Have you ever wondered why there are so many buffoonish old bachelors in Italian comic opera? Or talkative, know-it-all doctors? Or pert young maids and world-wise valets?
Nineteenth-century composers may have had a penchant for recycling their own music for other operas‹Rossini, for example, was notorious for his feats of auto-pastiche‹but their repeated use of these character types in opera buffa stems not from mere laziness or thievery, but from a centuries-old theatrical tradition known as commedia dell'arte.
Commedia dell'arte was first developed in Italy during the Renaissance, around the mid-16th-century, as a form of makeshift entertainment for country fairs. These semi-improvised comic sets featured not only stock situations‹the plight of the cuckolded husband, the old man in pursuit of a young bride, a rebellious child, indifferent to his parents' wishes‹but a host of stock characters as well. These included the crotchety old miser Pantalone, the vocal and pedantic Il Dottore, the world-wise servant Brighella and his slower-witted colleague Arlecchino, the clever servant girl Colombina, the scheming Scapino, and the saucy Ruffiana. In addition to these named characters, commedia dell'arte contained a band of nameless extras called "zanni" (from which word "zany" is derived), who performed clownish, stylized comedy, full of crude jokes, wordplay, and acrobatics.
The slapstick humor and stock stereotypes of commedia dell'arte that delighted audiences at Renaissance fairs was to have a wide-ranging theatrical influence: not only did it inspire playwrights such as Shakespeare and Molière, but its effect can also be seen in the films of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers, and even contemporary TV sitcoms. And because music played an integral role from the start, especially as an accompaniment to the frantic stage business, commedia dell'arte easily worked its way into the Italian opera world as well.
But opera buffa did not simply spring, fully formed, from commedia dell'arte, like Athena from the head of Zeus. In fact, it was figures such as Athena and Zeus that helped to spur the creation of comic opera in Italy. Through the first half of the 18th century, opera seria was the standard fare at Italian opera houses. With its mythic tales of gods and heroes, and stylized language, opera seria didn't particularly appeal to the masses. At that time, comedy was relegated to the intermezzo, a lighthearted musical drama performed between the acts of serious opera. Unlike the opera seria, intermezzi featured real people in everyday situations, speaking in familiar dialects.
One of the most famous, and significant, intermezzi was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona from 1733. Taking current scandal as its subject rather than ancient heroism, and featuring characters that were familiar from commedia dell'arte, La Serva Padrona was an enormous audience success‹and paved the way for other works in the same vein.
By 1740, the line between intermezzi and comic opera in Italy had become very blurred; and it is at this point that the term "opera buffa" was born. Taking the form‹more or less‹of an expanded intermezzo, opera buffa featured many of the same musical formulations as its predecessor, as well as the same characters and scenarios developed from commedia dell'arte. By the early 1800s, Gioachino Rossini ruled the buffa roost, composing numerous popular comic operas including his uproarious masterpiece, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, of 1816.
It could even be said that the operatic aria owes a debt to commedia dell'arte. A regular component of commedia scenarios was a lengthy monologue, usually by the Dottore, called a tirata (i.e. "tirade"). The tirata was sometimes underscored with music, and is often considered to be the prototype for the conventional opera aria. Basilio's Act I bravura aria about slander and calumny, "La calunnia," is one such example.
At first glance, Don Pasquale may seem like a typical 19th-century Italian opera buffa‹one that follows firmly in the footsteps of Donizetti's colleague Rossini, with all the same familiar figures and scenarios lifted from traditional commedia dell'arte. Pasquale is easily recognizable as the blustery Pantalone, Doctor Malatesta is the big-mouthed, know-it-all Dottore ("malatesta" means headache in Italian), and Ernesto and Norina are the young lovers often found in commedia scenarios‹although Norina is somewhat of a composite character, as she also shares several personality traits with the witty maidservant Colombina, and the impudent Ruffiana.
But it was a new operatic age by the 1840s, and the madcap comic form that was popularized by Rossini 30 years earlier was falling out of favor. Instead, a new, sentimental spirit was moving through Italian opera, and audiences began demanding more semi-serious operatic melodramas‹though with a minimum of dramatic tension and, when possible, a happy ending. It was in this context that Don Pasquale was created in 1843.
Breaking from the standard buffa form perfected by Rossini, Donizetti treated what were essentially commedia characters in a much more human and sensitive manner than ever before seen in Italian comic opera. In Don Pasquale, he broadens the classic Italian opera buffa to a true character comedy: here the players are no longer caricatures but individuals, varied in their portrayals. By lending emotional weight and humanism to the melodic outpourings of its characters, Don Pasquale is closer, in some ways, to the Mozart-Da Ponte comedies than to Rossini's romps.
There is, of course, no better example of this humanism than in the character of Don Pasquale himself. The silly, duped old bachelor from commedia dell'arte is no longer merely laughable, but a sympathetic, three-dimensional figure whose dignity has been wounded. When Norina gives Pasquale that famous slap on her way out the door to the opera, in Act III, a line has been crossed and the framework of traditional opera buffa has been broken. Despite the merry ending that pairs the young lovers and teaches the foolish old man a valuable lesson, we are left with a feeling of pity for Pasquale, who is destined to live out the remainder of his days in loneliness.
While Donizetti's late, last comedy was an enormous success, and a clear evolution of the buffa form‹the composer actually referred to his opera as a "drama buffo," instead of an "opera buffa"‹Donizetti nonetheless felt that his operatic era was coming to a close. In a letter to Giuseppina Appiani in 1844, only one year after the premiere of Don Pasquale, Donizetti wrote:
"My heyday is over, and another must take my place. The world wants something new. Others have ceded their places to us and we must cede ours to still others.... I am more than happy to give mine to people of talent like Verdi."
Donizetti died only a few years later, and the powerful, poignant dramas of Verdi quickly came to the fore, while opera buffa faded into memory. And yet, exactly 50 years after Don Pasquale, it was Verdi himself who graced the stage with one more unforgettable buffa bachelor: Sir John Falstaff. Inspired by Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, which in turn took much of its inspiration from commedia dell'arte, Falstaff was Verdi's only comedy‹and his final opera. It was also the last laugh in the long, and beloved, Italian tradition of opera buffa.