"Pergolesi's comic opera La serva padrona took the world by storm. Did you ever wonder why? This performance will answer your question. Frankly, Pergolesi's masterpiece has not been well served in modern performances. Our new BEMF production restores the full color, vitality, and comic genius of the original, with BEMF's effervescent Chamber Enemble, a team of brilliant singing actors, and a troupe of commedia dell'arte players all in imaginative costumes." -BEMF Directorial Team
Humor and love abound this Thanksgiving weekend as the BEMF Chamber Opera Series returns for its seventh year with a double bill of Neapolitan comic opera. Pergolesi’s delightfully witty masterpieces come to life in an intimate chamber production led by Musical Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs and Stage Director Gilbert Blin.
Originally written as interludes during productions with a more sober tone, Pergolesi’s comedies enchanted audiences with their side-splitting humor and engaging romance. La serva padrona tells the tale of a cunning maid who conspires to win the heart of her testy employer, while in Livietta e Tracollo, a duplicitous con artist meets his match in an peasant woman plotting his comeuppance to avenge her brother.
FREE pre-opera talk with members of the BEMF directorial team one hour prior to each performance.
A scene from the 2012 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.
Scenes from the 2009 production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.
BEMF Chamber Ensemble
Amanda Forsythe, Serpina
Caroline Copeland, Fulvia
Paul O’Dette has been described as “the clearest case of genius ever to touch his instrument” (Toronto Globe and Mail). He has given solo concerts at dozens of major international festivals across the world while maintaining an active international career as an ensemble musician. Best known for his recitals and recordings of virtuoso solo lute music, Mr. O’Dette has made more than 130 recordings, many of which have been nominated for Gramophone’s “Record of the Year” Award; The Bachelar’s Delight: Lute Music of Daniel Bacheler was nominated for a Grammy as “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra)” in 2006. Mr. O’Dette is also active conducting Baroque operas. In 1997, he directed performances of Luigi Rossi’s L’Orfeo with Stephen Stubbs at Tanglewood, the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), and the Drottningholm Court Theatre in Sweden. They have since co-directed all BEMF operatic performances, including Cavalli’s Ercole Amante (1999), Lully’s Thésée (2001) and Psyché (2007), Conradi’s Ariadne (2003), Mattheson’s Boris Goudenow (2005), Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (2009), Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe (2011), and Handel’s Almira (2013). Three of these operas have been recorded on the CPO label, and all three were nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Opera Recording” category: Ariadne in 2005, Thésée in 2007, and Psyché in 2008. Mr. O’Dette has also conducted performances of Cavalli’s Apollo e Dafne and La Virtù de’ Strali d’Amore, Clarke’s Island Princess, and Franck’s Cecrops. He is an avid researcher, having worked extensively on the performance and sources of seventeenth-century Italian and English solo song, continuo practices, and lute music. He has published numerous articles on issues of historical performance practice, and co-authored the John Dowland entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Paul O’Dette is Professor of Lute and Director of Early Music at the Eastman School of Music and Artistic Co-Director of the Boston Early Music Festival.
After a thirty-year career in Europe, Stephen Stubbs returned to his native Seattle in 2006 as one of the world’s most respected lutenists, conductors, and music educators. Before his return, he was based in Bremen, Germany, where he was Professor at the Hochschule für Künste. In 1987 he founded the ensemble Tragicomedia, which toured throughout Europe, Japan, and the U.S., as well as recording numerous CDs. Tragicomedia has been the continuo team for the Boston Early Music Festival since 1997. Stephen is the Festival’s permanent artistic co-director along with his long-time colleague Paul O’Dette; they are also the musical directors of all BEMF operas. BEMF’s recordings of Conradi’s Ariadne, Lully’s Thésée, and Lully’s Psyché were nominated for Grammy awards in 2005, 2007, and 2008 respectively. In 2007 Stephen established his new production company based in Seattle, Pacific MusicWorks (PMW), reflecting his lifelong interest in both early music and contemporary performance. PMW’s productions have included performances of the Monteverdi Vespers, described in the press as “utterly thrilling” and “of a quality you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world.” This past season brought a special collaboration with the Seattle Symphony in the form of “the Passions Project” in which the Symphony presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and PMW presented its first performances of Bach’s St. John Passion. Other recent appearances have included Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Gluck’s Orfeo in Bilbao, and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Così fan tutte for the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival. He made his début with the Edmonton Symphony performing Handel’s Messiah in 2012, and conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Denver. His extensive discography includes well over 100 CDs, many of which have received international acclaim and awards. In 2013, Stephen was appointed Senior Artist in Residence at the University of Washington School of Music. His first major production there was Handel’s Semele in May 2014.
