Woodcut to the Prologue (Library of Christchurch, Oxford)
Commedia harmonica or ‘Madrigal comedy’ (its twentieth-century translation) was a genre that flourished briefly from 1590 for about twenty years, straddling the first operas. Some of them were simply collections of amusing pieces, while others used commedia dell’arte characters and told a full story through the medium of three or five-voice ensemble. The two principal composers were Adriano Banchieri and Orazio Vecchi, both contemporaries of Monteverdi.
I Fagiolini had staged three of Banchieri’s comedies but in 2001 decided to look at the giant of the genre – Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso, or ‘Twin Peaks of Parnassus’, his point being that previous collections were just for fun whereas his combined comedy and fine music for the first time. (Specifically, the lovers’ madrigals are absolutely fabulous – the equal of Marenzio at his best.)
Vecchi worked in Modena and produced the piece as a Christmas entertainment for the Duke in 1594. It was published three years later. The piece is set in Venice and tells the usual story of old man Pantalone marrying off his daughter to the verbose Doctor Graziano. The daughter will have none of it and marries another but the story is less important than the opportunity it gives commedia’s finest characters to strut their stuff and say their catchphrases.
Vecchi’s characters speak through the five-voice ensemble. He made it clear that this piece, unlike many of Banchieri’s, was a comedy for the ear and not the eye. We chose to stage it, though, to bring it to life for a modern audience that didn’t have the frames of cultural reference that his original did (and who didn’t speak sixteenth-century Venetian). We stage it as Banchieri advises for his comedies with masks miming and the singers to one side. We left the piece in the original mix of dialects, but to recreate the wonderful wordplay of the original commissioned pithy and witty introductions from Timothy Knapman in English (and plenty in other languages since) before each scene:
Come gather round people and nobody scoff
Lucio’s romance has entered a trough.
Isabella has left him, so please, your hats doff
“I must end it all!” says he, with a cough,
And looks for a clifftop to toss himself off.
We were coached on mask use by the fabulous Toby Wilsher, founder of the UK’s top mask company. We initially used masks made for us by Doreen James-Parsons, which were wonderful. But in 2005 we bought a set of Venetian sixteenth-century copies from Ca’ Macana in Venice and these are nicer to wear!
In 2003, we filmed a whole live performance for a Chandos DVD at the Dartington Summer School. ‘Live’ has its problems but commedia is a above all a live art. However, the four beautiful lovers’ scenes we did film separately around the beautiful Dartington Estate, each scene shot at the appropriate time within one perfect day. The Greeks would have approved.