Who doesn’t love to laugh? We do and we would place bets on the fact that most people reading this right now are nodding their heads, “yes.” Yes, we all love to laugh.
This is nothing new although our avenues for finding humor today are in abundance. We have movies, songs, radio, internet, podcasts, games, video, YouTube, it goes on and on and on. Face it, today we are inundated with comedy everywhere, and trust us, we aren’t complaining.
It just got us to thinking about how people found laughter in days before modern technology. Where did one go to forget their worries and laugh? Opera buffa, that’s where. Opera buffa refers to the comedic operas and was the original term for funny operas in Italy, specifically Naples, in the early eighteenth century.
So, for your delight we would like to introduce you to some opera buffa of yesteryear.
1. Il fortunato inganno
This Donizetti work is performed in two acts and has a libretto written by Andrea Leone Tottola. It was first performed in 1823 on September 3rd at the Naples Theatre. Finding no success this work has completely disappeared from most collections.
Composing this opera buffa, the summer of that same year Donizetti was also in the middle of rehearsals for Alfredo il grande at the Teatro San Carlo. Il fortunato inganno gave three performances, which all failed and it vanished for many years. Yet in 1998 there was a revival of it at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, an opera festival held in Martina Franca, a south eastern Italian village in the Apulia region.
Set in the early nineteenth century Italy, this opera buffo’s title translates to The Happy Deception. We are introduced to an opera company directed by Lattanzio Lattrughelli. He is in the process of staging a new production yet calamities occur frequently.
Eugenia is Lattanzio’s wife’s niece who is in love with Edoardo, a cavalry lieutenant. He loves her in return. Yet Edoardo’s uncle Colonel Franceschetti will not agree to his nephew marrying Eugenia because she is an actress.
Enter Aurelia, Eugenia’s aunt who is married to Lattanzio. She lets the Colonel believe she is a countess and that she is in love with him. When he falls for her deception he gives the young couple his blessings.
Of course, the truth comes out but in the grand scheme of happy endings, the Colonel still agrees to let the two marry and everyone is pleased.
Only one recording of this opera buffa exists and it was released in 1999. It was recorded during the performances we mentioned earlier at Festival della Valle d’Itria.
2. The Marriage of Figaro
One of the most popular and well know opera buffas of all-time is The Marriage of Figaro. One of Mozart’s many works of genius this four act opera was composed and premiered in 1786. The first performance was held at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 1st. The Italian libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Originally based on a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais titled La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro” this story discloses how Figaro and Susanna, both domestics, eventually wed. This feat is not easy since their boss Count Almaviva is insistent on utilizing his rights to bed the newly married virgin.
This opera is continually in the top ten list of most performed operas of all time. Since the prequel to this story, The Barber of Seville, had found its own success as an opera adaptation, Da Ponte was successful in obtaining the rights to go with the transition of Figaro. Yet it was Mozart’s idea and he brought it to Da Ponte.
It only took the librettist six weeks to complete the text. He used Italian poetic lines and replaced the political statements made in the original text regarding the congenital nobility and replaced it with a tirade about women and infidelity. It is said that the libretto needed to be approved by the Emperor, Joseph II, before Mozart could write a stich of music.
Check out the full performance for the Teatro Real’s Le Nozze Di Figaro here.
3. La finta parigina
Written by Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa this opera buffa was premiered in Naples, Italy at the Teatro Nuovo in 1773. The libretto, written by Francesco Cerlone, was predominantly in the Italian language although it included some French verses.
Originally composed for a production for the 1773 Carnival, a Catholic festival observed directly before Ash Wednesday and Lenten season, the date when it originally premiered is unknown.
Of the sixty-eight operas written by Cimarosa this would be his second. He utilized the then prevalent style of humorous operas hailing from Naples, which relies heavily on character actors and outrageous or whacky behavior. Besides the madcap behavior the libretto is consistent with puns and other witty word play.
