An introduction to the opera and to the composer's oeuvre generally


Il curatore del sito ringrazia di cuore il dr. Meyer e la casa discografica
CPO per aver cortesemente concesso di pubblicare questo testo.


The main curtain rises to reveal another, on which an enormous Baroque harpsichord is painted. One of ts three legs contains a little door, from which there emerge four pairs of figures representing the familiar masks in Callot's Balli di Sfessonia. The figures dance in a manner appropriate to their individual characters and appear in the following order:
Captain Spessa Monti and Bagattino;
Captain Ceremonia and Lavinia;
Riciulina and Mezzetino;
Captain Malagamba and Captain Bellavita.
Each pair returns into the harpsichord after their dance has ended, so that there is only one pair dancing on the stage at any time.
This almost ten-minute prologue in the form of a pantomime is preceded by a seven-minute prelude, meaning that nearly twenty minutes poss before the first singing voice is heard in this opera, a work which - very nearly sixty years after its premiere - has incomprehensibly been almost completely forgotten today.
To those of his readers who have a sympathetic ear and who are ready and willing to relinquish earnestness for a few hours and abandon themselves to the saucy whims of an often overly bold hobgoblin, the editor humbly begs that they do not lose sight of Callot's fantastic caricatures, which are after all the original source of it all, and that they bear in mind what the musician may demand of a capriccio.
In this foreword to his novella Prinzessin Brambilla of 1820, E.T.A. Hoffmann was referring to Balli di Sfessania (dances of Sfessania), a series of twenty-four etchings the French printmaker Jacques Callot created in about 1622, featuring grotesque figures from the Italian extempore theatre.
It was on these grotesques - small groups of droll, caricatured figures, often captured in capriciously contorted poses and in burlesque interaction with one another - that Hoffmann modelled the characters in his famous «capriccio», a work which at the first encounter gives the impression of being a great deal lighter and more benign than the tales Jacques Offenbach used in his opera, of merely being the innocuous story of the vain but good-natured actor Giglio, who is no longer able to distinguish between the princely role he plays in the Roman carnival and his real life; in similar manner, his betrothed, the poor seamstress Giacinta, identifies so much with a splendid gown she has created that she sees herself as a princess. More careful scrutiny proves the hilarious series of confused situations which ensues to contain a good deal of the black humour we expect in Hoffmann. Nonetheless, the two lovers finally do unite - altogether the kind of stuff from which dramatists create stage comedies and composers comic operas.
The great opera composer Waiter Braunfels, who is fortunately being gradually rediscovered now, premiered his musical comedy PRINZESSIN BRAMBILLA at the Hoftheater in Stuttgart in 1909. It is indeed a happy, unburdened work in the late Romantic tradition, which neither overemphasizes the grotesque aspects of Hoffmann's text nor ignores them completely.
Ferruccio Busoni, for example, was so impressed by Braunfels's PRINZESSIN BRAMBILLA that he him self composed his first complete Opera, Die Brautwahl, using motifs from Die Serapionsbrüder (the Serapion Brothers), another of E.T.A. Hoffmann's tales.
I become acquainted with E.T.A. Hoffmann in his highly imaginative interpretation of Callot's Balli di Sfessania. But whilst working on my musical comedy, I departed considerably from Hoffmann's capriccio. Though some points remained unchanged, UI invented and developed others quite independently.
These are the words Gian Francesco Maliptero chose to introduce the piano score of his I CAPRICCI DI CALLOT, a comedy in three acts and a prologue.
Both Hoffmann's bizarre world and Callot's grotesquely overdrawn imagery were very much in harmony with Malipiero's aesthetic approach.
Malipiero was born in Venice in 1882. Even at the beginning of his career, the demand for a general shift in Italian music had made itself felt. Special credit is due to Malipiero for the way he questioned and sought to break down the traditional exclusivity of opera and its frequently paltry effects. In this, he worked in league with several fellow-composers, the best known of whom were Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella, who all shared the fact of having been born in the early 1880s and so came to be known as the generazione dell’ottanta (generation of the eighties).
