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Boston Lyric Opera 2010


The traditional visual symbols for COMEDY and TRAGEDY are two masks. The tragic mask wears an
expression of lament or despair, while that of the comic mask is of confident glee. One weeps; the other

The first point to be made is that both are masks: both are images which transform reality, according to
particular points of view. The face inside the mask, that of the human being, remains the same. Man
adopts one mask or the other according to his mood, but does so in order to explore the same essential
human problems that drama and music-drama have always explored.

Right from the start man has used image-making as a way to discover the hidden meaning of life. Music-
drama was born out of the attempt to understand a mystery, the mystery of life versus death, the
transient versus the eternal. To have perceived the mystery at all is the most curious thing about man; at
some point in the past it occurred to him that there might be a reality other than the reality of his
everyday life. This thought, which seems to have become deeply ingrained in the mind of man, sets up a
conflict between the reality he knows and its alternative. Music-drama has been and is an exploration of
this conflict. Its plots are concerned with dilemma and choice and the consequences of choice, with the
aspiration towards something beyond everyday reality, the demands of that everyday reality, and the
tension between the two: it is about Man, stretched between earth and heaven.

We may distinguish between tragedy and comedy by saying that tragedy engages our sympathy towards
aspiration, while comedy points out the difficulties involved in breaking free of earth.

John D. Drummond (Opera in Perspectives)

COMMEDIA DELLARTE is a professional form of theatre that began in Italy
in the mid-16
century and was characterized by masked types, the advent
of the actress, and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.
The term commedia dellarte contrasted with the commedia erudite, which was
literary, written down, learned, legitimized comedy. The arte was the art of
performance- at its purest, of dancing or acrobatics. In France the commedia
was said to be imprvue or limproviste- improvised or spontaneous. That
meant it could be played only by professionals, whereas amateurs, educated
amateurs, could learn and recite lines from a script.

It continued its popularity in France during the 17
century, and evolved into
various configurations across Europe. For example, Pantomime which
flourished in the 18
century owes its genesis to the character types of the
commedia, particularly Harlequin. The Punch and Judy puppet shows, popular
to this day in England, owe their basis to the Pulcinella mask that emerged in
Neapolitan versions of the form. In Italy, commedia masks and plots found
their way into the opera buffa, and the plots of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini.
Italian Theatre Historians, such as Roberto Tessari and Ferdinando Taviani,
have claimed that commedia developed as a response to the political and
economic crisis of the cinquecento, and, as a consequence, became the first
entirely professional form of theatre.

While generally unscripted, the performances often were based on scenarios that gave some semblance of
plot to the largely improvised format. Sometimes the performers were referred to as mountebanks
because they played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of
extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival time might be
funded by the various towns or citta, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations
(essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of
the commedia was their reliance on travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful
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Boston Public Library
Boston Lyric Opera 2010
troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as, Isabella Andreini, and
Dionision Martinelli, to become international stars.

According to 18
Century London theatre critic Barretti, commedia dellarte incorporates specific roles and
character that were originally intended as a kind of characteristical representative of some particular
Italian district or town. The characters persona included the specific dialect of the
region or town represented. Additionally, each character has a singular costume
and mask that is representative of the characters role. Commedia dellarte has
three main stock roles: servant, master and innamorata, and the characters
themselves are often referred to as masks.

Conventional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age, and
love. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies
of Plautus and Terence. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock
physical gags, known as Lazzi and Concetti, as well as on-the-spot improvised and
interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke),
usually involving a practical joke. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue
and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or
regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines. Characters were
identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a

As J.D. Drummond writes, The main ingredients in the Commedia plays were the
typical ingredients of farce: practical jokes, intrigue, satire, disguise and mistaken
identity, and vulgarity. Added to these were love and acrobatics, pathos and
juggling, raised hopes, dropped trousers, awkwardness, grace, gluttony, seduction,
magic, compromise, discovery, topical reference, mock funerals, animals, recipes, men dressed as
women, women dressed as men, both dressed as bird or animals, blows, kicks , thunderstorms, and
occasional moments of compelling drama.

Commedia dellarte is notable in that female roles were played by women, documented as early as the
1560s. In the 1570s, English theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors with
Ben Jonson referring to one female performer of the commedia as a tumbling whore. By the end of the
1570s Italian prelates attempted to ban female performers, however, by the end of the century, actresses
were standard to the Italian stage. The Italian scholar, Ferdinando Taviani, has collated a number of
church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire, and
promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires.


