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Mozart, Wagner, Arlecchino, Colombina and Opera

Bringing Operatic Comedic Characters to Life

by Karen Saillant


Mozart writes from Naples in 1770 –

I should very much like to go [to Carnival] as Arlecchino (but not a soul must know about it) ……..So I should like you to send me your Arlecchino costume. But please do so very soon………He could wear that same costume and jump out of a box and be naughty and cuddle with the wily Colombina, sneer at the braggart Capitano, commiserate with the effusive Pedrolino, and tease the pompous Dottore and the lecherous Pantalone. He could collaborate with his friends and the Venetian string players as they created his new quartet for strings (K446)(416d). Yes, he had written indications in the margins for Commedia dell’Arte actors and he and his friends were those characters. Brilliant! The culture of Italy was alive.  All Europe felt it.  And Mozart was to eventually be received there with open effusive arms……I beg you to do your best to get us [back] to Italy………..I will gladly write an opera for Verona for fifty zucchini… ……… and earlier (1777)…….. It is a long way to go to Naples……(but).once I have composed for Naples, I will be in demand everywhere. By 1791,  Mozart had written twelve operas in the Italian language, had premiered three in Italy, with four of his most famous works Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, boasting characters that were formed out of the most famous Italian theatrical archetypes, those of the Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte.

Richard Wagner tells us that, “We are all Atellans”. He was referring to the small town in southern Italy, Campania, near Naples, where the Atellan Fable was developed and out of which grew the Commedia dell’Arte. He was speaking specifically of the archetypes that resonate for each one of us in the characters of those stories. Commedia dell’Arte (in Renaissance Italian the word commedia means theater and the word arte means as a profession, hence, Commedia dell’Arte: means acting as a profession) was the highest form of theater during the Renaissance. With the advent of Commedia we have actors, for the first time in history, being paid. Don Giovanni, Figaro, Leporello, Papageno, Don Basilio, Don Curzio. Don Alfonso and Doctor Bartolo, Despina and Suzanna are descendants of a coterie of commedia archetypes portrayed by these actors: foreign imposters, scheming servants, foolish old men seeking young wives, beleaguered lovers, and an entire world of stupid geniuses who have all the brains and eventually drive the action. The Atellan fable was revisited during the Renaissance by these actors who, observing archetypical physicalities in the bumpkins that came down from the hills of Italy into their towns to find work, developed a multi-lingual form of comic, physical theater (at the time there were over 100 different languages spoken in Italy, including dialects) with characters that were identifiable to every audience member. Commedia performances were indoors, usually for royalty. Most characters wore masks. There were no scripts. Improvisation was utilized to develop the text. Each actor in a Commedia troupe spent his or her (yes it was in Commedia that we first, in 1560, saw the female actor on stage) life studying and performing his/her character. We see its evolution through the plays of Shakespeare, Moliere and Beaumarchais down through the works of operatic icons such as Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, Prokofiev and Mozart into the modern day representations of the Flintstones, Simpsons and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Renaissance Commedia actors were extremely sensitive to the reactions of the audience, as was Mozart. Commedia actors collaborated with their audience as scene-partners, influencing each another in an interdependent ebb and flow that developed the subtle shape and tide of an ever-changing theatrical environment. It is with and for the audience that all of the Commedia dell’Arte archetypes exist.

The information below is from The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell’Arte, by Maestro Antonio Fava (Pictured above), published, in English by Northwestern University Press in 2006 (Previously available only in Italian). It is the seminal modern day book on Italian Commedia dell’Arte. This book should be your main Commedia resource. In addition to the study of this book, there are a few other suggestions below the description of characters.

There are Four Main Commedia Archetypes.

