|Brett Umlauf and Amber Youell
If we were asked to consider sadomasochism in connection with the opera, our first thought would be sitting through Moses und Aron (with apologies to you Schoenberg fans). But now there is a new point of reference. The highly original Morningside Opera Company presented an evening of Pergolesi in which there was a serious consideration of the validity of taking pleasure in another's pain. Serious, but filled with humor, just like Pergolesi's music.
The poor fellow died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 but managed to produce a considerable amount of delightful music, bridging the Baroque and the Classical. Shortly before his death in a monastery, he composed the gorgeous Stabat Mater about the indescribable pain of Mary watching her son's agony on the cross. The music is nearly frivolous--melodic and lighthearted while the words are excruciatingly painful. Dare we enjoy it?
The evening took place in a so-called black box theater which was....WHITE! Just another disjunction. The performing area was situated between the two sections of seats occupying the long walls of the space, giving everyone a good view. The two superb performers were just as adept in acting as they were in singing. Soprano Brett Umlauf and alto Amber Youell entered in their undies with their hair compressed by stocking caps. For awhile they faced each other and mirrored each other's actions.
As the piece progressed, they donned and doffed various articles of clothing--purple tights, black pumps, a black leather corset, opulent 18th c. gowns and white wigs topped by little bird cages. They enacted various scenarios of power--dominance and submission. Periodic hand-washing movements reminded one of Lady Macbeth and the interactions suggested Jean Genet's The Maids. Other images suggested Michelangelo's Pietà. Choreography was by Laura Careless .
Both women have highly expressive voices and the harmonies were incredibly pleasing to the ear. Musical accompaniment was provided by the superb all-female Siren Baroque, comprising violinists Claire Bermingham and Antonia Light Nelson, cellist Anneke Schaul-Yoder, with harpsichordist Kelly Savage providing the continuo and serving as Musical Director.
The second piece on the program was a short opera buffa composed by Pergolesi a few years earlier--La Serva Padrona. Initially intended as an intermezzo for an opera seria, it was so beloved that its fame far outlived the opera seria. It's a simple story of a female servant who blackmails her elderly master into marrying her.
But, in the hands of Morningside Opera it became something completely different. The servant Serpina, addressed as "Mistress", is now a professional dominatrix and Uberto is her client. He is quite fond of her and can't quite detach himself. She is costumed in a black corset and boots and comes equipped with whip and ball gag.
Although we generally want our opera sung in the original language, there was a very important reason to sing this one in English. It was astonishing to see how the very 18th c. language which suited the power dynamics of a master and his servant worked so well to limn the power dynamics of a dom and her client. It is generally understood that the member of an S&M duo that holds the power is the masochist.
Baritone Michael Shaw made an excellent Uberto who rails against his servant but has strong needs for what she has to offer. As the servant/dom Serpina, soprano Brittany Palmer was effectively winsome. Several modern references were interpolated, such as eHarmony and Face Time. The music handily depicts the beating of hearts when such is called for.
Stage direction and costume design for both pieces was by Annie Holt (Executive Artistic Director of Morningside Opera) and the Production Design was by Dante Olivia Smith.
Morningside Opera has been delighting audiences since 2008 and we were thrilled to have discovered such a creative group of performers and designers; we hope to review more of their work in the future.
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