The BEMF Chamber Operas 2014: Pergolesi’s La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo

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A scene from Pergolesi's La serve padrona. Carlos Fittante, Vespone, Douglas Williams, Uberto, and Amanda Forsythe, Serpina. Photo Kathy Wittman.

A scene from Pergolesi’s La serve padrona. Carlos Fittante, Vespone, Douglas Williams, Uberto, and Amanda Forsythe, Serpina. Photo Kathy Wittman.

G. B. Pergolesi, La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo
Boston Early Music Festival,
Jordan Hall, Boston
November 29th, 2014

Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Melinda Sullivan, Movement Coordinator
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Lenore Doxsee, Lighting Designer
BEMF Chamber Ensemble
Robert Mealy, Concertmaster

Amanda Forsythe, Serpina
Erica Schuller, Livietta
Douglas Williams, Uberto
Jesse Blumberg, Tracollo
Caroline Copeland, Fulvia
Carlos Fittante, Vespone
Ryan Began, Facenda

Pergolesi’s comic operas sound remarkably modern—which is to say, like Mozart. Recognizably human characters go through recognizable experiences, singing out their feelings very directly, which the music embodies in fluidly changing tempos and moods, stretching of harmony, changes of key and orchestral color. Much is accomplished through musically creative recitative—a half-spoken way of proceeding—as well as through song proper and duets (there are only two singers in each of these operas, though also some designated silent performers, to which this production added a few dancers). It is like Mozart, but sets the procedure for opera ever since, even Verdi’s with their heroic figures, Wagner’s with their gods and goddesses, Berg or Britten with their neurotics. Characters live, feel, and think—and sing—and the music moves quickly and supply and thinks, as it were, with them.

La serva padrona, premiered in Naples in 1733, became a classic and a cause célèbre of mid-century Europe, widely performed, stimulating interest in human comedy in opera, championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other forward-thinking intellectuals, disturbing to traditionalists who favored the old style of serious, ritualistic opera based on mythology and ancient history. Here a modern, well-off, middle-class man, Uberto, mayor of his town, spars with his bright servant girl, Serpina, whom he has brought up, and who in the course of the opera cons him into marrying her, which is his deep desire, in fact, which he has to be brought to acknowledge. Light-voiced soprano Amanda Forsythe sang Serpina with great focus and fine articulation, a sparkle always in her eyes. She radiated both conniving intelligence and true warmth of feeling. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams is a tall, handsome figure with a splendid voice—very strong low notes and an even, attractive sound all the way up the scale. He played Uberto projecting his frustrations, dismay, and longings very believably. He was costumed with an unbecoming potbelly, but could have used some additional aging makeup—greying hair or lines in the face. He seemed hardly older than Serpina, and there is a delicious father-daughter incestuous dynamic at play in this work, as well as master-servant issue. —For the most part the costuming for both operas, by Anna Watkins, was appropriate, colorful, inventive—a pleasure to see and enjoy.

A scene from Pergolesi's Livietta e Tracollo.  (l-r) Carlos Fittante, Vespone; Douglas Williams, Uberto; Melinda Sullivan, Astor; Erica Schuller, Livietta; Jesse Blumberg, Tracollo; Amanda Forsythe, Serpina; and Caroline Copeland, Fulvia. Photo Kathy Wittman.

A scene from Pergolesi’s Livietta e Tracollo. (l-r) Carlos Fittante, Vespone; Douglas Williams, Uberto; Melinda Sullivan, Astor; Erica Schuller, Livietta; Jesse Blumberg, Tracollo; Amanda Forsythe, Serpina; and Caroline Copeland, Fulvia. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Livietta e Tracollo, from the year after La serva padrona, is more a series of antics, with shallower characters. Con man Tracollo dresses as a poor pregnant Polish woman and begs in a false high voice, later appears as a mad astronomer, then a dead soul seeking to cross the River Styx. At the start he meets peasant girl Livietta dressed as a boy, and the two proceed to con each other in various ways until they realize they are two of a kind and in love with each other, and decide to marry. Soprano Erica Schuller looked less like a peasant girl than a high-born beauty in disguise, in the mode of much Renaissance and neo-classical pastoral—which was fine—that’s an appropriate overtone to work like this. She has an attractive, large, resonant voice. Baritone Jesse Blumberg played Tracollo with great energy and a good sense of comic timing—and he seemed, when the time came, truly frightened by the prospect of death by hanging at the hands of the law, though all the players at this point imitated the strangled chicken he refers to in his lament, and created a great laugh. Blumberg’s voice served him well, though it is smaller and drier than Williams’s, and needed a few low notes it did not have.

These comic operas originally played as intermezzi between the acts of longer (now dead and forgotten) “serious” operas, and stage director Gilbert Blin took up the idea of interruption and sandwiched these two works together so that we got some of one, then some of the other, then some of the first, then the other, and so on. This made for a nice effect of seeing deception and crises and questions of identity at work everywhere—the way of the world, it seemed. And the two casts mingled at times in complexly choreographed comic and festive displays. But all this came at a price. The humanity of La serva padrona, with its serious/comic development of a relationship, became diffused in the shallower, more gag-oriented spirit of Livietta e Tracollo. At times everything seemed to be absorbed into stage business—even the orchestra, placed onstage amid the action, with a pocket picked here, a grimace induced there. All good fun. But one would like to see La serva padrona played straight through, and played a little more straight.

This music calls on an orchestra for sharp attacks, strong rhythms, adroit switches from the spirited to the tender, even the momentarily melancholic, and back again. The BEMF ensemble—strings, oboes, bassoon, “natural horns,” plucked instruments—sounded superb and played with full commitment under co-directors Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs and concertmaster Robert Mealy. There was much good feeling about this occasion. Everybody on stage seemed pleased, along the way and at the end, and the audience responded in kind.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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