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Vecchi and the Commedia Dell’Arte

Like several of the works in the small but fascinating sub-genre of the madrigal comedy, L’Amfiparnaso draws on characters and plots the Italian Comedy, or commedia dell’arte. The origins of commedia are found in the use of itinerant actors to supply comic entertainment between the acts of the refined and aristocratic commedia erudita of the early 16th century.

Stimulated by the success of these entertainments, actors developed a quick, satirical and typically off-color style – typically in dialect and always improvised. The commedia style was very physical – with clowning, acrobatics, dance and stunts interwoven into a repertoire of stock scenarios invariably centered around a tale of young lovers.

The economic success of the commedia dell’arte led by the second half of the 16th century to establishment of numerous professional troupes that would tour the various courts of Italy, often enjoying the protection and patronage of noble families. By the time Orazio Vecchi wrote his madrigal comedy L’Amfiparnaso, the stock characters and plots were already generations old.

The characters, or “masks”, that appear in L’Amfiparnaso include Pantalone, an aging Venetian Magnifico who is by turns avaricious, suspicious, amorous and gullible. He is joined by Doctor Gratiano, a Bolognese lawyer, prone to malapropism and misunderstanding, described by Vecchi as a “blockhead who answers badly and hears still worse.” Captain Cardon, a Spanish-speaking braggart has an important role in the comedy as well. Most of Italy was under the control of the Spanish army at the time and the actors no doubt took great delight – and some risk – in satirizing the occupying army. The cast is filled out with a variety of servants, prostitutes and, of course the two pairs of lovers.

Besides Pantalone, Gratiano and the Captain he characterizations in Vecchi’s libretto are somewhat compressed, which the composer explains in his preface resulted from the prolixity of words united with music. Vecchi notes that his composition is like “a painter who, desiring to include a great many figures in a small canvas, forms the principal or most noteworthy ones with the entire bodies, and the less important as far as the chest, others barely visible by the top of the head, and finally mixes together the remainder of the multitude as if distant from the eye.” In any case the audience of the time would have filled in the details of the familiar characters – a task to be fulfilled by the three actors from the Dell’Arte Company in Magnificat’s performance.

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