Monday, August 26, 2013

Albinoni’s Vespetta e Pimpinone and Intermezzi, or The Fun Parts Between the Acts

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. The best known is La Serva Padrona, which incorporates some of the same stock characters, but was written far later (1733). 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.

In Vespetta, the two characters are a maidservant (Vespetta), “honest, sincere, not ambitious or demanding” and an 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 him into proposing, and then walks all over him once they are married, prompting him to conclude the intermezzo with “Whoever has an uncivilized wife will soon repent of it.”

When looking at a piece that uses stock characters, it can be easy to fall into interpreting them as tropes, and certainly that is much of what 18th century audiences expected. They wanted the maid to be clever and the rich man 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. Pimpinone only gets what he deserves in the eyes of the time.

But I hear they're excellent at making sandwiches

Samuel Richardson, well-known author of the mid-18th century, drew huge amounts of criticism for his novel Pamela, in which 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 encouraging 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. A 21st century audience sees a maid becoming mistress of the house as far less ridiculous than an 18th century audience. When you consider “all passes, art alone endures” in this context, the constant in Vespetta e Pimpinone is the humanity of the characters. Viewers in previous centuries might not have been concerned about Pimpinone’s sexual advances, which are all the more alarming to us now as we are aware of his power both as a man and someone with means. In our current time, we can play her unease as something genuine which can incite worry in the audience, thereby making both characters more fleshed out, as Pimpinone acquires a dangerous side and Vespetta a vulnerable one.

The intermezzo is a little-performed relic of operatic history. As time moved on, comedy began to be put directly into the operas, rendering the 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.


  1. I learned a lot right here, and all of this is UH-MAZING except the last sentiment. I don't think our attention spans are getting shorter; this is one of those "back in my day..." arguments that both I and Aristotle have used, both being crotchety old people.

    BUT upon reflection, one of the most popular methods of consuming media is the TV (or Movie) Marathon. People sit through 2.5 hour movies with very little complaining. Book series are often as popular (if not moreso_ than one-of novels. I don't think it's that we have shorter attention spans, but rather that our expectations for story lines have changed. Pacing adjusts, popular culture references go stale, and Wagner's Ring Cycle has ALWAYS been stupidly long.

    1. DISAGREE. At least at home. People are watching more and more tv and fewer movies because movies are too much of a commitment. We're totally into bite-sized entertainment. If it were an opera you could watch at home for 22 minutes at a time, I think people would be all over it. Especially if they could play Sudoku while watching it.