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BEMF Chamber Opera Series | Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona & Livietta e Tracollo

Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 8pm | Purchase Tickets
Sunday, November 30, 2014 at 3pm | Purchase Tickets
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston

"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 Ensemble, 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.


“Exceptional performances…that open your mind in ways  	you didn’t know were possible.” -Vancouver Observer


A scene from the 2012 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

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Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Melinda Sullivan, Movement Coordinator
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Lenore Doxsee, Lighting Designer

BEMF Chamber Ensemble
Robert Mealy, Concertmaster

Amanda Forsythe, Serpina
Erica Schuller, Livietta
Douglas Williams, Uberto
Jesse Blumberg, Tracollo

Caroline Copeland, Fulvia
Carlos Fittante, Vespone
Ryan Began, Facenda

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Program Notes

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.

—Robert Mealy

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Past Chamber Operas

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


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