OPERA AND THEATRES
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
With the winter came to an end the amusement which, in spite of the existing political demonstration, I had drawn from the theatres. The Fenice, the great theatre of the city, being the property of private persons, has not been opened since the discontents of the Venetians were intensified in 1859; and it will not be opened, they say, till Victor Emanuel comes to honor the ceremony. Though not large, and certainly not so magnificent as the Venetians think, the Fenice is a superb and tasteful theatre. The best opera was formerly given in it, and now that it is closed, the musical drama, of course, suffers. The Italians seldom go to it, and as there is not a sufficient number of foreign residents to support it in good style, the opera commonly conforms to the character of the theatre San Benedetto, in which it is given, and is second-rate. It is nearly always subsidized by the city to the amount of several thousand florins; but nobody need fall into the error, on this account, of supposing that it is cheap to the opera-goer, as it is in the little German cities. A box does not cost a great deal; but as the theatre is carried on in Italy by two different managements,—one of which receives the money for the boxes and seats, and the other the fee of admission to the theatre,—there is always the demand of the latter to be satisfied with nearly the same outlay as that for the box, before you can reach your place. The pit is fitted up with seats, of course, but you do not sit down there without paying. So, most Italians (who if they go at all go without ladies) and the poorer sort of government officials stand; the orchestra seats are reserved for the officers of the garrison. The first row of boxes, which is on a level with the heads of people in the pit, is well enough, but rank and fashion take a loftier flight, and sit in the second tier.
You look about in vain, however, for that old life of the theatre which once formed so great a part of Venetian gayety,—the visits from box to box, the gossiping between the acts, and the half-occult flirtations. The people in the boxes are few, the dressing not splendid, and the beauty is the blond, unfrequent beauty of the German aliens. Last winter being the fourth season the Italians had defied the temptation of the opera, some of the Venetian ladies yielded to it, but went plainly dressed, and sat far back in boxes of the third tier, and when they issued forth after the opera were veiled beyond recognition. The audience usually takes its enjoyment quietly; hissing now and then for silence in the house, and clapping hands for applause, without calling bravo,—an Italian custom which I have noted to be chiefly habitual with foreigners: with Germans, for instance; who spell it with a p and f.
I fancy that to find good Italian opera you must seek it somewhere out of Italy,—at London, or Paris, or New York,—though possibly it might be chanced upon at La Scala in Milan, or San Carlo in Naples. The cause of the decay of the musical art in Venice must be looked for among the events which seem to have doomed her to decay in every thing; certainly it cannot be discerned in any indifference of the people to music. The dimostrazione keeps the better class of citizens from the opera, but the passion for it still exists in every order; and God’s gift of beautiful voice cannot be smothered in the race by any Situation. You hear the airs of opera sung as commonly upon the streets in Venice as our own colored melodies at home; and the street-boy when he sings has an inborn sense of music and a power of execution which put to shame the cultivated tenuity of sound that issues from the northern mouth—
“That frozen, passive, palsied breathing-hole.”
In the days of the Fenice there was a school for the ballet at that theatre, but this last and least worthy part of dramatic art is now an imported element of the opera in Venice. No novices appear on her stages, and the musical conservatories of the place, which were once so famous, have long ceased to exist. The musical theatre was very popular in Venice as early as the middle of the seventeenth century; and the care of the state for the drama existed from the first. The government, which always piously forbade the representation of Mysteries, and, as the theatre advanced, even prohibited plays containing characters of the Old or New Testament, began about the close of the century to protect and encourage the instruction of music in the different foundling hospitals and public refuges in the city. The young girls in these institutions were taught to play on instruments, and to sing,—at first for the alleviation of their own dull and solitary life, and afterward for the delight of the public. In the merry days that passed just before the fall of the Republic, the Latin oratorios which they performed in the churches attached to the hospitals were among the most fashionable diversions in Venice. The singers were instructed by the best masters of the time; and at the close of the last century, the conservatories of the Incurables, the Foundlings, and the Mendicants were famous throughout Europe for their dramatic concerts, and for those pupils who found the transition from sacred to profane opera natural and easy.