Malipiero’s encounter with old musical manuscripts in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice was probably one of the most decisive factors in his development and later work. Though conditions prevailing on the music scene have meant that his own compositions quite unjustly fail to attract the attention they deserve, it is primarily due to Malipiero’s activities that the works of Claudio Monteverdi may again be heard in the most authentic form possible in concert halls today. Malipiero not only bequeathed hundreds of compositions and innumerable books and essays to posterity but earned a place in the annals of musical history as an editor of the complete works of Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi and of individual compositions by Cavalieri, Frescobaldi, Galuppi, Jommelli, Tartini and other composers.
That list of names shows Malipiero’s great awareness of the Italian repertoire from times before the opera came to rule supreme. Like Pizzetti and Casella, Malipiero was driven by the vision of reinstating the old virtues of pre-Romantic eras.
By breaking all ties with the «excavators» of the nineteenth century, I was able to return to sources not yet contaminated by our sense of what constitutes music.
Interestingly enough, he arrived at this view largely via Debussy and Stravinsky, who represented detours in his artistic development around 1910; but from 1920 onwards, the influence of their music is absent from his compositions or present only in very rudimentary form.
From 1910 onwards, Malipiero tended to live the life of a hermit in his villa in the little mountain town of Asolo in Veneto, surrounded by a multitude of animals - he is even said to have composed with an eagle owl perched on his shoulder. He is frequently described as having been misanthropic by nature, so it is possible to assume that his unsatisfactory relationships with people were compensated by better ones to the creatures in his Noah’s ark (L’arca di Noè also happens to be the title of his sixth string quartet). This is perhaps a fitting place to relate an anecdote: on the very eve of one of his marriages, picturing what his life at the side of his future bride would be like, Malipiero is supposed to have simply packed his bags and disappeared out of her life.
He spent periods teaching in Rome and later in Parma, finally settling in Asolo in 1922. Joachim Noller, one of the few Malipiero scholars in Germany, comments: This remote place symbolized Malipiero’s social position and reflected his scepticism, in spite of certain flirtations with fascism. He taught at the Venice Conservatory from 1932 to 1952, including thirteen years as its director; his most important pupil there was Luigi Nono. He then dedicated the remaining twenty-one years of his life exclusively to composing. When Malipiero died at the age of 91 on August 1, 1973, he left 35 operas, 6 ballets, 17 symphonies (11 of them numbered), 18 more or less large oratorios and cantatas, 8 string quartets, innumerable piano and chamber works and a large number of songs and miscellaneous orchestral compositions. Together with perhaps Heitor Villa-Lobos and Josef Matthias Hauer, Gian Francesco Malipiero was among the most productive major composers of the twentieth century.
Most particularly in the field of musical theatre, he may be regarded as one of the greatest twentieth-century innovators. His desire to free the opera from the superficial verismo effects of Verdi's successors also led him to make a drastic reassessment of the dramatic concepts underlying his own stage works. Whereas the word passione in the sense of «passionate emotion» had characterized Italian opera before Malipiero, Pizzetti and Casella, in his works Malipiero interpreted passione in the sense of «agony», Instead of superficial, sentimental emotionality, the protagonist's real emotions now stood in the foreground of the stage action.
Malipiero moreover gave up the principle of continuity of action in favour of a free dramatic concept resulting out of the peculiarities of the piece itself. His first truly revolutionary stage work was the triptych L'ORFEIDE: day the Devil appeared to me in the form of a librettist, and I could not resist temptation. My work for the musical stage now began (1918), with the SETTE CANZONI (second part of the trilogy ORFEIDE, also performed in Düsseldorf in 1925); without causing any world-shattering renewal, my work arose out of a single fact: that of my surrendering to fate, not being able to five without music - and my almost complete relinquishment of the recitative, which has always been the main difficulty in opera and always will be (the eradication process is complete only in the SETTE CANZONI, but the recitative is confined within very narrow limits in my other works).
L'ORFEIDE begins with the section LA MORTE DELLE MASCHERE (the death of the masks), in which the most familiar figures of the commedia dell'arte introduce themselves and seem to open the piece. But Orpheus appears and locks them up in a cupboard, then proceeds to present the characters in the story he has to tell: people from the street, everyday people no different from the audience themselves. But after he has dismissed his figures, the classical theatrical figures again begin to be active. The immediately ensuing central section, SETTE CANZONI (seven songs), no longer tells a continuous story. It far more presents a sequence of seven individual numbers, the action of each of which is totally independent of the others: a young woman forsakes her blind husband for a roarning balladeer, a mother laments her dead son, a bell-ringer sings a cheerful little song whilst sounding the fire bell, etc.
