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Tiny tunes

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s best known opera is La Serva Padrona, but the Neapolitan composer also composed several other works, which are now lovingly presented on DVD by the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini at Jesi. The composer was only 26 when he died, but works like Il Flaminio represent a clear link between the opera seria traditions of Handel and the Mozart/da Ponte comedy-dramas.  

Il Flaminio can best be described as an opera buffa in plot and opera seria in music. The plot involves a series of mismatched lovers that have to find their way back to each other by the time the curtain falls. The musical structure, however, follows the opera seria pattern of secco recitative and aria da capo. As a result there the work sometimes feels disjointed—the characters are singing about rather frivolous romantic escapades while launching into dramatic, trumpet-like arias with extravagantly decorated verses and cadenzas. It would take composers like Mozart and Rossini to seamlessly weave lightness in the libretto with a corresponding lightness in the score.

The main storyline involves a love triangle between the widower Giustina (Marina De Liso) , who carries a torch for a man she once knew as Giulio (Laura Polverelli). He however now goes by the name of Flaminio and to complicate matters a rake named Polidoro (Juan Francisco Gatelli) loves Giustina as well. There are other romantic complications between several secondary characters as well. Pergolesi’s music is most inspired when writing for Giustina and Flaminio/Giulio. Perhaps the highlight of the opera is the long recognition duet between the two lovers in Act Two, “Se spiego i sensi mei.” Another highlight is a brief orchestral Tarantella in Act Two that added a bit of Mediterranean flavor to the opera.

At three hours, however, the opera feels too long by an act. After Giustina and Flaminio recognize each other, the drama of the opera loses its pulse and the rest of the opera feels like tying up the various loose ends of the plot. And, as I said, the rather constricted secco/aria da capo format doesn’t lend itself to this kind of light romantic comedy. The opera is worthy of revival for this occasion but one can also understand why it never became a true staple of the repertory.

This opera is performed in an absolutely tiny theater, and the orchestra is actually behind the stage platform, to allow for a maximum sense of intimacy between the performers and the audience. The “scenery” is really just a few props on a small wooden platform that suggest a bucolic Neapolitan countryside.

The stage directions follow the opera buffa traditions of sighing men, women appearing at balconies, and heavy doses of slapstick. There is quite an attempt to “open” the opera, including at one point inviting audience members onstage to sit in chairs to watch the performance during the puppet/dance show that accompanies the Tarantella.

The ensemble performers sing very well, with the possible exception of the scratchy-voiced Serena Malfi as Ferdinando. The Accademia Bizantina, led by Ottavio Dantone, sounded at times heavy-handed for this kind of opera, but again, the differences between the opera buffa plot and the opera seria style of the music is something that Pergolesi himself didn’t really resolve, so it’s not a surprise that the conductor never found the right mix of baroque formality and lightness.

The video is also available in Blu-ray format.

6 comments

  • omghahahalol says:

    Molto grazie, Ivy. It is very good of Parterre to uncover works like this.

    Pergolesi is of course associated with Tetro San Carlo in Naples. However he was no Neapolitan: like Rossini and Raphael, he was a Marchigiano. Pergolesi came from Jesi (as in Verdicchio), hence not only the Fonadazione you mention but also Teatro Pergolesi in the town’s main square.

    I have never seen inside it but I suspect it is larger than the theatre where this perf was filmed. Perhaps Teatro Sperimentale just down the road in Ancona?

    Yours, Baltsamic (away from base, hence alternative moniker with password I have memorised).

    • Poison Ivy says:

      The theater is absolutely tiny but I suspect a larger theater wouldn’t have worked as well — as I said, this opera is charming but definitely on the thin side, I couldn’t picture La Scala mounting a full-scale production for it.

      • manou says:

        Ivy -- thanks for reviewing this lesser known work with your usual fluency.

        Giustina must be a widow and not a widower, and I am assuming that Giulio is a trouser role. Oedipe will be happy to know that Sonia Yoncheva takes on one of the minor roles.

  • m. croche says:

    Thanks, Ivy, for putting this noteworthy DVD up for review.

    There are 24 numbers from this opera available on youtube, so I got a chance to listen to a recitativeless version of the DVD. Perhaps as a consequence of that (and perhaps because I am easily pleased), I had a much different reaction to the performance than Ivy did.

    First off, I think it speaks incredibly well of Pergolesi that he is being compared here with a composer born two generations after himself. If Pergolesi reminds one of Mozart, it is because his music exercised such a powerful influence, directly and indirectly, on 18th-century composers for decades after his untimely death.

    Listening to this performance, it’s easy to see why: the individual numbers are full of life, full of contrasts. The comic music style, which rests on incongruity and discontinuity, is often deployed to surprising effect (just listen to the bass’ first aria, very similar to the type of music celebrated in La Serva Padrona.) Pergolesi knew how to use silence (rests and pauses) for excellent dramatic effect. (Take, for example, the tenor aria, where in the lines “di senno onor mi priva/ e mi fa pazzegiar” the final word is set off to delightful effect. Every time that word comes around, the tenor has musical space to draw our attention to his pose and to his voice, allowing us to savor this mock-serious madness.)

    Pergolesi’s musical forms are ample. The 4-8 lines of poetry in the A section of the da capo forms are repeated in each section -- the first time they end on the dominant or relative major, the second time they end on the tonic. This repetition of the stanza allows Pergolesi to recompose the music, to add variation and depth of expression to the musical repetition. When the B sections appear, the briefly open up surprising new vistas of musical character. The invention is terrific and for me, constantly interesting.

    The singers here, for the most part, an excellent job of elaborating Pergolesi’s score. Jazz performers like to say that a solo should “tell a story” -- whether you get to solo one chorus or ten, there should be a narrative, an arc to the performance. I often get that impression from the performers here. In each aria, they get four chances to recite the main stanza -- throughout there were constant surprises for me with each musical elaboration. The musical forms are not static at all, but -- thanks to the wit and sensitivity of the performers -- build up satisfying arcs.

    True, this opera lacks the imbroglios that we associate with the finales of Mozart’s and Rossini’s comic operas (it was a decade or two after Pergolesi, with the Galuppi/Goldoni collaborations, that this element of comic opera really started to be developed). But in the place of a hurly-burly plot, we have a fine sequence of characters portrayed in music. That was the theatrical taste of the time, and concertgoers today are used to similar effects in song-cycles such as Die Schoene Muellerin or Frauenliebe und -leben.

    This production complements the fine release of L’Olimpiade a few years ago. Pergolesi left us comparatively few scores -- each needs to be lovingly preserved and presented in fine performances.

    As to whether La Scala would ever mount it -- I watched their DVD of Lo Frate ‘nnamorato a few years ago, and my recollection is that this score is more entertaining than that one. I don’t see any reason why it should make a Milanese appearance at some point. This performance accords well with the present taste in early 18th-century performance style (some earlier ones from the 80s will sound a little stodgy to today’s ears).

    As I said at the start: perhaps I am too easily pleased -- but it seems to me that this is DVD is, at least for the time being, an important contribution.

    • m. croche says:

      One other note: a few of the numbers sounded to me as though they must be sung in Neapolitan dialect -- the words don’t match to the straight-Italian subtitles printed on the youtube videos. Those who are interested in such things will .. take an interest in this, too. It would be a shame, though, if the dialect poetry were left out on the DVD titles.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      Wow that’s a great follow up review. Thanks for all your input.