With increasing knowledge of the language, I learned to enjoy best the unmusical theatre, and went oftener to the comedy than the opera. It is hardly by any chance that the Italians play ill, and I have seen excellent acting at the Venetian theatres, both in the modern Italian comedy, which is very rich and good, and in the elder plays of Goldoni—compositions deliciously racy when seen in Venice, where alone their admirable fidelity of drawing and coloring can be perfectly appreciated. The best comedy is usually given to the educated classes at the pretty Teatro Apollo, while a bloodier and louder drama is offered to the populace at Teatro Malibran, where on a Sunday night you may see the plebeian life of the city in one of its most entertaining and characteristic phases. The sparings of the whole week which have not been laid out for chances in the lottery, are spent for this evening’s amusement; and in the vast pit you see, besides the families of comfortable artisans who can evidently afford it, a multitude of the ragged poor, whose presence, even at the low rate of eight or ten soldi1 apiece, it is hard to account for. It is very peremptory, this audience, in its likes and dislikes, and applauds and hisses with great vehemence. It likes best the sanguinary local spectacular drama; it cheers and cheers again every allusion to Venice; and when the curtain rises on some well-known Venetian scene, it has out the scene-painter by name three times—which is all the police permits. The auditors wear their hats in the pit, but deny that privilege to the people in the boxes, and raise stormy and wrathful cries of cappello! till these uncover. Between acts, they indulge in excesses of water flavored with anise, and even go to the extent of candied nuts and fruits, which are hawked about the theatre, and sold for two soldi the stick,—with the tooth-pick on which they are spitted thrown into the bargain.
The Malibran Theatre is well attended on Sunday night, but the one entertainment which never fails of drawing and delighting full houses is the theatre of the puppets, or the Marionette, and thither I like best to go. The Marionette prevail with me, for I find in the performances of these puppets, no new condition demanded of the spectator, but rather a frank admission of unreality that makes every shadow of verisimilitude delightful, and gives a marvelous relish to the immemorial effects and traditionary tricks of the stage.
The little theatre of the puppets is at the corner of a narrow street opening from the Calle del Ridotto, and is of the tiniest dimensions and simplest appointments. There are no boxes—the whole theatre is scarcely larger than a stage-box—and you pay ten soldi to go into the pit, where you are much more comfortable than the aristocrats who have paid fifteen for places in the dress-circle above. The stage is very small, and the scenery a kind of coarse miniature painting. But it is very complete, and every thing is contrived to give relief to the puppets and to produce an illusion of magnitude in their figures. They are very artlessly introduced, and are maneuvered, according to the exigencies of the scene, by means of cords running from their heads, arms, and legs to the top of the stage. To the management of the cords they owe all the vehemence of their passions and the grace of their oratory, not to mention a certain gliding, ungradual locomotion, altogether spectral.
The drama of the Marionette is of a more elevated and ambitious tone than that of the Burattini, which exhibit their vulgar loves and coarse assassinations in little punch-shows on the Riva, and in the larger squares; but the standard characters are nearly the same with both, and are all descended from the commedia a braccio2 which flourished on the Italian stage before the time of Goldoni. And I am very far from disparaging the Burattini, which have great and peculiar merits, not the least of which is the art of drawing the most delighted, dirty, and picturesque audiences. Like most of the Marionette, they converse vicariously in the Venetian dialect, and have such a rapidity of utterance that it is difficult to follow them. I only remember to have made out one of their comedies,—a play in which an ingenious lover procured his rich and successful rival to be arrested for lunacy, and married the disputed young person while the other was raging in the mad-house. This play is performed to enthusiastic audiences; but for the most part the favorite drama of the Burattini appears to be a sardonic farce, in which the chief character—a puppet ten inches high, with a fixed and staring expression of Mephistophelean good-nature and wickedness—deludes other and weak-minded puppets into trusting him, and then beats them with a club upon the back of the head until they die. The murders of this infamous creature, which are always executed in a spirit of jocose sang-froid, and accompanied by humorous remarks, are received with the keenest relish by the spectators and, indeed, the action is every way worthy of applause. The dramatic spirit of the Italian race seems to communicate itself to the puppets, and they perform their parts with a fidelity to theatrical unnaturalness which is wonderful. I have witnessed death agonies on these little stages which the great American tragedian himself (whoever he may happen to be) could not surpass in degree of energy. And then the Burattini deserve the greater credit because they are agitated by the legs from below the scene, and not managed by cords from above, as at the Marionette Theatre. Their audiences, as I said, are always interesting, and comprise: first, boys ragged and dirty in inverse ratio to their size; then weak little girls, supporting immense weight of babies; then Austrian soldiers, with long coats and short pipes; lumbering Dalmat sailors; a transient Greek or Turk; Venetian loafers, pale-faced, statuesque, with the drapery of their cloaks thrown over their shoulders; young women, with bare heads of thick black hair; old women, all fluff and fangs; wooden-shod peasants, with hooded cloaks of coarse brown; then boys—and boys. They all enjoy the spectacle with approval, and take the drama au grand sérieux, uttering none of the gibes which sometimes attend efforts to please in our own country. Even when the hat, or other instrument of extortion, is passed round, and they give nothing, and when the manager, in an excess of fury and disappointment, calls out, “Ah! sons of dogs! I play no more to you!” and closes the theatre, they quietly and unresentfully disperse. Though, indeed, fioi de cani means no great reproach in Venetian parlance; and parents of the lower classes caressingly address their children in these terms. Whereas to call one Figure of a Pig, is to wreak upon him the deadliest insult which can be put into words.
