Mercifully, our world is full of comedies – Shakespearean comedies, situation comedies, satirical comedies, raunchy comedies, romantic comedies, scatalogical comedies, comedies of errors. We have musical comedies too, everywhere from TV to Broadway, but it’s been 400 years since the brief flowering of the Italian madrigal comedy or commedia armonica. To the rescue: the renowned a capella vocal sextet The Western Wind.
The acclaimed ensemble has once again revived Orazio Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso, considered by the group’s countertenor William Zukof “unquestionably the masterpiece of the genre.” The story is a comedy in both the original Shakespearean sense (ending happily with a wedding) and in the more common sense of being funny. The humor in L’Amfiparnaso comes from the playful language and from the stock characters, and though some of the latter may be familiar to some theatergoers from commedia dell’arte, none of this is current for a modern English-speaking audience.
To remedy that, the production provides cleverly written supertitles and a pair of extremely talented mimes, Catherine Gasta and Alexander Reed, to accompany the music with highly physical portrayals, charged with expressive humor and lustiness, the raft of characters. These include the old Venetian merchant Pantalone, the amorous lutenist Dr. Gratiano, the high-minded courtesan Hortensia, the young, near-tragic lovers Lucio and Isabella, the comic servants, and most humorously of all, at least to one segment of today’s audience, the Hebrews, a community of Jews who sing in mock-Hebrew and won’t pawn Pantalone’s saber (“A Goy has brought his pen-knife!”) because it’s the Sabbath.
Originally written for five voices, slightly rearranged for The Western Wind’s six, with an unattributed libretto that may well have been written by Vecchi himself, the music ranges from lyrically beautiful to funny and onomatopoeic. Voices simulate the ringing of bells and the knocking-on of doors as effectively as they convey the desperation of foiled lovers, the comic scheming of the servant class, and the self-satisfied prancing of the smug. Solo voices arise now and then, but exquisite harmony conveys most of the dialogue, always with the welcome aid of Gasta and Reed, who give a strong Chaplin-esque accounting of the too-often denigrated and trivialized mime class.
Among its other accomplishments, this show makes a good case that we still need mimes. It also proves that the madrigal comedy – this madrigal comedy, at least – more than merits energized revivals like this one. There’s just one more performance, tonight at the West End Theater (visit Smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444). But if we’re lucky, The Western Wind – whose first performance of L’Amfiparnaso helped launch their career back in 1971 and who have revived it a number of times since – won’t make this their last.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00BROA46S][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B003L5PJY8][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00J7VZFXU]