The audience it was intended for would have also found the particular dialect used in the text as humorous, where it might be strange to someone today. The music written by Cimarosa also enhances the comedic plot and the language used.
4. Signor Deluso
Composed by Thomas Pasatieri, an American opera writer, this opera buffa has an English-language libretto, which was also written by the composer. The work is based, albeit lightly, on Sganarelle, ou Le Cocu imaginaire, a one-act comedy written by Moliére in 1660. The first performance was given at the Madeira School auditorium in McLean, Virginia on July 27, 1974. The roles were performed by members of the Wolf Trap Opera Company.
This opera buffa has been revived many times in productions across the United States and in Europe. Anne Midgette, a classical music critic, wrote of its 2008 revival in Washington, D.C. that it is “an exuberant sendup of over-the-top comic opera plots, filled with effusive lovers leaping with alacrity to wrong conclusions in floods of extreme vocalism.”
Célie is in love with Léon and he loves her. But Gorgibus, Célie’s father, has promised her hand to Valére, a wealthy man. After Célie faints in the middle of the town square she loses her locket with Léon’s portrait inside a series of misunderstandings succeed.
When Signor Deluso tries to wake up Célie his wife, Clara thinks that he is cheating with the woman. Then Deluso finds the locket and his wife staring at the portrait of Léon he assumes that she is taking a lover. Célie is mistaken into believing Léon has cheated on her with Clara and Léon believes Célie is cheating with Deluso. It is all rather confusing and incestuously misleading.
All is saved when Rosine, the maid, clears up all misunderstandings and that she and Célie’s betrothed have been secretly married for months. This leaves Célie free to marry Léon. Everyone lives happily ever after, comically that is.
5. The Classical Style
This American comic opera was written by Steven Stucky with a libretto composed by Jeremy Denk. Originally a joint commission from Carnegie Hall, the Ojai Music Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, and Ojai North!, this opera buffa premiered at the Ojai Music Festival in Ojai California on June 13, 2014.
Motivated by the 1971 book of the same title by Charles Rosen the story centers around Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven coming down from heaven to experience modern day classical music. Unfortunately, the composer, Stucky, would die two short years later.
The three musical geniuses are arguing in Heaven. They look to Earth and realize that not only is classical music declining as an art form, their legacy is being forgotten. They find the book The Classical Style by Charles Rosen and decide to leave heaven and visit the writer a social call.
From there this opera buffa branches off into subplots, one where a character “breaks the fourth wall” to find himself in a performance of Don Giovanni. When the trio finally gets to speak with Rosen, he doesn’t reassure them of their importance but merely explains that change is inevitable and most people, who were once germane, eventually fade into the background.
6. Don Pasquale
Our final work in the genre of opera buffa written by Donizetti has an Italian libretto written mostly by Giovanni Ruffini with help from Donizetti. They utilized a libretto for Ser Marcantonio, which was composed in 1810, for the base of their new work.
It is said that Donizetti was so controlling when it came to the libretto that Ruffini took his name off of it and fifty years passed before he was associated with this opera buffa. Still, historians claim that Ruffini had a large hand in writing the libretto after investigation.
Premiering on January 3, 1843 Don Pasquale was performed at the Théâtre-Italien at the Salle Ventadour in Paris. It was a smashing success and ironically ends the era of opera buffa according to scholars. Even though it was considered a significant triumph in this genre.
First commissioned to Donizetti by Jules Janin, who was the director of the Théâtre-Italien at the time. Janin requested an opera buffa that would highlight some well-known performers of the time like Giulia Grisi, Antonio Tamburini, and Luigi Lablache.
From letters written by Ruffini to his mother we can surmise that Michele Accursi, was the first to suggest he approach Donizetti and offer to write the libretto. He felt so controlled that one letter to his mother claiming his “freedom of action [had] been paralyzed by the maestro, I don’t, so to say, recognize it as mine.”
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