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Pharmacy comic opera

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Carlo Goldoni, born in Venice in 1707, was a prolific playwright and librettist. He wrote some of Italy’s best-loved plays and made significant contributions to the then new genre of comic opera. He is thought to have been an apothecary’s son, and one of his works was set in an apothecary’s shop.

Lo speziale’ or ‘The apothecary’ is a three-act comic opera with music composed by Joseph Haydn to Goldoni’s libretto. The main characters are Sempronio, an old apothecary, Grilletta, his ward, Mengone, his apprentice, and Volpino, a rich dandyish man-about-town. Volpino was a so-called “breeches-role” played by a female singer.

The libretto is a simple story of a disillusioned member of staff, an owner with his mind elsewhere and a dauntingly persistent customer. All three are determined to marry Grilletta.

The first act opens with an aria in which Mengone, who only took the job to be near Grilletta, complains about his workload and lack of support. Sempronio, who spends his time reading newspapers while contemplating marriage to his beautiful and wealthy ward, is angered to see Grilletta encourage the timid Mengone. He begins to draw up his marriage contract. In the following scenes bribery, intimidation and deception play their part as Volpino and Mengone attempt to foil the elderly apothecary.

In the last scene Volpino arrives with his attendants disguised as Turks and offers to facilitate a lucrative contract to export medicines to Turkey in exchange for Grilletta. Sempronio’s refusal angers Volpino and leads to a fracas in which his men begin to ransack the shop. Mengone intervenes to protect the frightened old man who gratefully agrees to him marrying Grilletta.

Lo speziale’ was first performed in 1768 at Eszterháza in Hungary, the home of Haydn’s patron. However, the work is only occasionally performed today.

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