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