in: Reviews

December 1, 2014

Two 18th-Century Comedies From BEMF

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O'Dette and Stubbs (file photo)

O’Dette and Stubbs (file photo)

“A Weekend of Chamber Opera” from the Boston Early Music Festival opened Friday night with a performance of two comic intermezzos by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi at Jordan Hall. Following what has become an annual post-Thanksgiving tradition, the semi-staged production repeated Sunday afternoon at 3.

Anyone who has read anything about 18th-century European music knows that Pergolesi is credited with establishing a new approach to staged musical comedy. Yet his most famous work, La serva padrona (Maid as Master), is rarely performed and, despite the present-day revival of so many other works from its time, is not even well represented in recordings. Therefore it was a bit of inspired programming for BEMF to offer it on a double bill with another work of the same type, Livietta e Tracollo. Both were first heard between the acts of two of Pergolesi’s serious operas in 1733 and 1734, respectively. But each was soon being presented on its own throughout Europe. Today they make fine choices for concert performance together in one evening, as each contains a little under an hour of music and, unlike a full-scale opera, involves only two singing characters and no scene changes.

Nevertheless, to present these works effectively requires considerable skill and imagination, particularly in a conventional concert hall. The BEMF production team, led by artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs and opera director Gilbert Blin, have taken the same basic approach here as in their 2012 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the same space. The action takes place on a small platform at center stage, frequently spilling out onto the surrounding floor, which singers and dancers share with a chamber orchestra of about a dozen players. (A video of the 2012 production as well as rehearsal photos of the current one can be viewed on the BEMF website here.

Although the audience only half filled the hall, they were enthusiastic, and at intermission I overheard references to the “fun” they were having. Eighteenth-century Neapolitan musical comedy was certainly meant to be fun, although one can miss the point in audio recordings or in staged performances that overlook the need (obvious from the librettos) for active participation by the non-singing parts. This production is enlivened by Anna Watkins’s colorful period costumes and the historically inspired, often exquisite gesture and dance choreographed by “movement coordinator” Melinda Sullivan. Yet it’s impossible to report on this production or get to its music without mentioning a few aspects of its basic concept that I found problematical, however much fun they involved.

Each of Pergolesi’s intermezzos comprises two “parts” consisting in turn of two scenes each. It would have been easy to present the four scenes of one work as the first half of the performance, followed by the four scenes of the other. But instead the scenes of the two works alternated, so that scene 1 of Serva was followed by that of Livietta, and so on. We were told, in pre-concert remarks by O’Dette, Stubbs, and orchestra director Robert Mealy, that this manner of presentation paralleled the works’ original productions. There the scenes of each intermezzo filled the intermissions between the acts of a serious, fully staged opera. BEMF’s “interleaving” of scenes from the two works also made it possible, according to Blin’s program note, for the plots and characters of the two intermezzos to “merge” at the end of each half of the program. In practice, this meant that cast members of one intermezzo returned to the stage as non-speaking figures at various points in the other intermezzo, and the entire cast of both works could be onstage at the end of each “act.”

But interrupting a tragedy for a comic divertissment is not the same as alternating scenes of two separate comedies. Nor does “merging” two little operas have much in common with the eighteenth-century practice of pasting together favorite scenes or arias from various works to form a so-called pasticcio. In a reply to a percipient question from the audience during the pre-concert discussion, O’Dette assured us that the scene breaks in BEMF’s production corresponded with those in the original. But the musical and dramatic transitions at those points were somewhat jarring, and there was a risk of redundancy in the second half of the evening, as the climactic scene of one intermezzo led to that of the other, followed by the two finales played back to back.

A further problem for this viewer was the fussy, incessant stage business of a type that is now fashionable even in “historically informed” performances such as this one. It’s clear from the librettos of both works that the two singers in each were always accompanied onstage by one or more silent parts. These play crucial roles in the action: an additional male servant in Serva, two friends of the female lead in Livietta, as well as an accomplice for Tracollo, her would-be robber and later lover. It is crucial to invent movement and action for these characters, following what we know of eighteenth-century gesture, dance, and the improvised commedia dell’arte.

