedded to its larger-scale heroic or serious partner, we have already noted the arrival on the scene of the full-length comic opera, generally termed opera buffa, but also known in eighteenth Naples (and elsewhere) as dramma giocoso or commedia per musica. Regrettably, many of the earliest examples produced at the Fiorentini have disappeared or remain to be rediscovered. The earliest opera buffa in Neapolitan dialect to have survived completely intact is Leonardo Vinci’s Li Zite ‘ngalera (The Lovers on the Galley), first produced with great success at the Fiorentini on 3 January 1722 and subsequently revived not only in Naples (1724), but also in Rome, an unusual distinction for dialect opera, which by definition does not travel well.  


In common with all Neapolitan comic operas the action is set locally, in this instance just down the coast in Vietri, where the action takes place in and around the shop of the barber Col’Agnolo. There are eleven characters in all, who with two exceptions employ Neapolitan dialect. Two, Carlo and Belluccia, are the traditional pair of young lovers, their relationship complicated by the long absence of Carlo, who returns from his travels to find his loved one missing. She has in fact set out disguised as a man (Peppariello) to find her lover. In such guise ‘he’ has attracted the attention of the pert local beauty Ciomma (the Columbina character), a situation allowing ‘Peppariello’ to sing an earthy aria in which he describes himself as akin to a sapless tree. Ciomma herself is the objective of not only the vain old barber Col’ Agnolo, but also Carlo and Titta, the son of Meneca, a foolish old woman (a male role, following the tradition of seventeenth century Venetian opera), who in her turn has also fallen in love with ‘Peppariello’. Completing the cast who play out most of the opera are Col’Agnolo’s cheeky young apprentice Ciccariello (a direct descendent of the pages in seventeenth century opera), who spends most of his time playing practical jokes and generally getting up the noses of the other characters, and Meneca’s servant Rapisto, who also has a relationship with such types in earlier Venetian operas. From this complex imbroglio of relationships the fast moving plot twists and turns, misunderstandings abound, with moments of high farce mingling with the sentimental. Ultimately all is resolved with the arrival of a galley captained by Belluccia’s father Frederico, who as the one wholly serious character sings in pure, or Tuscan Italian. He has a Turkish slave, Assam, whose fractured Italian causes problems for the Neapolitans in the same way in which the simultaneous employment of several dialects had done in commedia dell’arte.


Musically, the style of Li zite conforms in many respects to that of the intermezzo. Local colour is established at the outset with a song by Ciccariello, the strangely chromatic melodic contours and modality of which suggest that it may be a genuine Neapolitan folk song. The arias, almost all of which are in da capo form, encompass a wide gamut that range from delicious, fleet-footed vivacity, through the beguilingly sentimental (Belluccia’s ‘T’aggio mmideja’) to the mock-serioso, several of which (Carlo’s ‘Se il’arme desperate’ and ‘Vi’che teranna!’ immediately spring to mind) would hardly be out of place in an opera seria. One important difference between the intermezzo and opera buffa at this stage of its development is that the latter, having so many more characters to play with, generally follows the established convention of the exit aria. The orchestral writing follows an uncomplicated course, with short phrases frequently mirroring and echoing the vocal line. In addition to the arias, there are several ensembles, those at the and of Acts 1 (a quintet) and 2 (quartet) hastening the act to a manic, effervescent conclusion in a manner that presages the multi-section ensemble finale that would be become so integral to comic opera. Here however such ensembles are still very brief and there is no change of tempo or sense of development. Above all one is struck by a musical wit and freshness of melodic invention that rivals that of Handel, it being hardly surprising that the latter is known to have turned to Vinci’s music for his borrowings.


