Patrick Kilbride, Hannah De Priest, and Jonathan Woody
Pergolesi's La servante maïtresse
Opera Lafayette's annual visit from Washington D.C. is always cause for celebration and the thunderous applause at the end of this week's visit manifested the high esteem in which they are held by their New York audience. This year's theme focused on Madame Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, radical, and patroness of the arts. Three events explored her influence upon and appreciation of mid-18th c. music. Sadly, prior commitments prevented us from attending the first two evenings but we made up for it in our own appreciation of the final evening.
We know of no other company that puts such a premium on scholarship, presenting artistic works in a socio-political context. The 120-page program book, fronted by a beautiful portrait of Mme. Pompadour, was thoroughly researched and highly educational. The pre-opera lecture, given by Dr. Julia Doe from Columbia University's Department of Music, was as engaging as it was instructive. The composer of the evening, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, lived only a quarter of a century but his contributions altered the course of musical evolution. A precocious musical genius, he studied in Naples and brought his fresh direct simplicity to Paris. He died of tuberculosis but achieved posthumous fame. Many compositions claimed to be of his authorship but in fact he composed only thirty.
One of these was a one-act comic opera called La Serva Padrona, meant to be a "palate cleanser" in between the acts of an opera seria. However, it achieved fame outside of Europe and was translated into French and known as La servante maîtresse. This is what we saw and heard last night as a stand alone work followed by a tragedy-- about which more later.
In this comedic bonbon, the wealthy bourgeois Pandolfe (bass-baritone Jonathan Woody) is manipulated by his servant Zerbine (Hannah De Priest) into marrying her. The backstory is that he had procured her from her family and raised her to serve him; she was strong-willed and bossy toward his manservant Scapin (Patrick Kilbride) and resistant to serving Pandolfe. She finally succeeds in getting his "proposal" by enlisting the services of Scapin who impersonated a most unsuitable suitor, making Pandolfe feel jealous but also protective of her. It is a silly trifle with echoes of commedia dell'arte but the music is gorgeous. Maestro Ryan Brown, the Artistic Director of Opera Lafayette, conducted with fine attention to detail and the balance of instrumentation among the strings, a pair of French horns, a bassoon, and a harpsichord.
Much credit goes to Director Nick Olcott who kept the action moving and who provided translation of the text with spoken dialect in clever rhyming couplets. This struck us as a genius move which contributed to the fine French singing and on point acting. Marsha LeBoeuf's costume design was perfectly a propos and inventive to the point that when Zerbine gets "promoted" from servant to wife, she removes her serving apron to reveal an elegant dress. There are more photos of the production to be found on our Facebook page Voce di Meche. Lest you think that simplicity eliminated vocal decoration, let us reassure you that we relished every bit of fioritura. It was thoroughly enjoyable.
Tragedy followed comedy after intermision. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater comprises a dozen sections dealing with the effects of the crucifixion on Jesus' mother Mary. That Pergolesi managed to give each section a different mood and color is testament to his genius. The work was sensitively sung by soprano Gwendoline Blondeel and mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko. Ms. Mesko, unlike so many mezzo-sopranos who are barely distinguishable from sopranos, has a richly textured mezzo sound that had us mentally casting her as Carmen and Dalilah. We were not at all surprised, when we got around to reading the program notes, to learn that Carmen is one of her signature roles. The gorgous voices of these two women were blended together in a few duet sections adding even more interest. The work was successfully conducted by Concertmaster Jacob Ashworth, known to us from his work with Heartbeat Opera.
It was a very special evening in both conceptionn and execution. Were we to have a flute of champagne at hand, we would raise it to toast Opera Lafayette!
© meche kroop