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Four Italian Operas: Synopses, Characters, and Music

Updated on October 16, 2017
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Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, and listening to classical, folk, and early music.

The Barber of Seville
The Barber of Seville | Source

The Opera Walk and the Music

The Italian Garden in Hastings Park, Vancouver contains beautiful plants and decorative fountains. The Opera Walk in the garden is bordered by sculptures depicting characters in famous Italian operas. For someone who knows the operas, the sculptures may trigger memories of favourite melodies and arias. For those who aren’t familiar with the music, they may provoke curiosity about the interesting characters that they represent.

The sculptures were created in 2000-2001 by Ken Clarke. In this article I describe four of the operas represented by the sculptures: The Barber of Seville, Pagliacci, Falstaff, and A Masked Ball. I also include videos containing music from the operas. The photos in the article were taken by me during my visits to the Italian Garden.

The Opera Walk; the tents in the background are part of the fair at the PNE and are only present during two weeks of the year
The Opera Walk; the tents in the background are part of the fair at the PNE and are only present during two weeks of the year

The Barber of Seville: A Brief Plot Synopsis

Despite the somewhat menacing facial expression of the barber in the sculptures shown above, The Barber of Seville is a comic opera, or an opera buffo as it's known in Italian. It was first performed in 1816. The composer was Gioachino Rossini and the librettist Cesare Sterbini. The barber in the title is named Figaro. He does more than give shaves, however. He is sometimes referred to as a factotum—a servant or employee who does many kinds of jobs.

The plot of the opera is convoluted, but at heart it's a love story. Dr. Bartolo lives with his ward Rosina, whom he keeps confined in the house and wants to marry. Count Almaviva also wants to marry Rosina. At the start of the opera, he is disguised as a poor student named Lindoro because he wants Rosina to love him for himself, not his money. The competition between the two suitors is the basis for the opera.

Figaro is Doctor Bartolo's barber. His loyalty lies with the count, however. He aids the count in his effort to win Rosina's heart. One of his efforts involves a theft. While he is preparing to shave Bartolo, Figaro steals the key to the balcony doors of Rosina's room. His goal is to enable the count and Rosina to escape. I like to think that Figaro is thinking about the key in the sculptures, which could explain his expression of smiling evil. The theft doesn't end the story, however. The plot of the opera involves multiple disguises, twists, and turns, but eventually Bartolo concedes defeat and Count Almaviva, Rosina, and Figaro celebrate their success.

Largo al factotum (Make way for the factotum) is sung at Figaro's first entrance. The lyrics show that Figaro has a high opinion of himself. The aria is said to be very difficult for the singer to perform. I think you'll understand why if you listen to it. Listeners may recognize a comic refrain that has become popular beyond the opera.

Largo al factotum Performed by Peter Matie

The popular overture to The Barber of Seville played in the video below may remind some listeners of a famous cartoon rabbit.

Overture to The Barber of Seville

Canio
Canio

In the sculpture, Canio is smiling and crying at the same time. One of the themes of Pagliacci is that comic entertainers such as clowns may actually be sad inside.

Pagliacci Synopsis

Pagliacci ("Clowns") is also a love story, but unlike The Barber of Seville it's a tragedy, not a comedy. The music and the libretto were composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo. He wrote many other operas, but Pagliacci was his only success. It was first performed in 1892. The opera uses the interesting technique of showing a performance within a performance.

The plot is centred around a commedia dell'arte troupe of actors. Commedia dell'arte troupes travelled from place to place, setting up a stage in every community that they visited. Their performances contained stock characters that their audience expected and loved.

Canio is an actor in the troupe and often plays the part of a clown. He's married to an actress named Nedda. Unfortunately, Nedda is in love with Silvio. To make things even more complicated, an actor named Tonio is in love with Nedda. She spurns his advances, however. In revenge, Tonio tells Canio about the relationship between Nedda and Silvio.

While performing with Nedda soon after his meeting with Tonio, Canio's jealousy and misery increase. He departs from the plot and angrily asks Nedda to reveal the name of her lover. At first the audience within the opera is impressed with what they believe is very realistic acting and applauds what they see. As the intensity of the interaction between Canio and Nedda grows, however, the audience realizes that they are watching a real-life drama. Canio eventually stabs and kills Nedda. When Silvio rushes forward to help her, Canio kills him as well. Canio (or Tonio in some renditions of the opera) then turns to the on-stage audience and says "The comedy has ended."

A famous area from the opera is "Vesti la giubba," which is often translated as "Put on Your Costume" or "On With the Motley." Canio sings the aria just after he learns of Nedda's infidelity and shortly before he has to go on stage as a clown.

Vesti la giubba Performed by Luciano Pavarotti

The video below shows the dramatic ending of Pagliacci. "No, pagliaccio non son" roughly means, "No, I am not a clown." Like love, death is a common occurrence in operas. It's generally depicted via props and acting instead of special effects.

