Four Italian Operas: Synopses, Characters, and Music
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 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
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 ("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
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
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Linda Crampton