There’s a lot to laugh about in opera, some of it intentional. My subject is not situations that are funny, rather it’s situations in which the characters laugh. Here are a few; doubtless, you can think of others.
I’ll start with Adele’s Laughing Song from the younger Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Adele, the Eisenstein’s maid, has taken one of her mistress’s gowns and gone to a ball where she encounters her boss posing as a marquis. He recognizes her, but she laughingly denies her identity while reminding Eisenstein that he too is at the party under an alias. Edita Gruberova sings the song taken from a 1990 performance at the Vienna Staatsoper. Gruberova Mein Herr Marquis
Calixa Lavallée (1842-91) was a French-Canadian musician who composed the country’s national anthem O Canada in 1980. The following year his operetta The Widow was first performed in New Orleans. “The Widow [libretto] by Frank H. Nelson and revised by Guillermo Silva-Marin was an amusing tale of not one, but two mistaken identities (a necessary staple of any successful operetta)! It tells the story of the Spanish widow Doña Paquita de Fuenteovejuna, who returns to Marseilles, France, to find her fiancé, Marquis Peyrolles Beauseant, engaged to another woman. This launches into a humorously complex, and predictably nonsensical, plot in which Paquita fakes her own death in order to exact her revenge on her ex-fiancé.” Quotation from a review of a complete performance of the work last year in Toronto to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary. The following excerpt definitely contains a lot of laughing. The Widow Laughing Chorus CBC Winnipeg Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Eric Wild
Verdi’s last opera Falstaff first performed in 1893 moves at the speed of an electron. Each of its three acts is in two scenes. The second scenes of both acts 1 and 2 conclude with the most elaborate multi part writing in opera. There are 9 and 10 separate vocal lines and they are dazzling. In the first of these Ford, the jealous husband, is tipped off about Falstaff’s lecherous interest in his wife, his daughter and her boyfriend steal a few kisses, and the two wives and their older friend plot to give the fat knight his comeuppance. The laughter comes from the women at very end of the scene. Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini emphasizes the laughing which sometimes gets lost even under the guidance of fine conductors. Falstaff Act 1 scene 2 conclusion Giulini
So much for real laughter. The laughter that follows is sardonic, sinister, or evil. In the 4th Act of Gounod’s Faust Méphistophélès sings a mocking serenade outside of Marguerite’s window. She has borne Faust’s child. Her brother Valentin is with her and is drawn outside by the song whereupon he fights a duel with Faust who with the devil’s help kills him. This serenade is sung by Boris Christoff who was the great dramatic bass of the mid 20th century. The laughter here is obviously demonic. Vous qui faites l’endormie Christoff
Another terminally evil character is Verdi’s Iago. The arch villain of Otello has great aria near the beginning of Act 2. ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ (I believe in a cruel God) expressively states Iago’s black view of the world and his place in it. Baritiones routinely insert a wicked laugh at its conclusion. This laugh is not in the libretto, score, or in Verdi’s production notes for the first performance. These notes read: “At the final words ‘e vecchia fola il ciel’ he [Iago] shrugs his shoulders, turns away and moves upstage.” Even Toscanini allowed the laugh. But the great singing actor Tito Gobbi omitted it. In the Met’s 2012 mounting of Otello baritone Falk Struckmann left it out as did Zeljko Lucic in 2015. Alas, he was back to laughing in his performances of Iago this year. The great Verdi baritone Leonard Warren always added the laugh to his performances of this monologue. Credo Warren
Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns) despite its title is not a happy piece. It’s about jealousy, adultery, and murder. Thus, the laughter in it is distinctly not merry. The following two excerpts are from the Callas-Di Stefano recording of 1954 under Tulio Serafin’s direction. I think it, even after 65 years, still the best recording of this core repertory opera. ‘Vesti la giubba’ concludes the first act. The bitter laughter in the is in the recitative that precedes it and it’s in the score. Giuseppe Di Stefano’s singing is about as good as it gets. Vesti la giubba Di Stefano
There’s laughter in the second act. It comes in the play within a play that ends the opera. Canio, the cuckolded tenor, give a very brief murderous laugh while his unfaithful and much younger spouse laughs as she try to get back into character as Columbine. Here’s the entire sequence leading to Canio’s murder of his wife and her lover Silvio. The opera’s concluding, ‘The comedy is over’ is delivered by the tenor rather than the baritone who sang the prologue. Leoncavallo’s intended ending in which the baritone speaks the line makes more sense and it is being used with increasing frequency in modern performances. Pagliacci finale Callas Di Stefano
I’ve saved the best for last. Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is probably the least appreciated of opera’s greatest masterpieces. It has no flashy tunes that everyone recognizes, but it’s just about as good as opera can get. The Wikipedia article on the work has a ridiculous section that tries to make the opera a coded comment on a hidden homosexual orientation. The model for the tenor part Sweden’s Gustav III was gay. It mentions Göran Gentele staging for the Royal Swedish Opera in 1959 where Gustavo is having an affair with Oscar, even while pining for Amelia. The definitive commentator on Verdi’s works Julian Budden, at least in English, has this to say about such an approach. “In 1960 the Royal Swedish Opera brought to London a supposedly authentic version with a Gustav who was far more interested in Oscar than in Amelia, and so demolished once and for all the historical approach. To make Riccardo’s [the original tenor part was made by the censors into a governor of colonial Massachusetts named Riccardo] pursuit of Amelia no more than a diversion, a mere test of his virility, is to destroy the entire premise on which the opera is built.” After the censorship was removed Verdi decided to keep the New England locale and not move the story back to Sweden. But modern directors knowing more than Verdi have typically changed the locale to Stockholm.
There is a bit of laughter in the opera’s Act 1 scene 2 when Riccardo jauntily sings ‘È scherzo od è follia’ in response to Ulrica’s prediction that he will soon die. But the real laughter comes at the end of the second act. Riccardo has had a chaste rendezvous with Renato’s wife Amelia. They are in the midst of a passionate but unconsummated love affair. Renato shows up to warn Riccardo that conspirators, headed by the blandly named Samuel and Tom, are out to get him. His wife is veiled and Renato doesn’t recognize her. Riccardo asks him to take her back to town without obtaining her identity. He does so. They are confronted by the conspirators and Amelia’s veil falls revealing that her husband has been escorting his own wife back from an assignation with another man – his best friend. Renato is horrified while the conspirators can’t contain their mirth and laugh their way through the rest of the scene while Renato seethes and vows revenge. This scene is of astonishing brilliance. There’s nothing like it in opera. The excerpt presented here is from Toscanini’s recording of Ballo. Herva Nelli and Robert Merrill are the dysfunctional couple. Un Ballo in Maschera Act 2 finale