Richardson — In the 18th century, the opera intermezzo served as an operatic interlude between the acts of a longer, more involved opera seria. These works were, typically, light and comedic in nature and substance in order to provide contrast and relief from the weighty matters of the larger work that framed them. The most famous of intermezzi from this period is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s 1733 work, La serva padrona (The Servant Turned Mistress) with a libretto by Gennaro Antonio Federico that has been translated into several languages and re-adapted countless times. This piece is often regarded as an important piece that bridges the gap between the Baroque and Classical periods.
As they close their season, the American Baroque Opera Co. chose this work as their final production. Fittingly maintaining their central mission of “bringing old music to new spaces,” the production was staged at the Communion Neighborhood Cooperative in Richardson.
It is a small, rustic looking venue, functioning during the day as a community coworking space and coffee shop. There is no stage, rather a clearing between the men’s and women’s bathrooms, around which lounge chairs and cocktail tables are situated for seating. The makeshift “stage” is minimally set with a few chairs, an end-table, and a plush chaise lounge pushed against the back wall. Artistic director Eric Smith leads the six-piece orchestra from their patch of space stage-right of the stage, practically sitting amongst the audience members. As usual, they play on period instruments with harpsichord continuo to best capture the tones and nuances of the time. I found this setup to be charming and inventive, as the setting choices very clearly embraced the spirit and tone of the informal intermezzo opera’s function.
Pergolesi’s intermezzo in two parts tells the story of an aging bachelor, Uberto (baritone Joshua Hughes), and his aloof, but clever, maidservant Serpina (soprano Jendi Tarde, who also served as the production’s stage director). Serpina does her job poorly and with neglect, but has lofty goals of marrying her boss and becoming the mistress of the house.
ABOC’s interpretation of the English translation is filled with subtlety and nuance, which, being in English, elevated the humor to an easily attainable level. Most notably, I enjoyed their use of an audience member to fill the silent role normally known as Vespone, but for our purposes here is known simply as Rick. Tarde’s stage direction has the players moving about the room and interacting with the audience throughout the show. For example, as the show opens, we see Serpina enter and walk about the aisles, seemingly on duty and struggling to open a bottle of wine. When she finally manages the task, she pours a glass for a spectator and, of course, one for herself, and hangs out near the back bar. It was interesting to watch viewers spin around, tossing their heads back and forth to follow the opening action as the characters enter the room during the overture.
This production of La Serva Padrona relies not only on such comedic antics, but also on Hughes’ and Tarde’s capable vocal performances. Having seen these two artists in more serious works in the past, this production brought out a light-hearted sense of fun and relaxation in their voices, while maintaining a relevant command of the art form. Hughes’ baritone was deep and warm, but flexible, as he threw the ends of many phrases away, presumably to emphasize the exasperated state of mind of his character. In contrast, Tarde’s soprano provided energy and dynamisms to Serpina’s laissez-faire attitude, with a ringing clarity in the high registers and an athletic mid-range.
As it is, the ABOC’s interpretation of Pergolesi’s intermezzo is charming, and their use of the space effective. Drawing tons of warm laughter and applause, this production served the company’s overall goal of bringing an underappreciated artform to a level of accessibility and attainability for audiences throughout the DFW area. With their season coming to a close, this emerging group of players has much to be proud of. Bring on Season 2.