Members of a chamber ensemble stroll in and take their seats, kibitzing amongst themselves and with the costumed theater caretaker, then begin to tune and adjust their instruments. Two casts show up in costume and ready to perform, only to discover the theater has been double booked. After an animated, mimed back-and-forth, they turn on the caretaker and begin to berate him. Flustered, he drops the prompt book, sending sheets of paper cascading over the floor. Order of a sort rises from the confusion as the two casts decide to sort things out and both take the stage. So begins the Boston Early Music Festival’s evening of scheming, trickery, multiple disguises and mounting improbabilities in the form of two intermezzi written for Naples by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: La serve padrona (1733, edition by Paul O’Dette) and Livietta e Tracollo (1734, edition by Robert Mealy). Originally performed between the acts of two of Pergolesi’s opera seria, Il prigionier superbo and Adriano in Siria respectively, director Gilbert Blin decides to preserve the flavor of the original intent by opening with Il prigioniero superbo’s overture, then alternating scenes from each opera, beginning with La serva padrona

Amanda Forsythe (Serpina), Douglas Williams (Uberto), and Carlos Fittante (BEMF Dance Company) © Kathy Wittman
Amanda Forsythe (Serpina), Douglas Williams (Uberto), and Carlos Fittante (BEMF Dance Company)
© Kathy Wittman

Though there are similarities between the two plots, which such an interweaving highlights, the two operas couldn’t be more different. In La serve padrona, Serpina pulls the strings and Uberto is the flustered dupe, master of nothing, not even himself. Since she rules the house in everything but name, she connives to make him marry her. Her plan, simple and straightforward, succeeds with ease. Livietta e Tracollo is richer musically and dramatically. Its libretto borders on theater of the absurd, larded with bizarre imagery and ludicrous wordplay, its two characters equally resourceful and wily, constantly donning disguises, affecting accents, feigning emotions, and setting traps for each other. Both operas’ madcap antics spill beyond the confines of the small, raised stage roiling around the ensemble and downstage, eventually involving both casts in each other’s plot either as miming participants or functioning as stage hands dispensing props, moving furnishings, and operating an old fashioned slapstick. Inspired slapstick, in fact, propels the staging: everyone is constantly on the move, whether singing or not, and the stage seems to teem with people though the troupe only numbers eight – four singers and four graceful and expressive mimes. Blin’s kinetic staging demands high energy and focus. In this case, three of his four singers – Amanda Forsythe, Jesse Blumberg, and Douglas Williams – had sung leads in Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise, with Erica Schuller and many of the mimes taking on a series of smaller roles the previous evening and who would return to Venice Sunday afternoon for the festival’s closing performance, a daunting run to pull off in less than 72 hours. Yet everyone performed as if fresh from a day at the beach.

Ben Delony (BEMF Dance Company) and Jesse Blumberg (Tracollo) © Kathy Wittman
Ben Delony (BEMF Dance Company) and Jesse Blumberg (Tracollo)
© Kathy Wittman

True to her character’s name, Amanda Forsythe’s Serpina imparted the hidden bite that her faux wide-eyed innocence masks. No one could prevail against such a clever force of nature; she basically pummeled Uberto into submission with her mercurial, rapid-fire delivery. Douglas Williams blustered in vain and succumbed with wonder to the realization that he had loved Serpina all along, a plot twist made less icky by casting similarly youthful singers. Livietta gave Erica Schuller her moment to shine and she made the most of it vocally and dramatically whether articulating the racing coloratura of “Io non posso resistere” or confidently mangling the language in her guise as a French-speaking peasant. But it was Jesse Blumberg who absconded with the laurels as the thieving con man Tracollo. Making his entrance disguised as a poor, pregnant, Polish beggar woman of uncertain age with a parched, nasal, Buoso Donati voice, he replies to Livietta’s challenges in a pidgin of Neapolitan dialect, standard Italian, and something vaguely recollected through the haze of a hangover. Their exchange quickly deteriorates into a “who’s on first” riot of misprision. His batty astrologer later talked nonsense with conviction and the interminable mock lament, “Ecco il povero Tracollo”, where he envisions his fate if handed over to the authorities, was a comic tour de force, amusing the audience but exasperating the other characters. Comparing his dancing at the end of a rope to the twitching and spasms of a strangled chicken was the last straw, sending the rest of the company grotesquely capering around the stage, executing the Baroque equivalent of the Funky Chicken.

Maybe the BEMF can secure sponsorship for a DVD from some brand of energy drink, because a production this inspired and lively should be bottled for future enjoyment.

Caroline Copeland (BEMF Dance Company), Jesse Blumberg (Tracollo) and Erica Schuller (Livietta) © Kathy Wittman
Caroline Copeland (BEMF Dance Company), Jesse Blumberg (Tracollo) and Erica Schuller (Livietta)
© Kathy Wittman