Rounding off the holiday weekend almost like an after-dinner cordial, the Boston Early Music Festival presented a pair of Pergolesi intermezzi: La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo. Full of style and slapstick, this delightful double-bill featured a talented and youthful cast including Douglas Williams, Amanda Forsythe, Erica Schuller, and Jesse Blumberg, as well as the excellent players of the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble.

Erica Schuller (Livietta) © Kathy Wittman
Erica Schuller (Livietta)
© Kathy Wittman

Though intermezzi were often inserted between the acts of full-length operas to provide intermission entertainments, BEMF’s presentation puts Pergolesi’s operatic sideshows center stage. La serva padrona is famous in the history of music for its role in the famous Querelle des Bouffons, in which the French and Italian styles of opera were presented as diametric opposites. La serva padrona was viewed as the quintessential Italian work, and Pergolesi became the poster-child for the comic Italian style. Of course, the dichotomy between Italian and French music as well as Pergolesi’s real role in the history of opera are perhaps a bit oversimplified for the sake of writing pithy program notes. Years before La serva padrona was penned, composers like Telemann mastered the Neapolitan style and the form of the intermezzi.

Since the BEMF could have chosen among any number of intermezzi to present in a double bill, the choice to program works by Pergolesi comes off as a bit conservative and conventional. But, seeing these works staged by professionals in the United States is not so common, even decades after musicians began to take an interest in Pergolesi and his contemporaries. The chance to see La serva padrona paired with Livietta e Tracollo is even more rare indeed, particularly in the format BEMF chose. Rather than present one and then the other after an intermission, the two were woven together to create a playful mash-up.

In La serva padrona, Douglas Williams was a hilarious Uberto. Williams imbued all of his movements with intention, despite the busy blocking given to him by stage director Gilbert Blin and movement coordinator Melinda Sullivan. Though there are rarely passages of florid coloratura in the role, the music for Uberto contains of octave leaps. Williams was pitch perfect. His accompagnato in the second half of the program was especially well done.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe, in the role of Serpina, is perfectly at ease in the style. The music of Pergolesi contains strikingly comic juxtapositions, which Forsythe brought out beautifully. She was especially touching in “Ah Serpina penserete,” reminding us that even though the aria is mock pathetic, Pergolesi still intends for us to feel some genuine sympathy for the character.

When Jesse Blumberg arrived on stage, his character is disguised as Strompetta, an old Polish beggar woman. A man in a dress does not a joke make, and I was not that taken with his acting en travesti. One must truly own these wonderfully absurd characters. But, when Blumberg was able to shed Strompetta’s smock and sing with his “real” voice, his baritone was impressive, his mock-tragic aria just before intermission was particularly moving. Like Forsythe, Blumberg reminds us that there’s genuine sentiment behind all the slapstick.

Jesse Blumberg (Tracollo) © Kathy Wittman
Jesse Blumberg (Tracollo)
© Kathy Wittman

As Livietta, Erica Schuller’s soprano shimmered. There were a few too many jokes in the staging for her beautiful aria, “Cara, perdonami,” for me, though. In this aria, I wish that the stage director had let the honesty of the music and drama shine on their own, without trying to get a few more laughs.

Because the BEMF Chamber Ensemble contains such fine continuo players, including Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs, Avi Stein, and Phoebe Carrai, all of the recitatives were wonderfully realized. Bringing out the contrasts within the recits is essential in order to make them engaging, particularly since the continuo section must also give voice to the mute characters who are integral to the action but contain no speaking or sung dialogue.

The acoustic of the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall did not help the ensemble, however. Since the musicians played one-on-a-part, most of the sound went directly up into the balcony. From the orchestra level, the strings sounded a little thin. So, for the second half of the performance, I ended up moving upstairs, where the sound was greatly enhanced.

By bringing this kind of performance to a more intimate venue, the BEMF would improve the sound as well as the connection to the audience. Especially with repertoire that is as accessible as Pergolesi, short chamber operas are a perfect way to engage new listeners, in part, by exploring less conventional spaces. While the Pergolesi double-bill was a lovely post-Thanksgiving digestif, I would have enjoyed it more in a different venue, perhaps with an actual digestif – or maybe even a pint or two.

***11