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Written by Orazio Vecchi in 1597, this musical romp was produced by Early Music Seattle at the Moore Theater for the 2008-09 season. It combines ribald commedia dell’arte street theater with refined Italian madrigals. Directed by Arne Zaslove (founder, Bathhouse Theatre), it was originally paired with Monteverdi’s Ballo delle ingrate to make a double bill, A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell.
A reprise of L’Amfiparnaso is an opportunity to have public conversations about artistic works and the norms and values in play when they were conceived. How do we view these works and interpret them for our times? How might the art of our times be viewed by future generations?
Creative Conversations: April 15th with directors and performers.
Orazio Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso is a curious and entertaining side trip that late Renaissance composers took on the road to opera. L’Amfiparnaso is the most popular product of a genre known as the commedia harmonica. It is in essence a madrigal cycle or series of polyphonic vignettes that share common themes and characters culled from Italian commedia dell’arte. While there was a number of delightful madrigal comedies penned by such skilled composers as Giulio Cesare Croce and Alessandro Striggio, Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso is arguably the finest, the funniest, and the most cohesive of them all.
But should a madrigal comedy be only sung rather than staged? The prologue to L’Amfiparnaso tells us that is it for the “ear” rather than the “eye.” But the text, by fellow composer Banchieri, is full of place descriptions and stage directions, while Vecchi’s music has so much engaging theatrical vitality that physical comedic knock-abouts are heartily expected and desired. Even though the original score is set for five singers a capella (for added variety of color we included a stylish and discreet continuo ensemble to our performances), Vecchi was able, through deftly shifting vocal combinations, contrasting rhythms, and bold harmonic juxtapositions, to create a wealth of sharply individualized characters. So we hear as much as see the craggy kvetching of the avaricious Pantalone, the vulgar swagger of the braggart Spanish Capitano, the wise bawdiness of the harlot Hortensia, the timid pedantry of the Dottore, the melodramatic lamentations of the lovers, and the wily wit of the resourceful (and ever-hungry) servant Arlecchino.
In 2011 Early Music Seattle chose to present L’Amfiparnaso in a new English translation with the goal of bringing the antics of these Renaissance Italian clowns closer to our contemporary American audience. In doing so we do lose the broad Italian dialects that define the origins of some of its characters (though it must be said that many Italians – then and now – find the exaggerated regional variants at times utterly incomprehensible). What is gained for our listeners is an easier way to follow the marvelous wordplay and deliciously naughty innuendo that flashes here and there throughout the dialogue. Indeed, you may be delighted to discover that there is a great deal of Marx Brothers and Monty Python in these scenarios and that the traditions of western comedy owe so much to these early Italian buffoons.