The Climax of Pagliacci

Falstaff
Falstaff

Falstaff Synopsis

The music of Falstaff was composed by Guiseppe Verdi and was first performed in 1893 when he was seventy-nine. It was his last opera and is often referred to as his crowning glory. The libretto was adapted and written by Arrigo Boito.

Sir John Falstaff is a character derived from three of Shakespeare's plays—The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry lV Parts 1 and 2. He is traditionally depicted as an overweight and semi-balding knight, as in the sculpture. At the start of Act 1 of the opera, we discover that Falstaff is running out of money, He decides to solve this problem by attracting not one but two wealthy (and married) women named Alice and Meg. Falstaff sends an identical love letter to each woman. The women discover this fact, however, and are determined to teach Falstaff a lesson.

Act 2 shows the tricks played on the knight by the women and their friends. Act 3 continues this theme. Falstaff is given a note that apparently comes from Alice. She asks him to meet her at midnight in Windsor Park while disguised as the Black Huntsman, a ghost said to haunt the park. Alice and her friends plan to disguise themselves as woodland spirits to scare Falstaff. Their plan is successful, but it has an additional outcome.

While everyone is disguised, Mr. Ford—Alice's husband—mistakenly gives his blessing to the marriage of his daughter Nannetta (or Nanetta) and the man she loves. He would never have done this had he seen who the people really were, since he wanted his daughter to marry someone else. In fact, he had concocted a plan to bless the union of Nannetta and his desired son-in-law while they were disguised, but the plan was foiled. When the disguises are removed, Ford accepts his defeat. At the end of the opera, the characters join in song and happily agree that everything is a joke (or that everyone is fooled).

Falstaff contains many humorous scenes, but I think that the aria below is beautiful. Nannetta is disguised as the Fairy Queen during the Windsor Park visit. Here she calls her fairies out of the darkness to dance.

Sul fil d'un soffio etesio

The scene above and the video below are taken from a new version of Falstaff which is set in the 1950s. The characters have a different appearance from the customary ones. The music appears to be the same as that in the traditional version of the opera, however.

FInal Scene of Falstaff: Everyone Is Fooled

A Masked Ball
A Masked Ball

Synopsis of A Masked Ball

A Masked Ball was also composed by Guiseppe Verdi. It ends with a death, however, and is definitely not a comedy. The libretto was written by Antonio Somma. The opera was first performed in 1859. It's set in Boston in the United States. Riccardo, one of the leading characters, is the Governor of Boston. Renato is his secretary and another important character. Renato is married to a woman named Amelia, whom Riccardo loves.

Renata eventually discovers that his wife and the governor love one another. He is so angry at the thought of his wife's infidelity that he thinks about killing her. She tells him that despite her feelings she has never been unfaithful to him. Renata then says that Riccardo deserves to die. The aria in which he sings about his betrayal by Riccardo and the pain that he feels is known as Eri tu. It's one of the most famous parts of the opera.

Renata and two companions decide to kill Riccardo. (The governor has made enemies for other reasons besides his love for Amelia.) Before the conspirators can carry out their plan, however, they receive an invitation to a masked ball at the Governor's mansion. The conspirators think that the ball will be an ideal time to kill the Governor.

Before the ball begins, Riccardo decides that he must send Amelia and Renata back to England in order to prevent his desire for Amelia from causing problems. This action would have saved his life, but he never gets a chance to put it into effect.

Amelia knows about the plot to kill Riccardo and warns him that he is in danger both before and during the ball. Riccardo doesn't leave the ball when Amelia urges him to, however. He seems to feel that it would be cowardly to run away from enemies. The pair say goodbye to each other at the ball. (Perhaps the sculptor had them in mind when he created the sculpture above,) Renata then approaches Riccardo and shoots him with a pistil. As Riccardo dies, he confirms that Amelia has been faithful to Renata. He also forgives Renata and the other people that were involved in the plot to kill him.

Some productions of A Masked Ball are set in Sweden instead of Boston and King Gustav lll replaces Ricardo. This was Verdi's original conception of the opera, but his plans were censored. In real life, the king was assassinated at a masked ball. The opera performance in the video below follows Verdi's original plan.

Highlights From The Masked Ball (San Francisco Opera)

The video below is old, but the sound quality is good. I think that Piero Capuccilli's rendition of Eri tu is superb. The audience thinks so, too, judging by the length of the applause.

Eri tu From A Masked Ball or Un Ballo in Maschera

The Joys of Opera

I enjoy exploring opera in real life when I'm able to as well as on the Internet at any time. The plots may be interesting, but the real joys of operas are the music, the acting, and often the sets and costumes as well. A storyline that seems silly, unrealistic, or even unacceptable on paper (or on a computer screen) is frequently very enjoyable when seen in an opera. A good production can bring ideas and emotions alive and create lasting memories. Opera can be a very rewarding art form for spectators.