But for me there was a gaping contradiction between Pergolesi’s famously simple, so-called galant musical textures and BEMF’s contrapuntal postmodern staging. Thus we might see not only the servant Serpina and her befuddled master Uberto engaging in dialog on the central platform, but simultaneously a pantomime by her fellow servant Vespone and further carryings-on by cast members of the other intermezzo elsewhere on the stage. The part of Vespone was played and danced with expressive wit by Carlos Fittante; Caroline Copeland, Ryan Began, and Melinda Sullivan were the graceful dancer-actors in Livietta. But with the orchestra also playing in constant view, the result is a visually complex spectacle, amusing at times but inevitably distracting attention away from the music and the essential action. Even the overture, cleverly borrowed from the opera that originally enfolded Serva, had to be played as accompaniment to superfluous mime and dance, a cliché of present-day “Baroque” opera productions that should be immediately retired.

I found it remarkable that the players, singers, and dancers brought off this complicated confection without a single evident slip-up or failure of ensemble. The four singers—Amanda Forsythe and Douglas Williams in Serva, Erica Schuller and Jesse Blumberg in Livietta—executed their roles with unfailing comic aplomb. Livietta, although less well known than Serva, has arguably the richer music. I was especially impressed by Blumberg’s aria “Ecco il povero Traccolo,” which threatened to be genuinely moving until its mock-tragic character was made clear toward the end (perhaps this was done more broadly than it needed to be in order to make the point). I was also delighted by Schuller’s clear and perfectly articulated execution of arias such as “Io non posso resistere,” in which the coloratura was not audibly affected by the concurrent stage business. This is not to take anything away from Forsythe’s equally adroit singing in the face of sometimes needlessly complicated histrionics.

Much credit for keeping things together must go to BEMF’s veteran musicians, including concertmaster Mealy and the continuo team of O’Dette and Stubbs on lute and guitar, Avi Stein on harpsichord, and Phoebe Carrai on cello. (Disclosure: Mealy, Carrai, and several other players are present or former colleagues of mine on Juilliard’s Historical Performance faculty.) I did feel that the large continuo group occasionally played more aggressively than was necessary, given their onstage placement. On the other hand, the violins and viola, playing one to a part, were not quite sufficient in what should be a string-dominated orchestra.

Nevertheless this was indeed a lot of fun, expertly and ingeniously presented. Should either of these works have been more than that? Did Pergolesi, who died at twenty-six, less than two years after the premiere of Livietta, create something really new in either of these intermezzos? Could they be played for deeper expression and perhaps fewer easy laughs? Certainly their so-called Neapolitan musical style could produce more touching, and musically more spectacular, works like the serious operas of Hasse, which Bach knew and which deeply influenced his sons and pupils. I don’t think that BEMF’s experiment of “pasting” Serva and Livietta together worked. But one can’t fault BEMF for trying, and this production is a fine demonstration of creative anachronism that is both historically inspired and genuinely inventive.

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City. His website is here.

3 Comments

  1. “Even the overture…had to be played as accompaniment to superfluous mime and dance, a cliché of present-day “Baroque” opera productions that should be immediately retired.”

    I remember when Ingmar Bergman’s film of Zauberflöte first came out, how widely remarked upon was the cinematic business, mostly shots of the audience, as I recall. Was the Bergman film the trigger for other directors? The Kenneth Branagh film of the same score uses the overture to an elaborate playlet of visual storytelling. It would be interesting to trace the evolution of this practice; it may not be simply a fixation of the Baroquenik crowd.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 2, 2014 at 2:21 pm

  2. There’s a fine example of a pantomime during the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” in the Royal Opera/Pappano production on Opus Arte BluRay. One of the best examples of Mozart on video.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 4, 2014 at 11:23 pm

  3. That Bergman Zauberflote spent a good deal of camera footage following a young blond child in the audience. A bit too much, I recall.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — December 7, 2014 at 8:59 pm

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