Critics tend to shy away from the word “charming” when describing opera, with “merely” too often preceding it. Luckily performers such as Helios Early Opera don’t seem to mind the term. Their production of Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) intermezzo Pimpinone, which I heard last night at Good Life Bar in Boston, was a reminder of the humor, energy and (yes) fun of this repertoire.
In fact the music’s original audiences were no strangers to that fun. Intermezzi were typically performed between the acts of opera seria. Their comic libretti, real-life situations and emphasis on words over vocal exhibitionism were intended to be as short, direct and frisky as their dramatic cousins were long, conventionalized and high-minded. Pimpinone tells the story of the shrewd, shrewish maid Vespetta beguiling the titular character into hiring and then marrying her. Combined with Telemann’s tuneful, rhythmic music, it became a hit and eventually a standalone piece, even inspiring a (now lost) sequel.
Helios offered a breezy setting and compelling case for Telemann’s work. As the cuckolded Pimpinone, bass baritone Peter Walker displayed a warm, confident voice and laughably pitiful demeanor. His Part Three aria, imitating a chatty Vespetta talking behind his back, featured some humorous yet impressive falsetto. Meredith Ruduski’s Vespetta was an adorable manipulator, with a bright, coquettish soprano and spot-on diction and delivery. She showed off both her own comedic skills as well as those of Telemann in the sobbing histrionics of Part Two, a clear parody of opera seria excess. A spat in Part Three mocked that genre’s decorous lines while spotlighting Walker and Ruduski’s lucid blend and effective (if occasionally less than pinpoint) timing in duet.
Telemann’s score is not Tristan, it’s not even Barber. The ideal orchestra understands the importance of easing into its accompanying role and knowing when to provide a gentle nudge to the action. The continuo team of harpsichordist Dylan Sauerwald and cellist Zoe Weiss took a page from the best jazz rhythm sections, adding accents behind recitatives that were felt more than heard. Directing the five-piece string ensemble from behind their instruments, orchestral backing was handled with verve as well as sensitivity. Subtle but effective details such as the antsy strings shaking behind Vespetta’s demands for the finer things just added to the fun.
From Vespetta starting the night handing out business cards to the audience, through a dysfunctional breakfast scene and the final image of Vespetta daintily painting her toes as Pimpinone shines his own shoes with flask in hand, Kateri Chambers’ stage direction partnered with the music, neither distracting from or superimposing anything onto it. Supertitles on the televisions lining the room at Good Life translated the words from the original German and Italian. As for the barroom venue, its intimate, softly lit basement lounge wasn’t a gimmick or a compromise; it simply worked. Being up close and personal to the music, with plenty of laughs and maybe a drink in hand made for some smart entertainment (another word sorely lacking from many descriptions of opera).
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.