© 2017 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 25 hours ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Manatita. I appreciate your visit.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 25 hours ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Colin. It's interesting to hear tunes from operas in other aspects of life. It's sometimes a surprise to hear the tunes in their original source, too!

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      Manatita44 33 hours ago

      You tell your stories well and they are enhanced by the music and stars or singers of genius.

      Interesting sculptures brought to life by your well done hub.

    • escole61 profile image

      colin powell 2 weeks ago from march

      This was interesting. I'm only just beginning to dip my toe into the sea where Opera is concerned. When I was clicking on the links and the music began to play, I recognised many of them. Especially 'The Barber of Seville' I have heard the tune and singing before. I know of the title. But I could not have put song and title together knowingly. That is until I saw your clip.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Nithya. I love the sculptures too, as well as the music.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 3 weeks ago from Dubai

      Enjoyed reading about the operas, the photos are great. The sculptures have expressions that are captivating and unique. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Larry. I appreciate your kind and interesting comment. I've become more interested in opera as I've got older, too. I listened to operas as a child because my mother loved them, but although I loved vocal music I wasn't very impressed by operas. They mean much more to me now.

    • Larry Fish profile image

      Larry W Fish 4 weeks ago from Raleigh

      When I was a young man I could not stand listening to opera. Now that I am 69, and many years before I have come to love opera. I now see the beauty and the story that it brings. I guess that wisdom does come with age. A great article, Linda, I loved it.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Nell. I think it's interesting to discover how many tunes from classical music have crossed over to other styles.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 weeks ago from England

      Awesome! how fascinating and interesting! and yes I laughed myself silly when you mentioned bugs bunny because I had thought of that, and of course Tom And Jerry! but on a serious note, it was something I knew nothing about, so nice one!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Mary. Thanks for the comment. I hope you enjoy the opera that you see.

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      Mary Norton 6 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      Linda, you have encouraged me to explore some of the operas here in Toronto. We will certainly go to one this Fall. It is indeed as you say a rewarding experience.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for such a kind comment, Chitrangada! I appreciate your congratulations a great deal. I hope you have a wonderful day, too.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 7 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

      Came back to congratulate you for the HP award!

      This is the most well deserved award and once again my sincere Congratulations to you. HP is fortunate that you are writing for their website.

      Have a great day!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Jackie! I appreciate your visit and the congratulations.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 7 weeks ago from The Beautiful South

      Congratulations Linda on the Hubbie award!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much, Dora! Congratulations to you, too. You certainly deserve your award!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Hands down, you deserve the "Most Academic Hubber" Award more than anyone I know. Congratulations!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for such a kind comment, Chitrangada. I appreciate it a great deal.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 8 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

      Such an interesting display of sculptures and opera videos!

      The sculptures look so real and full of life.

      I loved going through your hub with interesting and entertaining information. Brilliant pictures and videos.

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Larry.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 months ago from Oklahoma

      Very informative.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Devika. Thank you very much for the comment!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      An amazing hub!! So interesting and with lovely photos.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Dora. If you do explore opera on the Internet, I hope you enjoy it.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Very interesting, Linda. This article boosts appreciation for the artists and sculptures and their timeless contribution to the world. You gave me an idea of enjoying opera on the Internet. Thanks also for the pictures and the videos.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Flourish. Thanks for the visit. I'm glad I live near the garden. I live quite near a university with an opera department, too, so I can sometimes get reasonably priced tickets to see operas. I usually watch them on the Internet, though, which I enjoy.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

      These are beautiful sculptures and you're so fortunate to have not only the gardens but also regular access to opera in your area. I've been to the opera many years ago but only recall how beautiful the music was, nothing else. The issue with being sung in Italian and having to read what was going on was a bit cumbersome but I enjoyed it anyway.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Rachel. Those two operas are often shown together. I'm glad you have happy memories of the time when you saw them.

      Blessings to you as well. I hope you have an enjoyable weekend.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 2 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Linda, When I was about 19 my older cousin who lived in NYC at the time took me to an opera. We saw the one about Pagliacci and another one Rusticana Cavalieri (not sure about the spelling). It was a long time ago but I still remember how impressed I was. I loved it, but it was the last time I was ever at the opera house. Thank you for reminding me about that time. I loved the pictures.

      Blessings to you.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Heidi. The Italian Garden is lovely. It's not very big, but one nice thing about Hastings Park is that it contains several gardens and green areas to explore.

      I hope you have a happy weekend, too.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      What an amazing sculpture garden, whether you're an opera fan or not! Something to add to a Vancouver visit for sure. Thanks for pointing out another wonderful site in your area! Happy Weekend!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Jackie. Thank you very much for the comment. I hope opera never dies, too.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 months ago from The Beautiful South

      I am opera illiterate but I do enjoy some of it very much. Thanks for the entertainment and information here. Opera is an important part of history I hope we are never forced to part with.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Bill. I always appreciate your visits.

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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm not much for opera but I love sculptures, so thanks for taking me on this walk with you. I enjoyed the company. :)