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La serva padrona
Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)

La serva padrona (1733)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Don Giovanni: Madamina il catalogo è questa;
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835) La sonnambula: Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni;
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Il turco in Italia: Credete alle femmine;
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) La dannazione di Faust: Che fai tu qui? ... Su queste rose ... C’era una volta un sire;
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848) L’Elisir d’amore: Quanto amore;
Angelica Tuccari (soprano) – Serpina; Sesto Bruscantini (bass baritone) – Uberto; Orchestra Lirica di Milano della RAI/Alfredo Simonetto. Recorded Milano 1950 (La serva padrona);
Arias: Sesto Bruscantini (bass baritone), Alda Noni (soprano)(Rossini & Donizetti), Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI/Nino Sanzogno. Recorded Torino, December 3, 1951
WARNER FONIT 5050467-6755-2-0 [67:46]

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Little did the 23-year-old Pergolesi imagine that his two-part intermezzo La serva padrona (The servant turned mistress), written as in-between-acts entertainment in his full-length opera seria Il prigionier superbo, would make opera history. Nor did he live long enough to experience this – he died just three years later. First of all the “operetta” (little opera) is regarded as the first opera buffa, which during the decades to follow became an important genre in itself – a refreshing antidote to all the tragic-mythologic stuff that was being played. Works like Mozart’s Figaro, Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale are all heirs to this work. Secondly it was revived time and again, on its own, being played by travelling companies, who found it practical; only two singers plus a mute character and a string quintet plus a harpsichord was needed. It soon reached outside Italy: Dresden saw it in 1740 and in 1746 it was performed in both Vienna and Paris. A few years later, in 1752, it caused a minor revolution in Paris where it became the weapon in the combat between pro- and anti-Italian groups, the latter claiming the superiority of the French tragedy, represented by Lully and Rameau, while the former (led by no less than Madame de Pompadour) opposed themselves to the artificiality of the tragedy and hailed the natural and human side of the Italian way. The anti-Italians were the winners in the first round, but two years later La serva padrona became a tremendous success when it was performed in a French version with spoken dialogue instead of the sung recitatives, which became the starting point for the “opéra-comique” tradition, including also non-comic works like Bizet’s Carmen. So it could be stated that few single works have had such importance in the development of opera.

But historical importance doesn’t necessarily mean musical importance. Is it worth listening to today? I would say unhesitatingly “yes”. The plot, simple as it may be, is timeless, human and should be a perfect weapon in the ongoing feminista movement: The maid servant Serpina reigns over the household of the old and rich bachelor Uberto. Being fed up this Uberto asks his man servant Vespone (the mute role) to find him a wife so he can get rid of Serpina. But Serpina knows that the old man secretly fancies her and decides to become his wife. Abetted by Vespone she tells Uberto that she is going to marry a Captain Tempesta, a violent and formidable soldier. Uberto, concerned about his maid, wants to meet him. Of course it is Vespone in disguise who appears and craves that Uberto gives Serpina a dowry, otherwise he won’t marry her. If Uberto refuses he has to marry her himself, which Uberto accepts and it all ends, as expected, with Serpina turning from “serva” to “padrona”.

All this is presented in around 40 minutes, the action brought forward mainly through a lively recitativo secco and in one instance (the second half of track 10) as recitativo accompagnato. Then there are five arias commenting on the affairs and each of the two acts is concluded by a duet. All this music is spirited, melodic and well crafted, and performed by good singing actors it can hardly fail to make its mark. Having listened through the opera a couple of times you will find yourself walking around humming the tunes. They stick.

It has been recorded several times during the last 55 years, this version, as far as I know, being the oldest. It also has some claims to be one of the best, the main drawback being the aged sound, early Cetra recordings in general not being famous for high quality recording technique. The strings have a sharp metallic edge and there is even a fair share of distortion, especially in the duet that ends act I (track 7). Considering the age it is still acceptable and the voices come through well. There is practically no break between the first act duet and the recitative beginning act two, which is a little disconcerting, since one wishes that Serpina at least could get a chance to change clothes. The secco recitative is accompanied very sparsely by something sounding like a forte piano and the body of strings seems to be a fairly large one, moreover playing in a manner that sound more romantic than baroque. Alfredo Simonetto was clearly no baroque specialist, feeling more at home in verismo repertoire. There is a very fine Pagliacci from about the same time, recently also reissued by Warner, with the young Bergonzi in, probably, his first recording. Anyway the playing is lively enough and only die-hard baroque purists need worry.

