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Goldoni and Opera

The playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) was a prolific opera librettist and is often credited with developing opera buffa as a genre. It's an area of his work that is worthy of study but here we take a look just at operas based on his plays, by composers as diverse as Mozart, Salieri, Martinu and Wolf-Ferrari.

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Goldoni's great rival, during the time he was living and working in Venice, was Count Carlo Gozzi and their operatic legacies make for interesting comparison. Gozzi, forgotten as a playwright, is best remembered now for inspiring two enduring operas: Puccini's final work Turandot and Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges. They may not be among the most-often performed operas but they're far more prominent than any of those based on Goldoni plays, which is ironic considering the standing of both men as dramatists.

Gozzi was a backward-looking playwright, who sought to hang on to the outdated traditions of the commedia dell'Arte, writing fanciful fairy tales with the old stock characters (lovers of the Puccini in particular may not fully recognise Turandot in its original form). Goldoni forged a new naturalistic style of comedy, which saw the actors speaking words written for them, instead of improvising and using masks. It says something about the differences between theatre and opera that Gozzi has only been rescued from complete obscurity through operas based on his work while Goldoni is fondly thought of now as one of the great dramatists of his era.

As a librettist, Goldoni worked with some of the foremost composers of his day – Haydn and Vivaldi among them– but also with many who are now forgotten (Piccinni, Galuppi, Latilla and Fischietti), explaining in part why he hasn't survived as an opera writer. Of those composers, contemporary and later, who took inspiration from his plays – Salieri, Wolf-Ferrari, Martinu - none are considered in the front rank of their profession (although I suspect and hope that Martinu's day will come).

Goldoni and Mozart

And then, of course, there was Mozart. Goldoni didn't work directly with him but the 12 year old genius used one of his plays for La Finta Semplice. Like all of Mozart's works written as a child, it is astonishingly precocious, a breezy, tuneful waft through a story that reads as more Marivauxesque than Goldonian.

It has also been suggested that Goldoni's Don Juan was a major influence on Mozart's own Don Giovanni. Those familiar with Mozart's masterpiece will recognise Goldoni's plot, although the autobiographical element that Goldoni wickedly put into the Masetto/Zerlina characters (called Carino and Elisa in his version) would be lost on most. Forever, drawing on his own life for inspiration, Goldoni cast himself as the put-upon peasant, who is double-crossed by his rustic love, in revenge for a real-life betrayal by the very actress he made play the part. It was a colourful incident in an eventful life.

In Goldoni's Don Juan, written very early in his career, the Donna Elvira character (here called Isabella) pursues the Don, as she does in Mozart and Da Ponte's version but in male attire. There's a nice comic touch, in a work that is largely serious, with her disguise taking in virtually no-one; the convention may be that a cross-dressed character fools all those around them but here they all recognise her as a woman from first meeting.

Goldoni and Salieri

Among the first of the extant adaptations of a Goldoni play to an opera was Antonio Salieri's La locandiera (1773), based on the play of the same name written 20 years earlier. It comes from Goldoni's middle period, by which time he had pulled theatre away from the direct influence of commedia and was starting to write full-blooded creations from his own imagination. Salieri's opera was very popular for a few years and then fell into obscurity until revived in 1989 by Teatro Rossini in Emilia Romagna, in the wake of renewed interest in the composer's work aroused by Peter Shaffer's play (and subsequent film) Amadeus.

It follows Goldoni's play quite faithfully (despite the insertion of one new character and the excision of the two actresses, scenes that are often cut even when the original play is produced). It's a pleasant work by the 23 year old Salieri although not particularly inspired and, as we've come to expect from the two composers, it can't musically hold a candle to Mozart's juvenilia. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn't been produced outside Italy (something it has in common with most of Goldoni's comedies).

Goldoni and Martinu

The same play was turned into an opera some two centuries later by Bohuslav Martinu, the title taken from the name of the leading character: Mirandolina (several English translations of the play do the same thing). Martinu makes a much better job of the story than Salieri did, with a delightfully light score that resembles his symphonic output maybe more than any other of his operas. At just 100 minutes, it moves at great speed, unlike Salieri's slightly plodding version (half an hour longer although it handles less dramatic material). Martinu retains the actress scenes.

