Stage & Scene | Commedia dell’arte | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera
The commedia dell’arte, which originated in Italy in the sixteenth century, was a forerunner of opera. The influence of commedia dell’arte was evident in both the cast lists and the plots of operas. There were, for example, slapstick sequences called zanni and comic servants, an elderly parent or guardian, usually named Pantalone, and his faithful sidekick Il dottore Gratiano. The beautiful but despairing heroine was usually involved in an unsuitable love match with an impoverished, but romantic, young man. On hand to help solve the dilemma was her maid, who acted as her confidante. Likewise, commedia dell’arte plots had ready-made features, such as disguise, mistaken identity, confusion over twins, lovers pretending to be servants and girls trapped in betrothals to rich old men. These ingredients are found in several operas written by composers from Mozart to Verdi, among many others.
Commedia dell’arte was popular all over Europe and influenced such playwrights as Shakespeare, Molière and Beaumarchais, all of whom wrote plays with plots that lent themselves easily to operatic treatment and were later turned into operas. The commedia characters and type of plot were directly translated to opera in Pagliacci (‘Clowns’, 1892) by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919).
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