Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Tristano: Maggio performance

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About the scene and clip:
This performance is from a “Maggio” version of the medieval stories of Tristan and Isolde [Tristano e Isotta]. Tales about these famous lovers were originally told in French medieval works dating from the 12th and 13th centuries; such stories spread throughout Europe and still survive. This sort of performance is termed Maggio from celebrations associated with May Day. Maggio performance, traditional in the Apennine region of northern Italy, is a form of popular opera dating back to the 18th century. The entire performance of the tale includes the following scenes: the page’s introduction; Tristan goes mad from unfounded jealousy; Tristan and Isolde are reunited; King Mark exiles Tristan; Isolde laments over Tristan’s departure; King Arthur welcomes Isolde; a battle between King Mark and King Arthur and his knights; Tristan’s death; Lancelot’s lament.

In this clip, King Arthur, Lancelot and other knights attack King Mark for having brought about the death of the lovers, who lie dead on the ground. In the middle of a large field, the performers sing and act out their parts. The director whispers lines to the performers, who do not need to know all their lines by heart. The singing is punctuated by accordion flourishes. Unlike other Maggio companies in Emilia, these performers do not adopt the traditional costumes (embroidered black velvet with a strongly symbolic use of color), but instead vary their costumes to fit the story being performed.

See also on this site the “Roncisvalle” clip, another Maggio performance.

About the work:
Tristano e Isotta is an Italian “Maggio”—dramatized and sung—reworking of the medieval story of Tristan and Iseut. (See also see under “About the scene and 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:
Tristano e Isotta: script published in the journal Il Cantastorie, n. 3, 1981 (Terza serie), Reggio Emilia, Italy.

About the performer/ensemble:
The company is located in Frassinoro, a town in the Apennine Mountains (province of Modena) of Italy.

About the production:
This performance took place in Frassinoro (Modena), 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.