Although the score sounds more middle than southern European, the lively Saltarello, which preludes the third act is based on the same dance that Mendelssohn used in the final movement of his fourth ("Italian") symphony. It stands alone as a short orchestral piece that has been performed in concert programmes and was recorded by Vaclav Neumann (it can be found on the disc of extracts from Martinu's stage works re-released a few years ago).

Martinu does allow things to drag a little in the third act, with too much repetition and commenting on the action from the peripheral characters but it is nevertheless a splendid work, far too little known (like so many of the composer's compositions) outside his native Czechoslovakia. It was given a production at the Wexford Festival in 2002 and a good recording exists of the performance on Supraphon.

Goldoni and Wolf-Ferrari

The most prolific adaptor of Goldoni plays was the early 20th Century Italian/German Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. In total, he wrote five operas based on the plays: Le donne curiose (1903), I Quattro Rusteghi (1906), Gli amanti sposi (1916), La vedova scaltra (1931) and Il Campiello (1936). Two of these were based on Goldoni's early commedia- based plays and the others stem from his much more fruitful later naturalistic period.

To my mind, Wolf-Ferrari does much greater justice to the later plays, as they suit operatic convention more readily. The repetition and lingering nature of opera brings depth to the characterizations, whereas the fast and physical aspects of commedia (not qualities easily attributable to opera performance) get lost in La vedova scaltra, which makes rather a hash of the play's knockabout origins.

There have been several attempts to incorporate commedia style and tradition into opera – most obviously in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci - with varying degrees of success. The whole of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's opera is based on the joke that commedia dell'Arte and opera do not mix and it's a self-evident argument, although they succeed to some extent in capturing the quicksilver feel of the stock characters of Arlecchino, Brighella and Zerbinetta (a variant of Columbina). Wolf-Ferrari does not, dragging everything down to a leaden level.

Which is not to say that La vedova scaltra is not tuneful and enjoyable in its way but Il Campiello and I Quattro Rusteghi work much better. The former is perhaps the best of all the adaptations of Goldoni plays, with a fidelity to the original and a score of great beauty that make it an utterly delightful work.

Il Campiello (1756) comes from Goldoni's great naturalistic period and it describes the comings and goings in a small square in Venice. The lower orders bicker and fight, while the fading aristocracy look on with amusement, and such is the reality and naturalness of Goldoni's observation of everyday life that its dramatic structure could be considered uneventful and even boring. It was an extraordinary development for a playwright with such stylized beginnings.

Wolf-Ferrari injects a degree of drama and exuberance, with a whirling central ballet section, but the whole opera still veers towards fly-on-the wall reality. For those wanting blood, guts and sensation, it may, like Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900) where the characters spend several minutes eating soup, prove just too ordinary. For those content with utter truthfulness expressed through a gorgeously lyrical score, it's one opera that is long overdue for greater exposure.

I Rusteghi (1760) comes from a similar period in Goldoni's output and is another of his finest comedies. The conceit is a collection of four boorish old men (the irascible old man is a standard character from drama of the period but Goldoni with characteristic flair gives us a whole bunch of them) who do what they can to thwart their women and interrupt the love lives of the young folk.

Wolf-Ferarri's opera is a melodious work but, like La vedova scaltra is over-long at about 140 minutes, the material outstaying its welcome. Here Il Campiello scores again, running for an ideal length of just 100 minutes. Goldoni never over-exploits his situations and one failing of the opera versions is this tendency to stretch slight resources too thin.

Gli amanti sposi is based on another of Goldoni's very best plays, Il Ventaglio (The Fan) , also set by Pietro Raimondi in 1831. It was written in Italian while Goldoni was exiled in Paris, where he lived out his artistically-strained final 25 years. Le donne curiose is another early work, employing the stock characters of Pantalone, Arlecchino and Scaramuccio but adding an element of Goldonian uniqueness by dipping into the playwright's personal experience of freemasonry.

If Goldoni was a great playwright, a view I'd certainly back, the operas inspired by his works are not at the forefront of popular repertoire (as much could be said for Hamlet and King Lear, of course). It is well worth the effort of digging around a bit to find them, though. Recordings exist of most of the works discussed, although live performances are rare indeed. If any ever come your way, you're urged to grab the opportunity.

- Simon Thomas

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