Gilbert Blin graduated from the Paris Sorbonne with a Master’s degree focusing on Rameau’s operas and their relation with the stage, an interest that he has since broadened to encompass French opera and its relation to Baroque theater, his fields of expertise as historian, stage director, and designer. His début productions include Massenet’s Werther and Delibes’s Lakmé for Paris Opéra-Comique, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable for Prague State Opera, and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice for the Drottningholm Theatre in Sweden. Since 2001, Mr. Blin has established himself as a sought-after stage director for the Baroque repertoire: he directed Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso for the Prague State Opera and staged and designed reconstructions of Vivaldi’s Rosmira fedele, Handel’s Teseo for Opéra de Nice, and Lully’s Thésée and Lully’s Psyché for the Boston Early Music Festival. Stage Director in Residence at BEMF from 2008, Gilbert Blin staged a trilogy of English chamber operas, presented from 2008 to 2011: Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Handel’s Acis and Galatea. In 2011, after designing the staging and the sets of Niobe, Regina di Tebe, Gilbert Blin presented Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs. His recent historically staged and designed productions also include Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Tigrane for Nice, Handel’s Almira for Boston, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni for Prague. In 2013, Gilbert Blin was appointed Opera Director of the Boston Early Music Festival. Following his acclaimed staging of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea for the 2009 Boston Festival, Mr. Blin staged Monteverdi’s Orfeo for the BEMF Chamber Opera Series in 2012, and is currently preparing Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria for the 2015 Festival.
Anna Watkins has been involved with Boston Early Music Festival costumes since 1999 (last century!), and has been in charge of the costuming for all of the Chamber Opera Series stage productions including this one. She has designed costumes for the last five festival centerpiece operas, and is busy working on Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria for the BEMF 2015 Festival. She studied textile design at college in London, and then went to the Slade at University College to study theater design. She has over thirty-five years experience organizing the production of costumes for theater, opera, and ballet in the U.K. and the U.S. Last year she designed costumes for Janáček’s Jenůfa directed by Alvis Hermanis at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and supervised a revival of Faust at Royal Opera House Covent Garden. She is planning to move into the first senior cohousing community in the U.K. early in 2016.
Lenore Doxsee is a lighting designer for theater, opera, and dance. She was the lighting designer for the Boston Early Music Festival productions of Almira, Orfeo, Niobe, Regina di Tebe, L’incoronazione di Poppea, Psyché, and Boris Goudenow. Other favorite designs include Sumeida’s Song for Prototype Festival; Cunning Little Vixen at Lyric Opera of Chicago; La Donna del Lago, Flavio, and Orlando at New York City Opera; Faustus, the Last Night and Tamerlano for Spoleto USA; And lose the name of action, a dance by Miguel Gutierrez; John Jasperse’s Within Between at New York Live Arts; and Faust Parts 1 & 2 and The Tempest for Target Margin Theater. Regionally and abroad she has designed for Glimmerglass Opera, Singapore Repertory Theatre, and many others. Ms. Doxsee has received Bessie Awards for her lighting of Miguel Gutierrez’s “Last Meadow” and “Retrospective Exhibitionist/Difficult Bodies”, and an Obie Award for Target Margin’s Mamba’s Daughters in 1998. Ms. Doxsee teaches design at New York University.
Melinda Sullivan discovered Renaissance and Baroque dance through Ingrid Brainard and Ken Pierce. She danced in her first BEMF production, King Arthur, in 1995. In 2008, Sullivan transitioned to BEMF Ballet Mistress, training dancers and singers in Baroque and Renaissance style and technique. Her first choreography for BEMF was Dido and Aeneas in 2010, followed by a featured role in Acis and Galatea. Other recent BEMF choreographies include Orfeo and the Charpentier double bill of La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers. A graduate of Boston Conservatory, Ms. Sullivan quickly established herself as a dynamic and musical performer in Boston’s contemporary dance scene. At the same time she developed a unique movement and dance program for singers at New England Conservatory, where she has taught since 1989. She is also on the faculty at Boston University Opera Department and resident choreographer and movement coach at Central City Opera. Her recent choreographies include Trouble in Tahiti, Le nozze di Figaro, and La Périchole.