1-The Old Man:

Magnifico is a merchant, a libidinous old man attracted to young women and especially attached to his money. (Fava)

Dottore is a braggart, a charlatan, a big, but innocuous old ‘sow’ a sort of horse doctor, with special ‘knowledge’ in law and medicine. He goes on endless soliloquies-“verbal, phonetic, linguistic, vocal and respiratory virtuosity, always trying to ‘teach’ somebody something. He constantly falls in love with impossible or inappropriate objects of desire such as servant girls or a female lover and he always pays the consequences.” (Fava)

2-The Servant: Male:Zanni and Female: Zagna and Servetta

Zanni “is stupid, yet he is a genius; he can’t do the simplest of things, yet pulls off the impossible; he is the one who has to remedy the problem posed by the old man and all the problems that flow from there. (Fava)

Zagna “is the female version of Zanni. She has a huge nose, is ugly, has spikey, thick and hard hair and like zanni, she is concerned with sleep, love and food.” (Fava).

Servetta “is the first professional manifestation of the actress. She is beautiful and she is unmasked.” (Fava) Colombina is the most famous servetta. We see her in opera as Despina, Zerlina etc.

3-The Lover: Innamorato/a: Male and Female “young, beautiful, elegant, cultured and refined; the lover is inexpert in life; lovers love each other with grand, idealistic and ineffable passion. The interruption in the flow of feeling between them is unbearable, a pain that destroys them, that drives them mad.” (Fava)

4-The Captain: Capitano is a “boaster” and a “war hero” who speaks of his “conquests” in unheard of languages. He is an imposter from the neighborhood who poses as Spanish or another, exotic foreigner, in order to make an impression. He brags of his valor, yet he becomes totally petrified at the mere mention of violence.” (Fava). He is Don Giovanni.

*Utilize a leather mask that is created by a native Italian master mask maker, if possible.

*Surrender your entire body/being/mind into this mask, not just your face.

*Respond to the physiognomorphic capacity of the mask. The actor acquires the face modeled by the mask itself, along with the characteristics that the mask intends to express. (Fava)

*Honor the open fourth wall. You are always in the presence of the audience.

*Be in the moment. Be spontaneous.

*Locate specific instances where the text allows you to speak directly to your audience.

*Be sensitive to moments when the audience response can influence and color your interpretation.

*Remember that each character communicates with a sense of urgency.

*Participate in structured improvisation to build your characterization.

*Be flexible, patient and willing to let go and rebuild each day. Work on archetypes is never lost.

*Understand and feel the connection between your character and his/her ancient archetype.

*Find the time and resources to study with a master of this work. A great deal of misleading and incorrect information regarding Commedia is being taught by many enthusiastic, though misguided, teachers.

* Select your mentor carefully. Make sure that he/she has an international reputation for commedia and that his/her work is based on extensive historical research, performance/teaching skills and specific commedia family history (The ideal teacher would be one whose parent or grandparent was a professional commedia actor in Italy, as the highest form of classical Commedia is passed down from generation to generation).

*Be dedicated and serious but make sure that you have fun! Enjoy yourself! Your good humor will inspire the same in your audience.  Like Mozart, enjoy games and rhymes and riddles, stay in touch with your child spirit and study, explore and learn to love those irreverent Commedia archetypes.

“We are all of us in the theatre haunted by the idea of Commedia” writes Simon Callow, famed British Shakespearean actor and director and winner of the Laurence Olivier Award. “…..All over England and America at this moment there are people trying to bring (it) back to life……..and yet, somehow, stubbornly, no matter how much energy, scholarship, ingenuity and artistry is thrown at it, the thing fails to live…….Then from time to time, someone emerges who is able to warm things up from within and the ossified shapes suddenly become filled with meaning and life….Antonio Fava, the great Pulchinella of our day….has brought back to vibrant life a whole art form (Commedia dell’Arte)…

