Commedia and Pagliacci through the mirrors of history

5 Aug 2016

Victorian Opera Artistic Director Richard Mills writes on Victorian Opera's production of Laughter and Tears, which he is also conducting.

Richard Mills at rehearsals for Laughter and Tears. Photo: Charlie Kinross

Pagliacci is a masterpiece that grows from the enduring vibrancy of the theatrical tradition, Commedia dell’Arte, which had its defining period in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was theatre of convention played by absolute professionals, with a line-up of standard characters such as Arlecchino, Colombina, Pulchinello, Capitano, Servetta and the Zanni figures who rendered improvised text. The influence of Commedia on Italian opera is profound, its traditions animating many Italian composers during the 17th and 18th centuries and persisting into the early 19th century and beyond – the plot of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville being an excellent example.

The genius of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is in its stated ambition to abandon the “vecchie usanze”, the old customs of Commedia, and to make a theatre based on “truth” – real passions as opposed to stylised archetypes. These real passions are explored in the opera plot in the context of those formal archetypes via the “play within a play” and finally break free of them to make a gesture based on the hyper-reality of the passions. In the end, they defy the formal conventions and break free from the formal constraints of the situational comedy of Commedia. Nevertheless, the Commedia characters are mirrors of many of the less comfortable predicaments of human life: illicit love, the sting of unrequited desire in old age, servants outwitting masters and opportunistic charm seducing those with wealth and power.

However, in the world of Commedia, these all too human discomforts are contained within the two dimensional perspective of the mask, rhetorical practice and formulae, and the lazzi or comic turns – which hold a benign mirror up to nature – through which the audience can see at a safe distance the pains of being human and laugh at them as a cathartic experience. The clown somehow heals our sorrow through sharing it and demonstrating its lurking absurd potentials.

The structured formality of modern circus resonates with the emotional objectivity of Commedia, underscored by technical brilliance which is a resonance of the rhetorical brilliance of “tirata”, the formal improvised speeches of Commedia practice. Thus, the circus practice in our double bill becomes a physical metaphor for the aesthetic of Commedia, manifesting the relationship of this aesthetic to music by expressing the texts of the arias and ensembles in physical action which sometimes assumes a comedic life of its own. The eclectically synthesised score of ‘Laughter’ is drawn from the early Madrigal comedies of Vecchi (1597) and Banchieri (1598) and the tradition of Arie Antiche – whose lyrics are often situationally derived from the plots of Commedia.

Rehearsals for Laughter and Tears. Photo: Charlie Kinross

In essence, ‘Laughter’ is a pasticcio intermezzo, a form with some interesting antecedents. Here is a description by Massimo Troiano of the festivities for the marriage of Duke Wilhelm and Renata of Lorraine in 1568, which consisted of a Commedia cobbled together by the great composer Orlando di Lasso: “After the prologue, Messer Orlando arranged for a Madrigal in five parts to be sung while Massimo, who now played the lover changed his clothes… From the other side of the stage appeared Messer Orlando dressed as Magnifico… with a mask that drew roars of laughter at first sight.”

The traditions of Commedia were essentially slapstick, as the critic Muratori points out over 100 years later: “These comedies consist of buffooneries and lewd intrigue, in fact a tangle of absurd situations, in which we find not the smallest trace of verisimilitude… and whose only concern is to make people laugh.”

Despite the high-minded disdain for Commedia found in the 18th century, the fact that audiences like to be amused kept vigour in the Commedia traditions, and the form alive in practical theatre making up to the present day.

Our process of synthesis of a score from extant sources around an absurd plot exactly mirrors operatic practice in the late 16th and 17th centuries, the age of the made-to-order pasticcio. In that spirit of authenticity, I have unashamedly used a 21st century symphony orchestra and its resources of colour in the orchestrations.

Director Emil Wolk has constructed another mirror, placing the proceedings of the evening in a fictional working theatre near Montalto (the alleged scene of the murder in Pagliacci – Leoncavallo’s father was a magistrate). The first part of our show is an imagined final rehearsal of a traditional Commedia, still popular in Italy in the 1930s, interrupted by the declaration of WWII. The action of Pagliacci takes place five years later, as the theatre reanimates post-war and the theatre workers attend a run-through by a reconstituted Commedia company whose tangles of personal relationships unravel as the show progresses. Thus, both ‘Laughter’ and ‘Tears’ have the construct of ‘play within a play’ – images of a working theatre and the lives of the actors and technical crew who staff them. This construct is resonated by our foyer exhibition by the Tonti Filipini Opera Company, formed during the exigencies of WWI in Sydney by itinerant Italian singers: art interrupted and reformed across the tides of history.

Moreover, the antics of ‘Laughter’ are often mirrored in the business of ‘Tears’, characters juxtaposed and cross-referenced with the Commedia traditions explored in a lighthearted way. This rich web of correspondences extends sub-textually to the Gesualdo Madrigal sung as a lament when the ‘Laughter’ rehearsal is interrupted; Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover in a fit of jealous rage and spent the remainder of his life in penitential seclusion composing astonishing music.

Both ‘Laughter’ and Pagliacci mirror each other, their theatrical processes reflect the richness of the theatrical and musical traditions from which they draw sustenance. All their action is mirrored in the idea of their placement in the working life of an actual theatre in a time when events of history intervened. The theatre and life may “not be the same thing”, according to Canio, but at the deepest level, they are mirrors of each other. Mirrors which distort and reinvent perspectives, but mirrors which upon inspection provide glimpses of the deepest truths of the human condition. 

Richard Mills
Artistic Director, Victorian Opera
Conductor, Laughter and Tears

Laughter and Tears was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2016.