Robert Mealy is one of America’s most prominent Baroque violinists. The New York Times recently commented in a review of the BEMF Orchestra that “Mr. Mealy seems to foster excellence wherever he goes, whether he’s at Trinity Wall Street in New York, as concertmaster of the Trinity Baroque Orchestra; at Yale, as director of the Yale Baroque Ensemble; or at The Juilliard School, as director of the historical performance program.” He was recently appointed Orchestra Director for the Boston Early Music Festival, where he has led the orchestra in festival productions and Grammy-nominated recordings for nearly a decade. Mr. Mealy began exploring early music in high school, first with the Collegium of UC Berkeley and then at the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied harpsichord and Baroque violin. While still an undergraduate at Harvard College, he was asked to join the distinguished Canadian Baroque orchestra Tafelmusik. Since then, he has recorded over 80 CDs of early music on most major labels, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen with Sequentia, to Renaissance consorts with the Boston Camerata, to Rameau operas with Les Arts Florissants. He has led Baroque ensembles for the Mark Morris Dance Company, including a tour to Moscow, and accompanied Renée Fleming on the David Letterman Show. A devoted chamber musician, he co-directs Quicksilver, whose début recording was hailed as “breakthrough CD of the year” by the Huffington Post. A keen scholar as well as a performer, Mr. Mealy is Director of the distinguished Historical Performance Program at The Juilliard School and professor of early music at the Yale School of Music. He taught at Harvard for over a decade, where he founded the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra. In 2004, he received Early Music America’s Binkley Award for outstanding teaching and scholarship.
Pergolesi, the galant’uomo
The intermezzi you will hear tonight speak the most popular musical language of the eighteenth century, that universal tongue known at the time as galant. Today we tend to think of eighteenth-century musical history as having two eras. The imposing masterpieces of Bach and Handel represent for us the triumph of the High Baroque in the 1720’s, while sixty years later Mozart and Haydn’s works offer the perfection of the Classical style. But for the eighteenth-century musical connoisseur, the landscape looked totally different. Charles Burney, writing in 1789, thought that the most important composer of the eighteenth century was Vinci, a name we hardly know today. Other crucial musical figures for him like Lotti, Leo, Porpora, and Piccini are still equally unfamiliar to us. Only Pergolesi has come down to us as the representative of this new musical language.
All these composers were masters of the galant, a word which occupied loosely the same semantic region as “cool” does today: to be galant means to be fashionable, stylish, sophisticated, but at the same time to be completely uncomplicated, natural, and at ease. In music, this was realized in a style that everyone at the time regarded as totally groundbreaking. Burney went so far as to call Vinci’s music “the first since the invention of recitative by Jacopo Peri in 1600 [to have] occasioned any considerable revolution in musical drama.” This revolution was one of simplicity, intelligibility, and charm. Instead of creating long phrases out of elaborate motivic repetition and development, this musical language weaves brief, witty melodic gestures into a longer musical line by a subtle musical logic — what Leopold Mozart called il filo or “the thread” of musical discourse.
The galant style dominated the international opera houses of Europe for much of the eighteenth century, and indeed was the language that served as the basic grammar of Mozart and Beethoven eighty years later. Of all the charming, elegant, fashionable Italian composers writing in this style, perhaps the only one that does have name-recognition today is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. His works were instantly succcessful across Europe. What is even more remarkable than his rapid celebrity is the brevity of his compositional career. All of Pergolesi’s music was written over a six-year span; he was dead of tuberculosis by the age of 26.
Pergolesi was born and raised in the tiny town of Iesi, in the Marche. When he was fourteen, he was sent off to Naples to enter the Conservatorio dei Poveri, where his name first appears as “Jesi” in July of 1725. Given the accounts of a high degree of medical care lavished on him, several scholars have suggested that he might have been a castrato. But his chosen instrument was not the voice, but the violin. Soon he became leader, or capoparanza, of the little ensembles that the Conservatorio sent out as gig-bands around town. By 1731, the graduating student was having his first oratorio performed by his fellow-students, and the next year he received his first opera seria commission for the San Bartolomeo theater in town.
