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INTERMEZZI: The Fun Parts Between the Acts

August 20, 2013

At the beginning of the 18th century, the more spectacle-like tableaux that occurred between the acts of an opera were diminishing in popularity. They were soon replaced by a series of comic scenes called “intermezzi” that broke up the far more serious action of the opera, giving the audience a chance to breathe and to take a break from being overwhelmed by feelings of dramatically-induced catharsis.

So much.

One of the earliest of these intermezzi still in existence is Tomaso Albinoni’s Vespetta e Pimpinone from 1708.  Perhaps the best known intermezzi is Giovanni Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, which incorporates some of the same stock characters, but was written far later (1733).   Obviously, Albinoni was taking advantage of the comic possibilities inherent in the master/servant relationship before Pergolesi was but a twinkle in his father’s eye.  Coming up on VOX 3 Collective’s Opera Alfresco concert, I will be singing a duet from Albinoni’s work.

In Vespetta, the two characters are the maidservant (Vespetta), “honest, sincere, not ambitious or demanding” and the older man (Pimpinone) who is “not a nobleman, but rich and stupid.” Vespetta’s description should be taken with a particularly large grain of salt, as those are her own words. She enters and immediately asks “Who wants me? I am a servant.” Seeing Pimpinone, she describes him in the above terms, convinces him to hire her as his maid, and in the two successive scenes, manipulates a proposal out of him.  Once they’re married, she walks all over him, and Pimpinone concludes the intermezzo with “Whoever has an uncivilized wife will soon repent of it.”

When looking at a piece that uses stock characters, one can easily interpret them as tropes, and certainly 18th century audiences expected it. They wanted the maid to be clever and the rich man to be stupid. They knew she would push him around after they were married, and this was hilarious because she was 1) a woman, and 2) lower class.  To an 18th century audience, Pimpinone gets exactly what he deserves.

But I hear they’re excellent at making sandwiches

Samuel Richardson, a well-known author of the mid-18th century, drew huge amounts of criticism for his novel Pamela.  In the novel, a maidservant “wins her master’s love” after rejecting his salacious advances for the entirety of the book (unlike Vespetta, Pamela is portrayed as entirely artless and innocent). It was seen as an encourgment to the young men of the time to marry beneath them. The upper class members of the 18th century opera audience might sympathize with Vespetta as the cunning character, but they would never associate with her.

What has changed in the past 300 years is a shift in the fluidity of class lines.  To a 21st century audience, it is much more acceptable for a maid to become mistress of the house, whereas the idea is ridiculous to an 18th century audience.  In the context of this particular intermezzo, consider the phrase “all passes, art alone endures”.  The constant theme in Vespetta e Pimpinone is the humanity of the characters. Viewers in previous centuries might not have been concerned about Pimpinone’s sexual advances, as they would have considered them to be his right as a wealthy man.  In the present, they are all the  more alarming to us precisely because as are aware of his power both as a man and someone with means. Today, her unease can be read genuinely by the audience and case them to worry.  In this way, both characters become more real, as Pimpinone acquires a dangerous side and Vespetta a vulnerable one.

Slowly, the intermezzo became a little-performed relic of operatic history.  As time moved on, composers placed comedy directly into the operas, rendering the previously necessary respite of an intermezzo unnecessary for audiences. With the ever-shortening attention spans of our current century, one hopes they are due for a revival — perhaps as an operatic alternative for those not willing to sit through four hours of Wagner.

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