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L’Amfiparnaso: To Stage or Not to Stage

November 16, 2010
by Theodore Deacon, producer of EMG’s upcoming baroque opera production: A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell. Click here for more information about performances and to buy tickets.
I have been getting a lot of funny looks these days. When asked about shows I have in the works I enthusiastically blather on about the EMG’s production of Orazio Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso premiering this spring. Blank or puzzled stares are often returned. “Never heard of it – Can’t pronounce it – What is it? – Why would I want to buy a ticket to see it?” are typical responses. Well, why would you not? It combines two musical styles dear to my heart: Italian Renaissance polyphony and music theatre. “So, it’s a kind of madrigal opera,” they nod.
Well, not quite, but sort of. “Madrigal Comedy” is the common tag musicologists tie to this form of music drama, but it’s a term fraught with controversy. Even the composers who created them had a hard time classifying what they produced. You find Vecchi and his contemporary Adriano Banchieri describing their musical skits as raggionamente comicicomedia harmonica, inventione or some other vague term. Yet they all share the same elements, a sequence of brief commedia dell’arte vignettes, strung together by a loose plot and sung in dense counterpoint by a small ensemble of top-notch soloists. But were these comedies ever meant to be staged?
The Madrigal Comedy was part of the late 16th century craze for mixing music and spectacle that eventually gave us opera. Indeed the first work of its kind, Vecchi’s Selva div aria recreatione came out nearly a decade before Peri and Caccini brought the first real “opera” La Dafne to the stages of Florence. But these Florentine dramas were unmistakably theatre works with sets, costumes, soloists and choreography. On the page Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso is made up of a Prologue and 13 scenes and lists a dozen traditional commedia characters in its “cast.” But Vecchi, in his Prologue, makes it clear L’Amfiparnaso is NOT a stage work but rather: “A spectacle which is witnessed through the imagination, that penetrates the ear and not the eye.” There are no soloists in the operatic sense. All the characters “speak” by way of a combination of singers (usually three singers to a role) and words often overlap each other in intricate counterpoint. An odd opera you would think.
Yet that’s the point. It is L’Amfiparnaso’s unique and crazy qualities that make it an entertaining spectacle. And though it is clear that Vecchi did not intend his work for the theatre that doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be acted out. Banchieri, a composer of five hilarious madrigal comedies, unquestionably expected his works to be staged even to the point of describing the scenery and movement in detail.
So why present L’Amfiparnaso at all? First Vecchi was a superb madrigalist, as any one who has reveled to his jaunty “So Ben Mi Ch’ha Bon Tempo” can attest. (There are those who put him on a par with Gesualdo, de Wert and Monteverdi.) Second, the scenario on which L’Amfiparnaso rests is the most cohesive and fleshed out of its field. Vecchi set the text like a master actor with lively word painting for the clever tricksters, heart-rending dissonance for the wretched lovers and plenty of rhythmic pratfalls for the over-sexed fools who come between them. The musical antics of Vecchi’s Pantalone, Capitano, and Dottore cry out for a troupe of zannis to bring them to licentious life. With a commedia master like Arne Zalsove to train them, the EMG audience will have a rare opportunity to experience a rollicking evening of Renaissance harmony and havoc.

Theodore Deacon, producer of L'Amfiparnaso, and guest blog writer

Yet, before L’Amfiparnaso can get to the rehearsal hall a great deal of preparation will be needed. Italian or English? Traditional or modern? PG or bawdy? And the score: what needs to be done to this 400 year old masterpiece before it is put in the hands of designers, singers and actors? Keep in touch. There are more blogs to come!

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 7:05 PM

    By all means, put it on! I wish we had such fun in my area. I am writing something which I thought was unique and far out, but it sounds like composers were doing it 400 years ago! Bravo. I hope some of the music and staging will make it onto youtube or into a dvd for those of us unlucky enough to live outside your region. Best wishes!

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