In the commedia a braccio, before mentioned as the inheritance of the Marionette, the dramatist furnished merely the plot, and the outline of the action; the players filled in the character and dialogue. With any people less quick-witted than the Italians, this sort of comedy must have been insufferable, but it formed the delight of that people till the middle of the last century, and even after Goldoni went to Paris he furnished his Italian players with the commedia a braccio. I have heard some very passable gags at the Marionette, but the real commedia a braccio no longer exists, and its familiar and invariable characters perform written plays.
Facanapa is a modern addition to the old stock of dramatis personae, and he is now without doubt the popular favorite in Venice. He is always, like Pantalon, a Venetian; but whereas the latter is always a merchant, Facanapa is any thing that the exigency of the play demands. He is a dwarf, even among puppets, and his dress invariably consists of black knee-breeches and white stockings, a very long, full-skirted black coat, and a three-cornered hat. His individual traits are displayed in all his characters, and he is ever a coward, a boaster, and a liar; a glutton and avaricious, but withal of an agreeable bonhomie that wins the heart. To tell the truth, I care little for the plays in which he has no part and I have learned to think a certain trick of his—lifting his leg rigidly to a horizontal line, by way of emphasis, and saying, “Capisse la?” or “Sa la?” (You understand? You know?)—one of the finest things in the world.
In nearly all of Goldoni’s Venetian comedies, and in many which he wrote in Italian, appear the standard associates of Facanapa,—Arlecchino, il Dottore. Pantalon dei Bisognosi, and Brighella. The reader is at first puzzled by their constant recurrence, but never weary of Goldoni’s witty management of them. They are the chief persons of the obsolete commedia a braccio, and have their nationality and peculiarities marked by immemorial attribution. Pantalon is a Venetian merchant, rich, and commonly the indulgent father of a wilful daughter or dissolute son, figuring also sometimes as the childless uncle of large fortune. The second old man is il Dottore, who is a Bolognese, and a doctor of the University. Brighella and Arlecchino are both of Bergamo. The one is a sharp and roguish servant, busy-body, and rascal; the other is dull and foolish, and always masked and dressed in motley—a gibe at the poverty of the Bergamasks among whom, moreover, the extremes of stupidity and cunning are most usually found, according to the popular notion in Italy.
