GIUSEPPE PENNISI reports on
'La Salustia' and 'La Serva Padrona'
from the Pergolesi Festival
Very little is known about Giovanni Battista Draghi (or Drago, according to certain sources), generally known as Pergolesi. He was born in Jesi, also the birthplace of Gaspare Spontini, on 4 January 1710 to a poor family (and most likely affected by many hereditary diseases). At a young age he left the small and pleasant little town on the Marche hills near the Adriatic Coast to move to Naples. There he studied at the San Pietro in Majella Conservatory. Upon graduation, he found employment as a musician and composer with a family, the Maddaloni, closely linked to the Austrians and thus not on good terms with the new powers-to-be in Naples (the Spaniards). He died young, at the age of twenty-six, in a Monastery near Pozzuoli, in the suburbs of Naples. In his short life, he composed several opera seria, an opera buffa, church music and intermezzos. He was, it seems, well-known and appreciated in Naples and Rome (where the Maddaloni family went to find shelter when the Spanish Bourbons took over the Government in the Southern State). He became internationally known several years after his premature death when his intermezzo La Serva Padrona, generally credited as the first comic opera, precipitated a major artistic controversy (la Querelle des Bouffons) in France as well as elsewhere in Europe in the decades immediately preceding the French Revolution. The first performance of La Serva Padrona in Naples in 1733 passed unnoticed; it was performed as an intermezzo among the three acts of the opera seria Il Prigionier Superbo. Before reaching Paris and originating la Guerre des Bouffons, La Serva Padrona had been produced in Graz in 1739 by an Italian touring company without much notice.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Its big splash was in Paris in 1752. Then, it provoked such a tumult of enthusiasm that it can be said to have caused a revolution in French opera; it played to almost full houses for nearly three years. At that time, French opera dominated and domineered the European stage. The plot of La Serva Padrona is simple and satirical. Most of the dialogue is written in the rapid recitative secco, unknown elsewhere in Europe except for Naples. The real charm of the short two part intermezzo resides in the set numbers -- arias and duets where comedy and pathos intermingle. It was a real shock in Paris where the baroque opera was at its sunset and the tragédie lyrique was losing his hold. La Serva Padrona became an opportunity to inveigh against tradition and to promote the new culture of free expression of feelings -- in short, to bring enlightenment to the opera stage and to the opera houses. The philosopher Jacques Rousseau became the leader of the movement; he himself composed an opera buffa in the new style, Le Divin du Village. The relevance of la Querelle des Bouffons not only to the music world is such that in October 1942 Richard Strauss placed his last work for the theatre, the conversation-in-music Capriccio, in the context of the Pergolesi-induced revolution in the French cultural world. Strauss emphasized the impossibility of taking a stand, in music and culture as well as in politics. This was a very loaded message in October 1942 Munich.
The Pergolesi monument in Jesu. Click on the image for higher resolution
Internationally, Pergolesi is mostly known for La Serva Padrona and two of his sacred pieces, Salve Regina and Stabat Mater, but he was a prolific composer in his brief life; at least six operas, mostly opera seria, are attributed to him. For the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Jesi-based Pergolesi Foundation has had the ambitious program to stage all of them; the six operas were also expected to be staged in Pozzuoli, where, as already mentioned, the composer died. It is fair to say that only two of the six operas would have been new productions. In the last few years, the Foundation has already staged four of them in programs co-produced with the Festival of Radio France in Montpellier, and with the Baroque Festival of Beaune as well as with the theaters of Modena, Piacenza, Ravenna, Reggio Emilia and Treviso.
The Teatro Pergolesi in Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
A jump start to the festival was, on 5 June 2009, a concert of the Mozart Orchestra with Claudio Abbado conducting a fine group of soloists and the Swiss Radio Chorus. The concert was performed in the impressive yet lovely Pergolesi Theatre in Jesi, with live and free maxi-screen video in the main square of the town. In 2010, the Pergolesi Foundation planned to stage all six operas (as well as other music) in a two session festival: a Spring session and a September session. However, State money came to a halt after the Spring session. A serious controversy ensued: some sustained that the financing had been formally promised; others that it was wishful thinking because the money allocated was for the full year. Nothing was heard about the Pozzuoli part of the project.
The Teatro Pergolesi in Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
In any event, the Pergolesi full immersion -- similar to the Mozart full immersion when all his twenty-two operas were performed in Salzburg at the 2006 Summer Festival -- is being completed this Fall with new productions of La Salustia, La Serva Padrona and Lo Frate N'namurato, and a revival of a successful 2002 staging of L'Olimpiade seen in several European theatres. L'Olimpiade uses the Metastasio libretto previously set to music by Vivaldi, Galuppi and others, but it is unusually powerful in capturing friendship and competition among two young men; the staging of Italo Nunziata is a dramatic masterpiece.
