Wednesday, December 24, 2014

BEMF kicks up its heels with Pergolesi

Erica Schuller and Jesse Blumberg as Livietta and Tracollo. Photos: Kathy Wittman
























Almost a month has gone by since the curtain rose and fell on Boston Early Music Festival's pastiche of Pergolesi's La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo - but somehow the glow cast by this wonderful production still lingers.  By now local music lovers know to expect the extraordinary from director Gilbert Blin - and once more he did not disappoint; not only were these "intermezzi" (so called because they served as comic relief between the acts of more serious works) exquisitely realized musically, vocally, and dramatically, but Blin (as is his wont) simultaneously conjured a wittily postmodern meditation on the structure and meaning of the comic-opera format itself.

His conceit this time was to interlard these two works with each other, just as they once broke up the dolor of opera seria. And he even puttered onstage himself to get the job done: in country-bumpkin drag, Blin played a baffled stage manager who accidentally dropped the sheet music of both operas in the show's opening moments - and then cobbled them together into a single score as best he could.  It was a clever device, and pure Blin - and more delightful still, he carried it off with genuine comic panache.

But then comic panache was the byword of the entire production. In fact I haven't seen so many sterling comic turns in a single opera in this town since BLO's now-famous staging of Agrippina several years ago. Not that the singing itself wasn't ravishing - the BEMF stable now includes soprano Amanda Forsythe, bass-baritone Douglas Williams, and baritone Jesse Blumberg, all of whom were in superb voice (while newcomer Erica Schuller quickly established herself as a soprano who belongs in their exalted league).  But it was the way that this quartet threw themselves with infectious aplomb into the pratfalls of Pergolesi's plot(s) that made the evening somehow more than the sum of its musical parts.

Baritone Jesse Blumberg in a tight spot.
Of course these operas make a nicely matched set, as they both showcase knockabout seductions - in the more famous La serva padrona, a clever maid slyly lures her master into marriage; likewise in Livietta e Tracollo, a plucky lass tricks the pickpocket who would have fleeced her into pledging his faith at the altar instead.  Both pieces have an appealing knowingness, and the casually sexy grace that typified the genre of the "galant"; no wonder this style swept European opera (La serva padrona in particular quickly eclipsed the tragedy - also by Pergolesi - with which it premiered).

By the end of the evening, of course, a sense of the formula undergirding the galant attitude had also surfaced (as one comic climax was immediately replaced by another very similar one); but somehow I think that was all part of Blin's plan - and luckily the spirits of the performers never seemed to flag (even though the comic choreography sometimes verged on the frenetic). I should also mention the exquisite performances from BEMF's instrumental ensemble, which includes musical directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, violinist Robert Mealy, and violoncellist Phoebe Carrai. The witty choreography was by Melinda Sullivan (and was performed by the lithe Caroline Copland and Carlos Fittante); the reliably inspired Anna Watkins supplied the perfect costumes.  We're quite lucky to have all these artists serving us in this provincial little burg - although judging from the size of the house on the night I attended, Boston still hasn't quite realized what a gem we have in BEMF.  Hopefully all that will change sometime soon!

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