At the formal level, Malipiero's musical theatre is probably more advanced than any other written in the first half of the century. Formally, most of his numerous stage works obey his own laws, developed specifically for each piece. Only in his Shakespeare-based GIULIO CESARE of 1936 did the composer seem to betray his principles by permitting himself to use a «normal» dramatic concept.
With I CAPRICCI DI CALLOT (the caprices or fantasies of Callot), Malipiero returned to his old ideals. He worked on the piece until 1942 - the middle of World War II. it is certainly somewhat surprising to find an extremely sensitive, cultivated intellectual knuckling down to writing a comedy - as the sub-title explicitly calls it - at a time of great loss of human life. However, closer inspection of the content reveals that it has nothing at all in common with the thighslapping jollity found in Rossini. In this connection, Katia Czellnilk, who directed the work at the Kiel Opera, has referred to pieces by Anton Chekhov which are likewise called comedies - without being in the least comical.
Malipiero commented on his own perception of musical comedy in the following way: The opera buffa epitomizes the spirit of an era that did not favour powerful drama and loved light-heartedness without allowing it to degenerate into vulgarity. This gaiety found expression in a musical language which matched the spirit of the age and hence that of its comedies as well. Why should musical material from the age of opera buffa be suitable in the present day? Are we to resuscitate the spirit of the eighteenth century in the twentieth? Musical development must be a spontaneous expression of the age.
The great enemy of opera buffa today is the poor imitation we call operetta. Examining the modernization of opera buffo must mean studying the modern spirit. When Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi enthusiastically wrote for Venice, the results were not farces.
They possessed the cultural and intellectual depth of Molidre, Beaumarchais and other French dramatists. Audiences who laughed at the masterpieces they produced would hardly have been amused of the banal platitudes of the farces. Hence the opera buffa prevailed at the same level as the comedy.
Then, until the first half of the nineteenth century, art music distinguished itself only in the form of chamber music, symphonies, oratorios and comical or serious melodramas. Popular music was a thing apart, completely unlike the real art of music. The songs and dances at village fairs were noble in character and based on folk tradition; any form of vulgarity was banished from the dances of the aristocracy. Not until the second half of the nineteenth century did this wreck havoc in music.
The banal novelties of the variety theatres and music halls spread like wildfire all over the world. The most worthless cabaret song can become a hit, and even be disseminated per aeroplane. A composer is often a man who understands nothing about music and is unable to learn anything about art. It is a strange thing to experience how these light and negligible works, whose words moved the whole world to tears few years ago, now seem silly and outdated, ridiculous and grotesque.
Before any revival of opera buffa can take place, we will have to dispense with the crassness of the operetta and the force. Music is a delicate art, it is demoralized by vulgarity, plunged into the final abysm of degeneracy. It is certainly high time that this confusion be brought to an end, we must cease calling certain man-made acoustic phenomena «music».
Vecchi's L'Amfiparnaso is an absolute masterpiece because its beauty is not limited to the historical representation of an era, but possesses the qualities of immortal art which enable it to outlast its age. The opera buffa has been completely discarded in Italy. Even Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Verdi's Falstaff do not enjoy the popularity that has been reached by musical melodramas that contain nothing but a series of inane episodes. The future existence of the opera buffa depends upon whether its spirit con be resuscitated. If this spirit is merely dormant, then resuscitation is possible; if it is dead, then the opera buffa is also dead.
Malipiero's profound scepticism with reference to the sleeping spirit of the era (which, between the lines, he assumes to be dead) is the reason why I CAPRICCI DI CALLOT, his interpretation of Hoffmann's Prinzessin Brambilla, just could not become a real opera buffa - unlike Braunfeis's setting.
The grotesque, the bizarre and the disturbing prevail. Just as Hoffmann was inspired to write his novella by Collot's etchings, Malipiero was inspired by Hoffmann to bring the capriciousness of Callot's etched figures to life on the stage. The audience attending the premiere in Rome on October 24, 1942 had the advantage of being able to understand the ambiguities they were presented with - ambiguities which cannot be divorced from the period in which the work was composed.