How to enjoy comic opera – a beginner’s guide to opera buffa

comic opera

Comic opera. Opera buffa. Who better to tease, titillate and spread hedonistic mirth than wildboy composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

We’re going to take two examples as our compasses with which to explore comic opera, or opera buffa, as they say – Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. These aren’t the most famous comic operas (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro – also by Rossini and Mozart, respectively – probably hold that honour) but they are certainly among some of the finest, most performed shows.

Enjoying comic opera: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni premiered in October of 1787. Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretto. Most librettists aren’t well-known, but Da Ponte is remembered. He wrote original scripts, not based off of stories or plays like many others, and worked with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to create what are considered Mozart’s five best operas. Giovanni is one of them. The full title is ‘Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni’, which translates as The Rake Punish’d, or Don Giovanni.

But who is Don Giovanni and what is this about garden tools? Based on the legendary Don Juan, Giovanni is a young, extremely… Er… Licentious nobleman. ‘Rake’, in the context of the title, refers to a wild, wanton type of person.

Though a song at the beginning of the opera recounts the Don’s success with women (640 in lovers Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1,003 in Spain), the show follows his three-part downfall. The first part involves Donna Elvira, a woman he ‘conquered’ and then abandoned. She, however, is still following him around in hopes of convincing him to change his ways.

The second part is with Donna Anna, whom he tried to rape. Failing to accomplish that, he killed her father, the Commendatore. A statue of the Commendatore is erected in his memory. Giovanni, not caring about proper respect for the dead, taunts the statue and invites it over for lunch.

Lastly, he tries and fails to lure Zerlina away from her fiancĂ©, the peasant Masetto. The three harassed women vow to exact vengeance on Giovanni, and vengeance is had. The penultimate scene of the opera features the Don, dining at lunch. The statue arrives – as Giovanni invited it to do so – and gives him one last chance to repent. Don Giovanni refuses, and so the Commendatore’s statue sinks into the earth and drags Don Giovanni down to Hell. Meanwhile, the women sing about how happy they are that they can continue their lives, not harassed or bothered by Giovanni.

The last scene of the opera features a chorus singing the moral of the show: ‘Such is the end of the evildoer: The death of a sinner always reflects his life’. Though it is nearly always included in performances, much debate surrounds this scene – did Mozart and Da Ponte include it originally, or was it a last-minute addition to make the opera more ‘respectable’?

Enjoying comic opera: La Cenerentola

Perhaps Don Giovanni was a bit much for you? Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola, ossia La bontĂ  in trionfo’, which translates to ‘Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant’, might be more your cup of tea, then. The libretto was written by Jacopo Feretti and within three weeks, twenty-five year old Giachino Rossini had finished the score (though, to be fair, he did re-use some music and enlist the help of Luca Agolini).

As you’ve probably picked up by now, most operas are named after the title character. In this case, we have Angelina or, as she is called by her evil step-sisters, Cenerentola. The opera follows roughly the same storyline as the traditional fairy tale, but there are some interesting changes.

Don Magnifico is the stepfather, replacing the traditional stepmother and the fairy godmother is replaced by Alidoro, the king’s philosopher and former tutor. Alidoro enters in the first act, disguised as a beggar, and only Angelina shows him kindness. Prince Ramiro and his valet arrive shortly after, and Angelina and the prince’s servant are immediately filled with admiration for each other. The prince, however, is confused because Alidoro spoke highly of one of Don Magnifico’s daughters, but the only two he sees are, well, awful. Nevertheless, Ramiro takes them to his palace for a ball. Once alone with Angelina, Alidoro reveals his identity and promises to take her to the ball as well.

As there are two girls, and only one prince, Ramiro offers to have his servant escort the other girl, but both reject him. Then, Angelina enters. Like in the fairytale, everyone is instantly captivated by her beauty. Unlike in the fairytale, Cenerentola asks that they would praise her for her kindness or graciousness, but not her beauty – something that she had no control over and doesn’t mean much to her, anyway. She shows her admirable sense of values again when the prince asks to marry her, but she rejects the offer, saying that she is in love with his servant.

The opera continues in traditional fashion with Angelina leaving before the prince can catch her name and then later arriving at her home. There, he recognizes the bracelet on her wrist as the one she wore to the ball and knows that it is her. Then, to everyone’s shock, Prince Ramiro and his valet, Dandini, explain how they switched places so that the prince could see what the women were really like. Angelina fell in love with the prince, thinking he was a servant, and so the prince knows she doesn’t want to marry him for money or power, but simply pure love. They do marry, Angelina graciously forgives her stepfamily and they all live happily ever after.

And now that this brief tour through the strange, elaborate world where everybody sings exactly what they feel is concluded, hopefully you’ll also live happily ever after (and feel a bit more cultured, too).

Exeunt, pursued by a song…