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Vecchi’s “Commedia Harmonica” L’Amfiparnaso

The musical entertainment that has become known as the madrigal comedy enjoyed a brief, but exceedingly popular life in the decades before and after the turn of the 17th century, delighting audiences at courts and within the cultural academies of Italy with a mix of high art and low comedy. The musicologist Alfred Einstein coined the term “madrigal comedy” in 1949 as a description for the two dozen or so surviving collections of related madrigals, which, when sung consecutively, tell a story, often with a continuous dramatic plot.

The two composers most closely identified with this sub-genre are Orazio Vecchi and the slightly younger Adriano Banchieri. It has been tempting to see the madrigal comedy as a precursor to opera, but it is perhaps better characterized as part of the final flowering of the Renaissance madrigal tradition, incorporating the humanist attention to the communication of dramatic narrative through the quintessential musical form of the late 16th century.

Easily the best known of these madrigal comedies to modern audiences, L’Amfiparnaso was first performed in Modena in 1594 and published in Venice in 1597 with a dedication to Cardinal Alessandro d’Este. Vecchi’s collection (which he calls a “commedia harmonica”) consists of fourteen five-part madrigals, arranged in three acts and preceded by a prologue. Except for the first two sentences of the first scene, the dialogue is not set for individual voices, as in opera, but rather for the entire ensemble or for sub-sets of two, three or four voices.

Pantalone

This approach is so different from opera that is perhaps not surprising that the first music historians to discuss madrigal comedies found them entirely puzzling and either struggled to find in them nascent elements of operatic style or dismissed them entirely. A modern edition of L’Amfiparnaso was published in 1902 with several others following over the next century and subsequent scholarship, together with performances and recordings by fine musicians have secured its place among the masterpieces of the late Renaissance.

Each of the madrigals sets a scenario drawn from the Italian theater, known then as now as commedia dell’arte, a genre in its golden age at the end of the 16th century. Consistent with the commedia tradition, there is only a passing attempt at a regular plot: the jealous quarrel between Lucio and Isabella, their reconciliation and wedding is of comparatively slight importance and seems to serve primarily as a foil for the antics of the comic masked characters of Pantalone, the Doctor, the Captain and their quick-witted and mischievous servants.

The cast of L’Amfiparnaso includes Pantalone; an aging Venetian Magnifico who is by turns avaricious, suspicious, amorous and gullible. Pantalone is old and, though retired from active business, his long engagement with trade has made him acutely sensitive to the value of money. He is also a lecher, but entreaties for the favor of attractive young women, invariably involving catcalls and innuendoes, are invariably fruitless.

The Doctor

He is joined by his old friend Doctor Gratiano, a Bolognese lawyer, prone to malapropism and misunderstanding, described by Vecchi as a “blockhead who answers badly and hears still worse.” By tradition, when the Doctor was born, instead of crying like an ordinary infant, his first utterance was a fine Latin quotation, slightly mutilated.

Having grown up amid the rarified university atmosphere of Bologna, the Doctor is a member of every academy, known and unknown, the Doctor can discuss any topic with great erudition, though no one can understand, or even stay awake during his long-winded homilies.

No commedia would be complete with the Captain, a blustery Spanish-speaking braggart, always decked in ostentatious epaulets and menacing scabbard – a sort of Yosemite Sam character aptly described in a 17th century verse:

This Captain makes a splendid show,
And his valor is so great
That he is the last to join the combat
And the first to beat a retreat.

The Captain

As much 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 satire though, like all the mockery on the commedia, is light-hearted and evenly distributed. The characterization of the Hebrews, serving in the familiar role of pawn-brokers, focuses primarily on their exotic and unfathomable language and the strangeness of their chanting – no doubt a source of consternation and bemusement for the goyim – and fun had at their expense is in the same spirit as that taken from the Captain’s blustery Spanish, the Doctor’s over-ripe Bolognese, Pantalone’s mincing Venetian, and the Bergamask dialect of the servants Francatrippa and Zanni.

Besides Pantalone, Gratiano and the Captain, the characterizations in Vecchi’s libretto are somewhat compressed. The cast is filled out with a variety of servants, prostitutes and, of course the two pairs of lovers or innamorati. The unusually amorous Doctor Gratiano and Pantalone’s un-named daughter form a comic third pair of lovers. The composer explains in his preface that as a result of the prolixity of words united with music, his composition is like that of “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.”

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