By the 1730s the comic operas given at the Fiorentini and the Nuovo (the Della Pace never attained the success of its rivals) had attained such popularity with the public that they were seriously rivalling heroic opera. Indeed to visitors like Charles de Brosses, it was frequently opera buffa that made the greatest impression:


We saw four operas one after another in four different theatres. After going to each one in turn, I was happy to abandon the other three simply so as not to miss a single performance of the Frascatani (comedy in the local language) by Leo [Theatro Nuovo, autumn 1739; the opera was also known as Amor vuol soffranza]. What imagination! What harmony! What excellent musical wit! I would like to take this opera to France…


De Brosses’ ambition to export an opera such as La frascatani of course faced the difficulty already identified – that of the use of local dialect. It was a problem to which there was obviously a simple solution, and it was one adopted for a comic opera by another product of the conservatoire system, Gaetano Latilla. In 1737 his comic opera Gismondo was first given at the Fiorentini, at which time it had a dialect libretto. The following year Latilla was appointed maestro di capella at S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. One of the earliest events in Latilla’s Roman career was a revival of his recent Neapolitan comic opera, at which point it was furnished with an almost entirely new libretto written mostly in Tuscan by Giovanni Barlocchi, the librettist of La serva padrona. Not only were the names of several the characters changed, but also the opera was given a new title, La finta cameriera (The Pretend Maid). The location is now not Naples or its environs, but Florence, and the cast is divided between Florentines and Romans. Thus in its revised form, the opera became internationalised, laying the foundation for its successful transference to a number of centres including Paris, London, Hamburg, and Mannheim.


For all this La finta cameriera holds true to both Neapolitan tradition and the debt that tradition owes the commedia dell’arte, as a brief summary of the plot readily reveals. Pancrazio (bass), an elderly Florentine, cannot wait to marry off his daughter Erosmina (soprano), believing that once he has got her out of the house the way will be clear to marry her maid Alessandra (soprano). But ‘Alessandra’ is in reality a young man, Giocondo, whose designs on Erosmina have led him to become the bogus maid of the title. Don Calascione (bass), a foppish buffoon, arrives from Rome with his younger brother Filando (tenor) to claim the hand of Erosmino, who, horrified by the prospect and mystified by talk of a handsome young suitor by ‘Alessandra’, feigns illness. Not in the least deterred, Calascione turns his attentions to the other female members of Pancrazio’s household, the servant Bettina (soprano) and his gardener Dorina (a travesti role for tenor). After many an imbroglio, all is clarified when Giocondo, threatened by new rivalry from Filando, reveals his true identity. General consternation follows. Forgiven his deception, Giocondo is now free to marry Erosmina, Calascione to wed Dorina, and Bettina her sweetheart, Pancrazio’s servant Moschino (tenor), who can therefore tell his master that ‘in one fell swoop he can get rid of four women’.

The plot thus features many of the situations and character types familiar from the commedia dell’arte. We have two pairs of young lovers, Erosmina and Giocondo, and Bettina and Moschino, whose various trials and tribulations are charted throughout the opera. Their music is sharply differentiated, that for the former, as a social cut above the servants, is almost entirely in serious sentimental style, while Bettina and Moschino are wholly buffo characters, as are Pancrazio, Don Calascione and Dorina. Filando is a mezzo carattere, an essentially serious character, only too ready to pursue Erosmina himself when his elder brother’s clumsily inept wooing fails. A comparison with the music of Li zite ‘ngalera reveals Latilla working on a considerably more ambitious scale than Vinci. The arias, particularly those for the romantic characters, are generally large-scale structures in fully developed da capo form. All three of Giocondo’s arias call for virtuoso singing, the first conveying a restless agitation that calls for extensive coloratura and a wide vocal range, while Latilla shows a fine grasp of the sentimental style in the arias he provided for Erosmina. He also emerges as a master of pure buffo writing, the opening aria for Don Calascione, for example, beautifully tailored to the character in the pompous march-like rhythms and mock-sentimentality. There are several ensembles, including a deliciously witty ‘love duet’ for Don Calascione and Dorina, although the act finales are less ebullient than those of Vinci.

The concentration on just two examples of full-length Neapolitan opera buffa is both deliberate and inadequate. Deliberate because both operas discussed are available in outstanding modern recordings that may be explored at leisure, inadequate because it naturally fails to do anything like full justice to a genre that remains almost totally unknown to all but specialists. The enormous success of such operas in their day is surely easily understood. By presenting works to public (rather than aristocratic) audiences in settings with which they were familiar in everyday life and peopled with recognisable characters that they could empathise with, laugh with and at, and even shed the odd tear over, Neapolitan opera buffa touched a rich and sensitive vein that not only remains of value in itself for its effervescent verve and vitality, but also laid the foundations for Mozart’s great masterpieces.


This article originally appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine. Copyright 2016 Brian Robins



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