Sesto Bruscantini, one of the greatest buffo basses during the whole post-war era, is really in his element here. Having just turned thirty he is in marvellous voice, rounded tone, beautiful, powerful when needed and absolutely steady on sustained notes with that characteristic quick vibrato. He also acts this grateful part to perfection, singing with real “face” and his enormous stage presence is audible in every phrase. I once saw him in this part, more than 25 years after this recording was made and his acting was indeed magnetic although his voice had lost some of its bloom by then. He might be accused of sometimes over-interpreting, adding chuckles and other noices not explicitly written, but that is part and parcel of the tradition. Compared to the other great buffo of about the same age, Fernando Corena, his characters are more elegant, less of caricatures. Corena’s voice was a true black bass with tremendous power, while Bruscantini’s is baritonal in timbre and he also frequently sang baritone parts. Rossini’s Figaro was one of his great successes and, in a more serious vein, he was a noble Germont in La traviata. He shows all his mastery in the recitative Orsù non dubitare, the second half of which is accompanied by the orchestra, and the following aria Son imbrogliato io già (tracks 10 and 11).

The Serpina, Angelica Tuccari, otherwise unknown to me, has a voice that takes some time getting used to. It is razor-sharp, penetrating, edgy, characteristics that are reinforced by the edgy recording. She obviously has an unlimited upper range, just listen to her in track 2 at 2:11, where her voice just disappears up in the blue to where I thought only Erna Sack could reach. It is a typical soubrette voice but she has a great deal of acting capacity and she is also elegant in her phrasing.

There are some primitive sound effects: a bell rings in the short prelude and when Vespone, disguised as a soldier, goes into a rage, he obviously stamps the floor. The technical shortcomings may be a problem to some listeners, but I must say that the quality of the singing and acting, especially from Bruscantini, more than compensates. I have not heard all the other existing recordings but is very fond of a 1960s LP, conducted by Ettore Gracis. Here the baroque feeling is much stronger, we have a harpsichord and a much smaller body of strings and Leonardo Monreale, a well-enough-known comprimario singer with a darker voice than Bruscantini’s, is almost as apt an actor, while Mariella Adani’s soprano is easier on the ear than her counterpart on the Warner disc. The sound is excellent and there is a lot of stage movement, which makes it a theatrical experience as well. I bought it on a Nonesuch 12 inch LP (H-71043) but the original recording was made by Club Français du Disque. It would be fine if someone owning the rights of this recording would contemplate issuing it again. In the meantime the present disc can be confidently recommended, the attraction being even greater thanks to the fillers.

It should be remembered that although Bruscantini was first and foremost known as a buffo singer he had a very large and wide-ranging repertoire, around 130 roles from baroque to contemporary opera. He gives a glimpse of his versatility in five excerpts recorded live at a concert in Torino in 1951. The sound is just as dated but more homogenous and rounded, partly due to the more distant recording. Bruscantini is on top form here too, and there are few better readings of the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni, so elegant, so full of life and humour. Likewise, Count Rodolfo’s aria from La sonnambula is a masterly example of bel canto singing with such smooth legato, such finely graded nuances. In the two duets from Il turco in Italia and L’Elisir d’amore he is partnered by Alda Noni, one of the best lyrical Italian sopranos of the period. She recorded quite extensively for Cetra, often together with Bruscantini, e.g. the possibly still best Don Pasquale. She too has some acid in her voice but not as much as Tuccari. Bruscantini is of course on home ground in both these duets. In the Berlioz aria, with a very good chorus, he plays the devil with good results.

The cover, as always with these Cetra reissues, reproduces the original artwork from the LP cover, there is an essay in Italian and English, and although there is no libretto, the synopsis makes it easy to follow the action.

All in all is a fitting tribute to Sesto Bruscantini, who passed away two years ago.

Göran Forsling



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