Opera in one act.
Libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci based on the play
Le Passant by François Coppée.
First performed in the Liceo Musicale G. Rossini, Pesaro, on 2 March 1896.
The story is set in a villa in the hills just to the east of Florence during the Renaissance period; it is evening
Silvia, a wealthy courtesan, muses on the fact that although many men have declared their love for her, none of their passion has moved her heart. She is bored; the long summer nights which inspire poets and serenaders and the men of high status who cast wealth at her feet seem merely vain and she has come to realise that a life without love is no life at all. She looks at Florence in the distance and wonders whether there is a young man there who has caught sight of her and fallen in love with her who will inspire her to love him in return.
From some distance away, a voice is heard. It is Zanetto, a young minstrel, singing that there is love in his heart, but that sorrow is hiding there too. Silvia is touched by his naivete and goes out onto her terrace to watch him pass; Zanetto appears, casually ambling along with his lute on his back. He does not see her, but comments that travelling by night means that he has the guidance of the starts and the moonlight. Unwilling to rouse an inn so late, he decides to sleep in the open air and lies down on a bench and wraps his cloak around his body.
As Zanetto drifts into sleep, Silvia comes down from the terrace and watches him – she realises that he represents her longing for a real love. As she takes his hand, Zanetto wakes and gazes at her; he says that the bright vision of his own dream has come to life. Silvia calls him ‘bambino’, child, and says that he only saw a moonbeam. When he hears her voice he says that that too was part of his dream. Silvia, with great candour, tells him that she is just a hospitable woman to whom passing travellers are grateful. Zanetto tells her that he is no longer tired, and Silvia has to tell herself to be good, because he is only a boy. She asks who he is, and Zanetto tells her his name and that he is a wandering musician with a range of useless skills – he can row a boat, launch a falcon, tame a frisky colt and make good rhymes in a sonnet. Silvia observes that he will never be short of a dinner with those abilities and he replies that sometimes he does go hungry, but that if kind people in a village invite him to a meal, he pays them with a song on his lute.
Silvia asks him if he is going to Florence and he tells her that he does not know where he is heading, he just follows where the birds lead him. Silvia asks if his dream includes a little cottage surrounded by vines where a pretty girl wishes him good morning. He says that it does, but that he is also mindful of their fathers and he does not want to upset the peace of a family. But what if the girl tosses you a flower, Silvia asks. Zanetto says that maybe he might accept a kiss, but his lute and his cloak are enough to carry and he does not want to be burdened by love in his heart. Ah, says Silvia, a free bird needs no cage – but asks whether one day perhaps a nest will attract him. Zanetto says that will never happen; love frightens him and he prefers to fly free, like a dragonfly – Silvia responds that if he does that, he will never know happiness; perhaps he has been drawn to her by fate, like a swallow following its instinct. Zanetto replies that that maybe is the case, because he was following a dream.
He explains that he has no idea who he is, but he has been wandering around the world never looking for a better life. But when he heard her voice, and the image of the little cottage, he dreamed that one day he might have a girl of his own. He begs her for advice – will she have him, should he stay with her and wile away the nights with his songs?
Again, Sylvia calls him a child, and yet she feels her heart beating at the thought of her own dream coming true with him as her true lover. Zanetto presses her for an answer but Sylvia, despite her longing, realises that tomorrow he will find out what she really is, rejects him: she is a widow, she is poor, she cannot give hospitality to itinerant poets, she says. Zanetto asks if she has an escort, or a page, and when she answers that she has none, he jokes that she must therefore be a fruit. Sylvia urges him to forget her – she is just a weeping widow. Reluctantly, Zanetto accepts the rejection; he says goodbye to his dream and tells her that maybe tomorrow he will have better fortune with Sylvia. Startled, she simply stares at him and he goes on to ask her how he might find Sylvia of Florence; he has heard that she is the queen of all beauties and that even her glance is a caress, they say that she is beautiful and pale, and that she is also rich and generous; he had set out on his journey to find her. Maybe he can join her suitors, even though he has heard that her great beauty and her mad life just bring bad luck. He asks whether he should continue with his quest.
Sylvia, shocked, realises that he has indeed been sent by fate, since he represents all her happiness and yet she must send him away. Again, Zanetto presses her for an answer and Sylvia, with great emotion, tells him not to look for the Sylvia he seeks, and that because she cannot give him protection, he must continue with his wandering life and look for a young girl with dark eyes and hair of gold who will call to him from the door of her humble cottage – that is where he must make his nest. Zanetto accepts the advice, but says that he believes that deep down she is jealous that the unknown Sylvia has stolen him away. Sylvia sadly tells him that he is wrong about that, and that he will never know how much it hurts her to send him away. He must thank her, she says, and to herself she acknowledges how much it would have hurt him if he were to recognise her.
Zanetto tells her that he will abandon his search for Sylvia and that he recognised some tenderness in her refusal of his love; surely she too is a little sad? Sylvia brightly tells him that of course she isn’t, and she gives him a ring to remind him of her. Zanetto refuses to accept it because it is too nice – but surely, he remembers, she said that she was just a poor widow? She asks him what gift he will accept and he points to a flower in her hair. She gives it to him, telling him that it will fade before dawn, and that when it is dry and shrivelled, he must forget her.
Zanetto, reluctant to leave, comments that every path from that place leads away from happiness and he asks her to choose his new direction for him since she will bring him luck. Sylvia points away from Florence and tells him to head towards the dawn; Zanetto starts to sing the same song that he was singing when he arrived; he moves towards her but she stops him with a sad gesture. He runs away quickly. Sylvia watches him go and then buries her face in her hands; ‘What a blessing love is’, she sings, ‘I can still weep!’
Other OperaStory articles can be found on
Pietro Mascagni’s life and his operas
The librettists of Zanetto – Targioni-Tozzetti and Menasci
The writings of François Coppée and his contribution to opera
The rehearsals, the first cast and the première of Zanetto
… and much, much more about Mascagni and his operas
© Roger Witts 2007