West Green House Opera – Pergolesi’s La serva padrona

La serva padrona – Intermezzo in two Parts to a libretto by Gennaro Federico [sung in Italian]

Uberto – Ian Beadle
Serpina – Chloe Morgan
Vespone – Roberto Recchia

Oliver Lallemant (piano)

Roberto Recchia – Director

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 28 July, 2021
Venue: West Green House, Thackhams Lane, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, UK

The influence of Pergolesi’s comic intermezzo La serva padrona (1733) grew out of all proportion to its modest scale and pretensions. Its two parts (lasting around forty minutes altogether) were designed to provide light relief in the intervals among the Acts of his now rarely encountered opera seria, Il prigionier superbo, and so not really meant to be taken seriously as a great work of art in its own right. But it was a precursor of what came to be the autonomous form of comic musical theatre, opera buffa, with the stock characters of a miserly and effete, mature bachelor, and a sly female servant. It gained additional notoriety after the composer’s death when it prompted fierce debate after a performance in 1752 at Paris between those who welcomed the introduction of florid, Italianate vocalism and ribald humour in opera, and those who jealously sought to conserve the purity of French music drama (as set down by Lully) giving rise to the so-called Querelle des Bouffons.

In his energetically slapstick production of the work, Roberto Recchia sought to recapture for a contemporary audience a sense of the farce and vivacity which would have struck and shocked opera-goers in the 18th-century, who generally expected something more ‘elevated’ from operatic theatre. Oddly the work was sung here in Italian without the benefit of any surtitles, unlike the other small-scale operas which West Green have presented as matinee productions in previous years with witty English translations, alongside the heftier fare of the annual festival’s main programme.

Despite the hilarious jests and stagecraft – in front of the audience sat at tables in the specially-erected pavilion, centred on a bar which might, on first inspection, have been installed to serve the spectators rather than comprise the set itself – this still tended to give only a generalised impression of the cut and thrust of the drama, rather than allowing those non-Italian speakers in the audience (this reviewer regrettably included) to engage with it directly. Recchia’s stepping out of the role of his (otherwise silent) character Vespone to give a dramatically animated outline of the story before the performance itself (which then followed as a ‘replay’ of the action) only partially allayed that problem.

Although not stated, perhaps this strategy of non-translation could be defended on the basis that the original text of the work (words and music) was being presented essentially as a historical artefact and, in itself, not of great importance (it is true that the situations and expressions of the libretto are fairly generic) and that Recchia’s purpose was rather to tap into, and enact dramaturgically, the debate it sparked about the format of opera in general. Hence the added choreographic elements here to bring it alive for a contemporary audience, to revive that discussion about the form of opera, and also to send up this work itself as a piece of musical theatre – by means of those comic actions among the characters; the interactions with the audience (the characters coming forwards to them at the near tables to address them in English, commenting ironically on the action, or even having one gentleman from the audience comically dressed up as ‘Captain Tempesta’, the disguised figure used to dupe Uberto into marrying Serpina); the little musical interpolations and reinterpretations of the score, deliberately out of keeping with Pergolesi’s late Baroque style, referencing jazz, Romantic coloratura, the famous wedding pieces by Mendelssohn and Wagner, and so on; or indeed perhaps also the conscious association of the Italian language with the extravagance of the operatic medium, as well as making use of a pun when the Neapolitan dialect word ‘zit’ is rendered in Serpina’s first aria as her peremptory command to Uberto to ‘sit’ like a dog.

Together it just about worked successfully, as the audience was highly amused despite having little grasp of the actual text being sung. But if the words in English translation would not quite have matched the stage action, it can or should be assumed that contemporary audiences are experienced enough to be able to suspend disbelief if the director’s concept does not align with the text in every particular. The lingering sense was of a target being narrowly and tantalisingly missed (precisely because in essence the production was otherwise so well-conceived and executed, and even accepting the validity, in principle, of any directorial manoeuvre to deny or frustrate the expectations of an audience). Furthermore, as a satirical dialogue with the conventions of the genre of opera, Recchia’s production might have been even better suited to either Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor or Salieri’s Prima la musica poi le parole.

Fortunately the musical efforts of the singers were not at all wasted. Ian Beadle was the bachelor Uberto who first avoids his maid Serpina’s desires to rise in social standing by marrying him and so become the ‘servant turned mistress’, but eventually succumbs to her wiles. There was nothing, vocally, to suggest his browbeaten disposition, but he gave as good as he got in that Beadle ranged with ease over the wide compass of Pergolesi’s writing, which requires more virtuosity than the music’s levity implies.

Chloe Morgan also sustained commendable agility as Serpina – here turned into the barmaid from hell (though it was not exactly clear what relation to her Uberto then has). Her antics required Morgan to be almost as athletic on the set as in her vocal technique, particularly as some directorial tweaks to the score required some outlandish displays from her in order to evoke the character’s volatile nature. The other servant, Vespone, is given no spoken or musical dialogue, but Recchia acted the role with much verve and energy, no doubt revelling in his ambiguous, dualist position as not only the actor of Vespone within the fictional dimension of the action on stage, but also the puppeteer (as it were) in control of proceedings, as the director, and occasionally just hinting at this position in the world beyond the notional fourth wall.

In the arrangement of the orchestral part for piano, Oliver Lallemant did not merely accompany, but took a proactively spirited part in the musical dialogue – not only in the added musical quips, but also in the straight arrangement of Pergolesi’s music which often sounds as though it is adding its own comments to the characters’ words, rather than just providing a sustained melodious background.Certainly it was a privilege to experience this influential work, more often discussed than seen, and to have been stimulated to think about the fascinating and multi-faceted medium of opera after so many months without it during the pandemic. But if questions were raised, some answers were wilfully withheld.

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