Saturday, December 20, 2008

La Serva Padrona - Pergolesi and Paisiello

Have you ever seen two operas by two composers using the same libretto performed as one performance in one evening and on one stage? This was precisely the case on Sunday December 14 2008 at the Hirsch Theater of Mercaz Shimshon in Jerusalem. The concept was that of Ilya Plotkin, conductor and musical director of the Musica Aeterna Choir and Opera Aeterna.

Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) had his opera buffa “La Serva Padrona” – The Servant Mistress - (libretto by G. A. Federico, after a play by A. Nelli) premiered in 1733. It served as an intermezzo, a comic operatic interlude, inserted between acts or scenes of an opera seria, in this case, of “Il Prigioner Superbo” – The Proud Prisoner - also composed by Pergolesi. In the meantime, La Serva Padrona has been performed much as a separate and popular opera.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), also Italian, was a successful and influential opera composer, writing 94 operas, of which we know. In 1776, Paisiello was invited by Empress Catherine II of Russia to St Petersburg, where he remained for eight years. It was there that he composed his “La Serva Padrona” in 1781.

The story is that of a chambermaid, Serpina, deceiving her master into marriage and is presented in a combination of pantomime, music and comedy of deception, thus fulfilling the function of the “intermezzo”, which was to provide light entertainment and relief from the more serious opera. The characters are Uberto (bass) a bachelor, Serpina (soprano) his maid, and Vespone, Uberto’s valet, who plays a silent role. In the Plotkin concept, there is an extra character – Cupid, the god of love.

The curtain goes up. Ilya Plotkin and his ensemble of string players from the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and two keyboard players are seated at the back of the stage. The stage is eye-catching and tasteful in its sumptuous fabrics and is divided into two symmetrical sides - one side furnished in gold, one side in black. On each bed, an Uberto sprawls out in deep slumber. The enigma of how the two operas can be combined begins to unravel. On the Paisiello side of the stage, Shirelle Dashevsky will play Serpina and Alexei Kanunikov, Uberto; on the the Pergolesi side of the stage, Ekaterina Chepelev with play Serpina and Andrei Trifonov will be Pergolesi’s Uberto. Following the overture, we begin to hear the same text of each aria performed as both Pergolesi and Paisiello composed it. Only at the end do both couples sing together. You could call it seeing double, or, should I say, seeing and hearing double.

Itzhak Pekar, as Vespone, is cast as a mute, but in our performance, he ungags himself in order to be the narrator in a whimsical flow of Hebrew patter, with a word of Italian thrown in here and there. In addition to his articulate speech, Pekar is a fine opera buffa style clown, holding the whole doubled up plot together. Tenor Dmitry Seminov as Cupid, wearing a pastel-colored dress and blond wig, delighted us with his musical renditions of some well-loved arias, of those sung frequently by voice students. Cupid here belongs to both operas, leaving him free to dance with both servant girls.

Reveling in the many lovely solos and duets, both couples (servant and master) brought the libretto text alive in the finest of operatic singing. The singers are all Russian-trained. Shirelle Dashevsky shone with her coquetish sweetness and delightful stage presence. The instrumental ensemble provided fine support for the singers, with the keyboard in the harpsichord register for some pieces, creating a Baroque effect. Costumes were nicely designed and colorful. Opera Aeterna’s yearly performance is a festive event to which the Jerusalem audience looks forward. This was especially enjoyable, joyful, different, surprising, and new in concept. The audience was enthusiastic. Another excellent performance, Aeterna; let’s have more opera in Jerusalem!

“La Serva Padrona”
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Giovanni Paisiello
Opera Aeterna
Ilya Plotkin-musical director and conductor
Irena Tkachenko-stage design and production
Julia Plakhin-assistant director
Andrei Trifonov, Alexei Kanunikov-Uberto
Ekaterina Chepelov, Shirelle Dashevsky-Serpina
Itzhak Pekar-Vespone
Dmitry Semenov-Cupid
Hirsch Theatre, Mercaz Shimshon, Jerusalem
December 14, 2008

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