“Un’ opera ridicola, ma bellissima”
“Monday or Tuesday, I will put on stage the third opera, also mine, which is for amusement, because it is a comic opera, but most beautiful, and it is called Il Trespolo; and because here they delight in comic things, I believe it will be an infallible hit.”
So Alessandro Stradella described his opera Il Tespolo Tutore in a letter to one of his patrons in 1679 before performances at the Teatro Falcone in Genoa. Featuring the bumbling character Trespolo from the popular stories of Ricciardi, Stradella’s opera is indeed “ridicola” bordering on slapstick and replete with vulgar language, cross dressing, and sexual innuendo – as popular in the early days of comic opera as today.
The main character, and the butt of endless jokes, is the foolish tutor Trespolo, a character modelled on the commedia figure of Il Dottore. “Trespolo” is not a real name – it’s rough meaning is “tripod” – and it was used at the time to mean something rickety that can barely stand up – an apt description of the main protagonist. The remainder of the cast includes Trespolo’s ward Artemisia (Catherine Webster) who is in love with him but too shy to tell him, Nino (José Lemos) who is in love with her and later goes mad, Ciro (Jennifer Ellis-Kampani) his initially crazy brother who also loves Artemisia, Simona (Paul Elliott) their old, foolish nurse, and Despina (Laura Heimes), her shrewd daughter. The instrumental ensemble, typically small as in all of Stradella’s operas, consists of two violins (Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem), violoncello (me), theorbo (David Tayler), and harpsichord (Katherine Heater).
Comic opera was still relatively new to Italy at the end of the 1670s. Stradella had composed a comic prologue for O di Cocito oscure deità in 1668, which then traveled with Jacopo Melani’s Il Girello, which Magnificat performed in 1998. He had also composed other comic prologues and intermezzi for the Teatro Tordinona in Rome in the early 70s, so he was quite familiar with the emerging genre of comic opera by the time he wrote Il Trespolo.
Amid the silliness, there are several moments of more serious music, when characters express emotions of despair and rejection over love unrequited. Indeed Villifranchi’s alternate tile for Il Trespolo “Amore è veleno e medicina degl’intelletti” – roughly “Love as medicine and poison for the intellect” – suggests a far more profound subtext within the general inanity of mistaken identity and mis-delivered love letters. Nino’s despair at Artemisia’s rejection provides an opportunity for two mad scenes, which had become a staple of Italian drama by the last quarter of the 17th century. Stradella had already composed such scenes for his earlier opera La forza dell’ amor paterno. The mad scenes were not derived from Ricciardi’s original, but were inserted by the librettist Villifranchi, no doubt to the delight of the Genoese audiences.
The success of Il Trespolo is evidenced by the interest shown by several noblemen in a repeat performance, though it is unclear if any of these proposals came to fruition. In any case Stradella completed only one more opera before his untimely death in 1682.