His first big success came with a commedia musicale, Lo frate ’nnamorato, that was performed at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in September 1732. It was such a huge hit that it stayed in production for the next two years. But carnival (and hence theatrical) life in Naples was shadowed in 1731 and 1732 by a series of severe earthquakes. In 1733, the theaters reopened. Pergolesi’s second opera seria, Il prigionier superbo, had its premiere on September 5 of that year, in honor of the Empress’s birthday.
We begin our entertainment tonight with the brilliant overture from this opera. The brisk three-movement form of the Italian opera sinfonia — a fast energetic opening movement, a slow pensive middle movement, and a quick triple-time to close — is in fact the seedling from which the great Classical form of the orchestral symphony would grow. As with so much of Pergolesi, this music sounds like it was written far later in the century; it’s striking to remember that this opera was premiered the same year as Rameau’s Hippolyte and the Kyrie and Gloria of Bach’s B Minor Mass.
By Pergolesi’s time, the genre of the opera seria had frozen into a complicated series of rituals. In reaction to the elaborate entertainments of seventeenth-century opera, where heroes competed for audience attention with stuttering hunchbacked dwarves and lewd nurses, the reformers of eighteenth-century opera created a genre where only noble characters could exist. Their stories, generally drawn from classical antiquity, revolve around the conflicting demands of love, honor, and duty. Their complicated plots allowed for ample displays of noble emotions in long, virtuoso da capo arias, created for superstar singers to show off all their expensive talents.
Comedy will invariably creep back in, and soon the sobriety of the opera seria found its contrast in the slapstick intermission entertainment, the intermezzo. As was common in Naples, Pergolesi often provided not only the opera, but its intermezzo as well. Il prigionier superbo had as its halftime relief a brief skit which soon eclipsed it in popularity, La serva padrona. This rapidly became one of the biggest hits of the eighteenth century. Over the course of a few decades, it was performed in more than 60 theaters throughout Europe, as far south as Malta and as far north as St. Petersburg.
Perhaps nowhere did Serva make more of an effect than in Paris, where due to a confluence of circumstances it became Exhibit No.1 in the pamphlet war of the Querelle des Bouffons. This was thanks to a production by a traveling Italian company run by Eustachio Bambini; the Opéra itself had presented the small troupe as a cheap and hopefully popular entertainment to cut costs. But soon it became the rallying-point for a whole political sideshow. As a symbol of Italianness, Serva stood for simplicity and individuality, as opposed to the elaborate state apparatus of the tragédie-lyrique. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was so taken with Pergolesi’s art that he created his own intermezzo, Le devin du village, which promptly earned the author a royal pension.
The year after Pergolesi composed Prigionier and Serva, he was commissioned for another opera seria–intermezzo pair. The opera this time was on the Metastasian libretto of Adriano in Siria, and featured one of the most famous superstars of the day, the castrato Cafarelli. As with Prigionier, the new opera was quickly overshadowed by its smaller, more nimble intermezzo, Livietta e Tracollo, or La contadina astuta (The Clever Country Girl). Here the slapstick is much broader than in Serva; as usual, it had absolutely no plot connection with the opera seria surrounding it. Livietta was performed regularly over the next twenty years in most of the major opera houses of Europe, paired with a different opera seria each time. Unlike Serva, it often appeared in considerably revised forms, under slightly different names: Il Tracollo, La finta Polacca (The Pretend Polish Lady), Il finto pazzo (The Pretend Crazy Man).
Both of these intermezzi went on to enjoy a far longer career than their composer. Two years after completing Livietta, Pergolesi’s health began to deteriorate. By the beginning of 1736, he had moved into a Franciscan monastery. In his final illness he managed to complete several more masterpieces: the Stabat Mater, the Salve Regina for soprano, and a cantata on Orpheus. His posthumous fame was immediate, and he was universally recognized as a master. In 1738, Queen Maria Amalia of Naples ordered Serva and Livietta to be performed for her, with the comment “Questo autore è difonto, ma fu uomo grande” — this composer is now dead, but was a very great man. It is remarkable to realize how fresh and sharp his musical wit remains to this day, and how much he managed to achieve in the short time available to him.
Aaron Sheehan and Mirielle Asselin in the 2012 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.
Douglas Williams and Mirielle Asselin in the 2011 Chamber Opera double bill of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs.
Carrie Henneman Shaw and cast in the 2010 production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Aaron Sheehan and Teresa Wakim in the 2009 production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea
Amanda Forsythe and Tyler Duncan in the 2008 production of Blow’s Venus and Adonis, part of a double bill with Charpentier’s Actéon