“Commedia characters draw on a deep reservoir of images, derived from the audience’s ancestral experience, from the collective unconscious. They evoke memory and often resonate for individual audience members in personal characteristics of people they have known. Commedia characters are never alone on the stage. For them, the audience is always present, in all moments. Using these archetypes, Mozart understood that, in conjunction with his music, he could impress and speak to the imagination and spirit of his audience in a deeper and more meaningful way. “If you will allow the ancient blood of Commedia dell’Arte to flow through your veins and give yourself over to the vital energies and deep seated impulses of her characters, you too will recognize in yourself and in your audience, the ever present enchantment and beauty of the human condition that lives there, ever present, in all its mad and abundant life.” (Simon Callow)

The Comic Mask in Commedia dell’Arte, by Antonio Fava, Ars Comica, 1999 (Now available through Northwestern University Press)

Richard Wagner, Theory and Theatre, by Dieter Borchmeyer, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991

Milestones for Mozart and Commedia dell’Arte

*400BC Italy- Performances of Atellan Fables, using commedia archetypes, in Atella, near Naples.

*1492 Italy- Neopolitan court poet, Saniazaro, first presents the military braggart, Capitano Spavente on stage, derived from the Atellan fables. Owed his origin both to Plautus9 and to the pompous Spanish officers who abounded in the Italy in those days. Influences Don Giovanni.

*1538 Commedia dell’Arte is first documented with performance of Italian actor named Muzio

* 1568 Naples, Italy, first documented improvised comedy: Discourse on the Truiumphal Processions, Jousts, Displays and Other Most Notable Things, Created for the Wedding of the Most Illustious Excellency Signor Duke Guglielmo, First Child of the Most Generous Albert the Fifth, Paladin Count of the Rhine and Duke of Upper and Lower Bavaria.

*1597 Italy- Amfiparnaso, ‘madrigal comedy’ by Orazio Vecchi using all commedia archetypes

*1630 Spain El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Playboy of Seville or Supper with a Statue) by Spanish monk writing under pseudonym of Tirso de Molina. Brought to Italy, probably via strolling actors. In 1652 it was translated into Italian. Capitano character eventually influences Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Based on The Stone Guest Myth.

*1665 France- Moliere’s Don Juan ou Le festin de Pierre (Don Juan or The Libertine-).Influences Don Giovanni

*1756 January 27, Salzburg- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is born.

*1769 Salzburg. Mozart’s commedia opera La finta semplice (The Make Believe Simpleton) premieres.

*1769 Salzburg- As new Konzertmeister (without pay), Mozart is given 120 ducats for first trip to Italy.

*1770 Milan, Bologna, Florence, Venice, Rome, Naples etc. Attending operas at la Scala, Milan and San Carlo, sight seeing, performing.. In Bologna studies counterpoint with Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. In Milan, on December 26, at age 14, Mozart has his first public and critical operatic success with Mitridate, re di Ponto.

*1771 First time in Venice for Carnivale.

*1775 Mozart’s La finta giardiniera (The Make-believe Gardiner). His first full length commedia opera.

*1778 March 24- Paris. Receives a copy of Moliere’s comedies- Herr Weber…made me a present of Moliere’s comedies (as he knew that I had not yet read them). Influences all of Mozart’s commedia based operas.

*1778 Paris- Sees Beaumarchais’ play, Le marriage de Figaro, based on commedia characters.

*1783 Venice. K446 Faschingspantomime. For string quartet and commedia actors. Mozart plays Arlecchino.

*1786-May 1 Vienna- Le Nozze di Figaro premieres.


*1787, February Venice Don Giovanni Tenorio, o sia il convitato di pietra. Music by Giuseppe Gazzaniga libretto by Giovannia Bertati. Based on Carlo Goldoni’s revamped Commedia characters. Influences Don Giovanni.

*1787 October 29, Prague Don Giovanni premieres.

*1790 January Vienna Cosi fan tutte premieres. Commedia conventions/characters.

*1791 September 30 The Magic Flute premieres. Papageno is derived from Truffaldino who is a type of Zanni-often with a beaked mask.

*1791 December 5 at 12:55 am, Mozart dies.