The plays of the Marionette are written expressly for them, and are much shorter than the standard drama as it is known to us. They embrace, however, a wide range of subjects, from lofty melodrama to broad farce, as you may see by looking at the advertisements in the Venetian Gazettes for any week past, where perhaps you shall find the plays performed to have been: The Ninety-nine Misfortunes of Facanapa; Arlecchino, the Sleeping King; Facanapa as Soldier in Catalonia; The Capture of Smyrna, with Facanapa and Arlecchino Slaves in Smyrna (this play being repeated several nights); and, Arlecchino and Facanapa Hunting an Ass. If you can fancy people going night after night to this puppet-drama, and enjoying it with the keenest appetite, you will not only do something toward realizing to yourself the easily-pleased Italian nature, but you will also suppose great excellence in the theatrical management. For my own part, I find few things in life equal to the Marionette. I am never tired of their bewitching absurdity, their inevitable defects, their irresistible touches of verisimilitude. At their theatre I have seen the relenting parent (Pantalon) twitchingly embrace his erring son, while Arlecchino, as the large-hearted cobbler who has paid the house-rent of the erring son when the prodigal was about to be cast into the street, looked on and rubbed his hands with amiable satisfaction and the conventional delight in benefaction which we all know. I have witnessed the base terrors of Facanapa at an apparition, and I have beheld the keen spiritual agonies of the Emperor Nicholas on hearing of the fall of Sebastopol. Not many passages of real life have affected me as deeply as the atrocious behavior of the brutal baronial brother-in-law, when he responds to the expostulations of his friend the Knight of Malta,—a puppet of shaky and vacillating presence, but a soul of steel and rock:
“Why, O baron, detain this unhappy lady in thy dungeons? Remember, she is thy brother’s wife. Remember thine own honor. Think on the sacred name of virtue.” (Wrigglingly, and with a set countenance and gesticulations toward the pit.)
To which the ferocious baron makes answer with a sneering laugh, “Honor?—I know it not! Virtue?—I detest it!” and attempting to pass the knight, in order to inflict fresh indignities upon his sister-in-law, he yields to the natural infirmities of rags and pasteboard, and topples against him.
Facanapa, also, in his great scene of the Haunted Poet, is tremendous. You discover him in bed, too much visited by the Muse to sleep, and reading his manuscripts aloud to himself, after the manner of poets when they cannot find other listeners. He is alarmed by various ghostly noises in the house, and is often obliged to get up and examine the dark corners of the room, and to look under the bed. When at last the spectral head appears at the foot-board, Facanapa vanishes with a miserable cry under the bed-clothes, and the scene closes. Intrinsically the scene is not much, but this great actor throws into it a life, a spirit, a drollery wholly irresistible.
The ballet at the Marionette is a triumph of choreographic art, and is extremely funny. The prima ballerina has all the difficult grace and far-fetched arts of the prima ballerina of flesh and blood; and when the enthusiastic audience calls her back after the scene, she is humanly delighted, and acknowledges the compliment with lifelike empressement. I have no doubt the corps de ballet have their private jealousies and bickerings, when quietly laid away in boxes, and deprived of all positive power by the removal of the cords which agitate their arms and legs. The puppets are great in pirouette and pas seul; but I think the strictly dramatic part of such spectacular ballets, as The Fall of Carthage, is their strong point.
The people who witness their performances are of all ages and conditions—I remember to have once seen a Russian princess and some German countesses in the pit—but the greater number of spectators are young men of the middle classes, pretty shop-girls, and artisans and their wives and children. The little theatre is a kind of trysting-place for lovers in humble life, and there is a great deal of amusing drama going on between the acts, in which the invariable Beppo and Nina of the Venetian populace take the place of the invariable Arlecchino and Facanapa of the stage. I one day discovered a letter at the bottom of the Canal of the Giudecca, to which watery resting-place some recreant, addressed as “Caro Antonio,” had consigned it; and from this letter I came to know certainly of at least one love affair at the Marionette. “Caro Antonio” was humbly besought, “if his heart still felt the force of love,” to meet the writer (who softly reproached him with neglect) at the Marionette the night of date, at six o’clock; and I would not like to believe he could resist so tender a prayer, though perhaps it fell out so. I fished up through the lucent water this despairing little epistle,—it was full of womanly sweetness and bad spelling,—and dried away its briny tears on the blade of my oar. If ever I thought to keep it, with some vague purpose of offering it to any particularly anxious-looking Nina at the Marionette as to the probable writer—its unaccountable loss spared me the delicate office. Still, however, when I go to see the puppets, it is with an interest divided between the drolleries of Facanapa, and the sad presence of expectation somewhere among the groups of dark-eyed girls there, who wear such immense hoops under such greasy dresses, who part their hair at one side, and call each other “Ciò!” Where art thou, O fickle and cruel, yet ever dear Antonio? All unconscious, I think,—gallantly posed against the wall, thy slouch hat brought forward to the point of thy long cigar, the arms of thy velvet jacket folded on thy breast, and thy ear-rings softly twinkling in the light.