I visited the Festival on 2 and 3 September 2011 for the new productions of La Salustia and La Serva Padrona. I am well familiar with latter, often played, for example, in American music schools. I had seen the 2008 production of La Salustia, coproduced with the Radio France Festival and Montpellier and telecast in the French-German television program Mezzo. The 2011 La Salustia differs substantially from the 2008 opera. It is not only a matter of staging, singers and conducting but we are dealing with two different works. Pergolesi composed the three act four hour opera seria to the specification of the castrato Nicolino, who expected to be one of the protagonists. Nicolino died before the first performance at the Teatro San Benedetto in Naples; thus the score had to be reworked in a hurry. In 2008, the 'Nicolino' La Salustia was produced whilst now the opera is presented as it was shown in Naples in 1732.
Serena Malfi as Salustia (left) and Laura Polverelli as Giulia in 'La Salustia' at the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
The plot is simple: in a very decadent and decaying ancient Rome, nearly at the end of the Empire, the young Empress Salustia and the Emperor's mother Giulia fight over who is the most important woman in the land. Salustia is the good person, always ready to help others. Giulia is the evil one. There are all kinds of devious plottings, even at the Thermal Baths, as well as a fight against beasts in the Coliseum, but after fifty-seven musical numbers, there is the 'happy ending' and a hymn to peace. The opera may benefit from some cuts for the 2011 audience but has, along with many repetitive arias con da capo, some surprising moments; eg the quartet at the of the second act seems to anticipate Mozart's well known Idomeneo quartet composed fifty years later.
Laura Polverelli as Giulia and Vittorio Prato as Marziano in 'La Salustia' at the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
The 2008 production emphasized the lascivious parts of the drama, including several nude young men in the Thermal Baths scene. The current staging by the young Juliette Deschamps (someone worth watching) makes the rather immobile opera seria into a drama full of inner tensions. The single set was excellent: a part of the Coliseum (or of a semi-destroyed Roman theatre) with windows meurtrière where in the seventeenth century snipers could target and shoot their victims without being seen. Of course, the action is not in Rome in the fourth century but anywhere in Europe around 1730.
From left to right: Laura Polverelli as Giulia, Florin Cezar Ouatu as Alessandro, Serena Malfi as Salustia and Vittorio Prato as Marziano in 'La Salustia' at the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Corrado Rovaris conducted the Accademia Barocca dei Virtuosi Italiani well. This a strings ensemble from Verona; it is fair to say that many elements (specifically the woodwind) added for the purpose of the performance did not amalgamate well with the rest of the team -- maybe because of insufficient rehearsal time. Laura Polverelli (Giulia) is top class. Serana Malfi as Salustia, Giacinta Nicotra and Maria Hinojosa Montenegro (as Albina and Claudio) were all good. The Romanian countertenor Florin Cezar Ouatu (as Alessandro Severo) was disappointing because of too nasal an emission. Vittorio Prato (as Marziano) is a good looking actor, but his singing on 2 September required the Shakespearian 'quality of mercy'; let's hope he provides better quality in the other performances.
A scene from 'La Salustia' at the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
At the end of the evening, those who had endured the length and the heat (about half of the audience who had entered the theatre at 8pm) applauded warmly; the singers, the orchestra and the extras too had endured a difficult hot night for several hours under the additional heat from the lighting and the heavy seventeenth century costumes. They fully deserved it.
La Serva Padrona was a joy from start (9pm) to finish (10.15pm). The plot is very simple: a gentleman in his forties (Uberto, sung by the bass-baritone Carlo Lepore) has decided to say farewell to the single life: his maid in her thirties (Serpina, the lyric soprano Alessandra Marianelli) wants him to propose to her. A silent witness (Vespone, the mime Jean Méningue) is always present.
From left to right: Alessandra Marianelli as Serpina, Carlo Lepore as Uberto and Jean Méningue as Vespone in 'La Serva Padrona' at the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Uberto would, of course, like to marry a woman of his own social class. With the help of Vespone, Serpina plays all kind of tricks to become his wife and his boss too.
Alessandra Marianelli as Serpina and Carlo Lepore as Uberto in 'La Serva Padrona' at the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
The master staging of Henning Brockhaus is to get rid of all seventeenth century wigs and elaborate costumes. The action takes place today in a circus: the stage sets are by Benito Leonori, the costumes by Giancarlo Colis, and the lighting by Alessandro Carletti. Also in between the two short parts of the intermezzo, Jean Méningue played Samuel Beckett's Acts without Words I.
Jean Méningue in Samuel Beckett's 'Acts Without Words I'. Photo © 2011 Binci fotografia Jesi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Thus a strong link was set between the Pergolesi work which ignited La Querelle des Bouffons and the 1960s théâtre de l'absurd. Very cultivated references for the few, but even those not familiar with such cultural niceties enjoy the performances. There were ovations for the stage director, the conductor and the orchestra (which did not require woodwind).
Copyright © 6 September 2011 Giuseppe Pennisi,
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