L’equivoco stravagante, dramma giocoso in two acts to a libretto by Gaetano Gasbarri, was first performed at Teatro del Corso, Bologna, on 26th October 1811.
The singers in the first performances were Maria Marcolini (Ernestina), Tommaso Berti (Ermanno), Domenico Vaccani (Gamberotto), Paolo Rosich (Buralicchio), Angiola Chies (Rosalia), Giuseppe Spirito (Frontino).
The action takes place in an undefined place and time, both outside and inside the house of Gamberotto, a newly enriched farmer, and his daughter Ernestina, who, suiting her behaviour to the new estate of the family, spends her time emulating the most exalted literary characters, foolishly parrotting their language and their attitudes. She does not know yet that Ermanno, a penniless young man, is in love with her; for some time he has been hanging around her house hoping to meet her, with the help of Gamberotto’s crafty servants, Frontino and Rosalia. These three are putting their heads together when they are interrupted by a noisy group of peasants preceding the master of the house, who is discovered in one of his usual haughty moods. Frontino takes advantage of this to introduce Ermanno as Ernestina’s new tutor: Gamberotto welcomes him willingly, not so much for his learning but rather for his good looks, which, he is sure, will recommend him to his daughter.
The first step towards introducing the young people to each other has, therefore, been taken; now they have to get rid of Buralicchio, Ernestina’s fiancé, as rich as he is vain. He likes to think of himself as an irresistible Don Juan, and when he meets his future father-in-law the two of them outdo one another in mawkish polite nothings.
Meanwhile Ernestina, bored in her library, confesses to her literary friends that she feels an incomprehensible emptiness within her: could it be due to the lack of true love?; everyone undertakes to search through the books to find the most suitable cure for her hypochondria. The unexpected arrival of Ermanno and Buralicchio, brought in together by Gamberotto, immediately raises the girl’s spirits. She feels attracted to both of them: she will devote her body to her fiancé, and her mind to her tutor. Ermanno, however, cannot restrain himself in this unhoped-for proximity to his idol and he kisses her hand rapturously, driving her fiancé quite into a rage – Gamberotto scarcely manages to hold him back.
There now comes a quiet moment in the development of the plot, allowing the two servants an opportunity to chat about Ermanno’s chances of success, and the impertinent nature of love.
At last the young man finds himself alone with the girl, who, still up to her ears in literary fancies, has quite a struggle to understand his real, solid feelings, but remains profoundly moved by them.
Gamberotto takes charge of the situation, not only severely scolding Buralicchio for his unjustified jealousy, but also Ernestina for taking no notice of her fiancé: let the official courtship then begin, in his presence, starting – as a punishment – from the feet, and then proceeding gradually… upwards. Stunned with shock, Ermanno tries to put a stop to things by staging a “suicide”, which throws Ernestina into a very fearful state: Buralicchio and Gamberotto are so incensed by this that they chase the tutor out of the house, making such a noise that the police have to be called.
When the curtain rises once more, Frontino is discussing what has happened with the peasants of the neighbourhood and tells Rosalia that he is ready to set a new plan in motion: a fanciful hoax to help Ermanno out. By means of a fake letter that he cleverly manages to slip into Buralicchio’s hands, the crafty servant makes the fiancé think that Ernestina is really Ernesto, a son that Gamberotto had had castrated when he was a boy to make it possible for him to earn a lot of money singing in the theatre; now that he has got rich in other ways, he keeps him hidden at home, dressed as a girl, to avoid his having to do military service. Stunned, Buralicchio meets Ernestina alone; she is at last disposed to be nice to her fiancé, whereas he is shocked by discerning – or so it seems to him – that her features have a decidedly masculine cast. He therefore decides to avenge the insult without more delay, and goes off to denounce the presumed deserter to the military commander.
Meanwhile, Ermanno complains to Gamberotto about the way he has been unceremoniously chased out of the house, but is assured that, once the marriage has been performed, his job of tutor will once more be available to him. Left alone, Ermanno can do no more than give vent to his despair. Seeing him run off, Ernestina orders Rosalia to bring him to her: their dialogue begins in funereal tones, but gradually slips into a more delicately intimate style, broken into half-way through by Gamberotto and Buralicchio, the former exceedingly indignant with his daughter, the latter inclined to let things slide for the moment, in anticipation of his imminent revenge. Soldiers, in fact, come in with no further waste of time, and arrest Ernestina without a word of explanation.
When all have left the stage, Frontino complains to Rosalia that the trick he had thought up has, in the end, been even more harmful to Ermanno and Ernestina instead of helping them, whilst Gamberotto attacks Buralicchio for his indifference towards the unhappy plight of his future wife.
Now we find Ernestina in her prison cell, pining for her books and distressed about not knowing why she has been arrested. Ermanno joins her, bringing a soldier’s uniform to disguise her and help her to escape. In fact, shortly afterwards we find her, free at last, together with a group of soldiers whom, in her new-found exuberance, she does not hesitate to urge on to glorious exploits.
For the epilogue we find ourselves once more in Gamberotto’s house, where Frontino reproaches Buralicchio for having played the spy, advising him to run away as quickly as he can to avoid the wrath of Gamberotto, who is looking for him. Ernestina comes in, together with her rescuer; Buralicchio immediately begins mocking him because he does not know the truth about the girl. The threatening entrance of the girl’s father, supported by peasants waving sticks, persuades Buralicchio to spill the beans: guilty! He!? When he is, in fact, the true victim, and if Frontino had not warned him in time, he would have been deceived by the castrated boy! The general mirth is mixed with wonderment; Frontino defends himself, explaining that he had acted from the best of intentions and, finally, Ermanno comes into the open and tells Gamberotto that he is in love with Ernestina. So much enterprise deserves a reward, Buralicchio resigns himself to looking for another wife, and they all live happily ever after.