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The 19
Century novelist George Sand: The commedia dellarte is not only a
study of the grotesque and facetiousbut also a portrayal of real characters traced
from remote antiquity down to the present day, in an uninterrupted tradition of
fantastic humor which is in essence quite serious and, one might almost say, even
sad, like every satire which lays bare the spiritual poverty of mankind.
Boston Lyric Opera 2010

In all periods of Western culture since the Renaissancethe commedia
has been a half-conscious presence. To be more precise, our society
exerts certain pressure on our imaginations, resulting in certain moods
and attitudes (to love, to death, to violence, to family happiness) for
which the commedia provides the best imagery. These moods can all be
described as consciously brittle. They include both gaiety and sadness,
both exhilaration and terror, depending on the aspect of life
encountered; but all commedia moods are characterized by a readiness
for reversal, an insecurity about their source, a moral self-doubtby a
sense of the artifice of all human experience.
Martin Green and John Swan (The Trial of Pierrot)
ZERBINETTA (speaking to one of the members of her commedia
Listen to me. We are to take part in the play Ariadne on Naxos. The
plot is about a princess who has been deserted by her fianc, and her
next lover has not as yet turned up. The scene is a desert island. We
are a merry company which finds itself by chance on this desert island.
You are to take your cues from me, and whenever the opportunity
presents itself, we shall step forward and join in the action!

She surrenders herself to death.

Death! Thats what they say. Of course, she means another lover.

She is no longer there- she disappears- throws herself into the mystery
of transfiguration- is reborn- renews life once more in his arms! Thus
he wins his godhead! How else in the world could one become a god,
except through such an experience?

Common sense and a little humour will bring you down to earth from
those heights!

I wont calm myself! A jolly little comedy to restore the worlds
vulgarity! These unbelievably common people want to build a bridge to
take them back from my ideal world to their ordinary one.

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Boston Public Library
Boston Lyric Opera 2010

OPERA SERIA is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and
serious style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the
1710s to ca. 1770. The term itself was rarely used at the time and only
became common usage once opera seria became unfashionable, and was
viewed as a historical genre. The pouplar rival to opera seria was opera
buffa, the comic opera that took its cue from the improvisatory
commedia dellarte.

Italian opera seria (invariably to Italian librettos) was produced not only
in Italy but also in Habsburg Austria, England, Saxony and other German
states, even in Spain, and other countries. Opera seria was less popular
in France, where the national genre of French opera was preferred.
Popular composers of opera seria included Alessandro Scarlatti, Johann
Adolf Hasse, and preeminently George Frederic Handel, and in the
second half of the 18
Century, Gluck and Mozart.

The dramaturgy of opera seria largely developed as a response to
criticism of what were often viewed as impure and corrupting librettos. As
response, the Rome-based Academy of Arcadia sought to return Italian
opera to what they viewed as neoclassical principles, obeying the
dramatic Unities of Aristotle and replacing immoral plots, such as
Busenellos LIncoronazione di Poppea, with highly moral narratives that
aimed to instruct, as well as entertain. However, the often tragic endings
of classical drama were rejected out of a sense of decorum: early writers
of opera seria librettos felt that virtue should be rewarded and shown

Glucks reforms made most of the composers of opera seria of the
previous decades obsolete. Replacing them came a new wave of
composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Antonio
Salieri (a disciple of Gluck), and Domenico Cimarosa. The popularity of
the aria da capo began to fade, replaced by the rond. Orchestras grew
in size, arias lengthened, ensembles became more prominent, and
obbligato recitative became both common and more elaborate. While
throughout the 1780s Metastasios libretti still dominated the repertory, a
new group of Venetian librettists pushed opera seria in a new direction.
The work of Gaetano Sertor and the group surrounding him finally broke
the absolute dominance of the singers and gave opera seria a new
impetus towards the spectacular and the dramatic elements of 19
century romantic opera. Tragic endings, on-stage death and regicide
became the norm rather than the exception. By the final decade of the
century opera seria as it had been traditionally defined was essentially
dead, and the political upheavals that the French Revolution inspired
swept it away once and for all.


I have overheard that at the
festive performance here at
the palace tonight- after my
pupils opera seria- I can
scarcely believe my ears- it
is the intention to present
yet another so-called
musical entertainment- a
sort of operetta or some
such vulgar buffoonery, in
the Italian buffo style. That
cannot be allowed to take