Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Roncisvalle: Maggio performance

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About the scene and clip:
On a large field, a group of performers act out and sing the battle at Roncevaux (Roncisvalle in Italian) where the heroic Roland and the French rear-guard die—a story originally told in the Old French Song of Roland. Roland’s betrothed, Alda, comes and weeps over his lifeless body; this scene is absent from the original Roland, but similar scenes are present in various other versions of the story.

This performance is from an Italian “Maggio” version of the famous French story of Roland’s death at Roncevaux. This sort of performance is termed Maggio from celebrations associated with May Day; traditional in the Apennine region of northern Italy, Maggio is a form of popular opera dating back to the 18th century. The actors use a variety of props, such as steel swords, and wear costumes characteristic of the Italian Maggio performance tradition, including heavily-embroidered black velvet jackets, tall black boots, and plumed helmets; Christian knights wear black capes; Saracens wear red ones. The director whispers lines to the actors, who do not need to know all their lines by heart. The performers sing their parts, accompanied by musicians playing the guitar, violin and accordion.

See also on this site the “Tristano e Isotta” clip, another Maggio performance.

About the work:
Roncisvalle is an Italian “Maggio”—dramatized and sung—reworking of the medieval story of the battle of Roncevaux in The Song of Roland. (Also see above under “About the scene and the clip”.)

About the genre:
The Maggio performance tradition draws strongly on romance and epic traditions—as well as on opera, which did not yet exist in the Middle Ages.

Medieval romances are typically long narratives of love and adventure in which an aristocratic hero (or occasionally a heroine) proves himself in combat and courtship. Medieval romance arose in France and Anglo-Norman England in the 12th century and spread through Western and even Eastern Europe. Many early romances tell the stories of knights and ladies at King Arthur’s court. In the 12th and 13th centuries, romances are composed in verse (typically octosyllabic rhymed couplets), and are commonly performed aloud from memory by minstrels; romances are also sometimes read aloud. In the 13th century, some romances begin to be written in prose; public and private readings become more frequent.

The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

About the edition/translation:
The Italian script is not available.

About the performer/ensemble:
The performers are the inhabitants of Villa Minozzo, a town in the Apennine Mountains, province of Reggio Emilia. The company has its own website: www.Costabona.it.

About the production:
This performance took place in Rossena, Italy, in July 2002. It was videoed by Prof. JoAnn Cavallo of the Italian Department at Columbia University. Copies of the documentary DVD “Il Maggio Emiliano: Ricordi, riflessioni, brani,” of which this is a clip, are available through Prof. Cavallo.