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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
La serva padrona, intermezzi di Gennarantonio Federico [45:21]
Serpina – Erika Liuzzi (soprano)
Uberto – Donato Di Gioia (bass)
Aldo TARABELLA (b. 1948)
Il servo padrone, intermezzi di Valerio Valoriani [35:06]
Serpina – Erika Liuzzi (soprano)
Uberto – Paolo Pecchioli (tenor)
Vespone – Donato Di Gioia (bass)
Orchestra “V. Galilei”/Flavio Emilio Scogna
rec. 2017, Auditorium Sinopoli, Scuola di Musica di Fiesole (Florence), Italy
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95360 [45:21+35:06]

It was a long time since there was a new recording of Pergolesi’s little masterwork, but browsing Presto Classical’s catalogue I found almost ten versions, among them a DVD where it obviously is performed as it was initially intended, between the acts of the composer’s opera seria Il prigioner superbo. The plot is simple: The maid servant Serpina reigns over the old and rich bachelor Uberto’s household. Being fed up with this Uberto asks his man servant Vespone (a 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. The forces required to perform it are modest: a soprano, a bass-baritone, a mute servant, a string quintet and a harpsichord. In my collection I have only two recordings, an old Cetra from 1950 with Sesto Bruscantini as Uberto and an LP issued in the 1960s on Nonesuch but originally recorded by Club Francais du Disque. Uberto is here sung by Leonardo Monreale, a bass-baritone frequently heard in comprimario roles on recordings from the 50s and 60s.

The present recording is sonically superior to the two versions mentioned above, although the Nonesuch LP – transferred to CD – is fully acceptable. The playing is vivid, as is the singing, but Donato Di Gioia tends to vulgarise the role, being too coarse and boisterous. He is, by all means, utterly expressive but there is too much custard-pie comedy about him. Erika Liuzzi as Serpina is initially a bit squally but theatrically sensitive, but she soon finds her way and sings an elegant Stizzoso, mio stizzoso (CD 1 tr. 5), possibly the best known number in the opera. In the duet Lo connosco a quegli occhietti (tr. 7), which concludes the first intermezzo, she is even better, and in the second part she sings the aria A Serpina penserete (tr. 9) really beautifully. The final duet, Contento tu sarai (tr. 13), which also is the longest number, is a worthy conclusion to this little unpretentious but charming masterpiece. In the liner notes conductor Flavio Emilio Scogna points out that there exist a large number of manuscript and printed copies of the music but the autograph score is lost. This is also the probable reason why over the years both libretto and score have been altered and modified by unknown editors. Francesco Degrada, the greatest Pergolesi editor and expert, made a critical edition first used for a 2004 staging in Jesi, unfortunately never published, but for this recording Scogna has taken into account Degrada’s studies and thus this is obviously the closest we have come to what was Pergolesi’s original intentions back in 1733. This makes this recording especially valuable as a corrective to the various versions that have circulated. In spite of my reservations concerning Donato Di Gioia’s, in my opinion, too coarse reading of Uberto’s role this is still a valid version of the work. As for alternative versions the Monreale recording is probably hard to find and Bruscantini’s is sonically primitive but there exists another, later recording, with him, where his Serpina is no less a star than Renata Scotto, and with I Virtuosi di Roma under Renato Fasano in the pit, this is probably a first choice even for the 21st century.

Aldo Tarabella’s sequel Il servo padrone we meet the three characters again but the roles have been reversed. Serpina, who with the help of Vespone deceived Uberto into agreeing to marry her, is now the mistress of the house and Vespone, who miraculously has found his voice, is in effect the master of the house, while Uberto has been degraded to a henpecked husband. To get out of this embarrassing state of affairs he searches a way to annul the marriage contract. He dresses up as Madama Uragano, claiming to be his first wife and produces a fake marriage contract as proof. This bluff is successful, he is a free man again and as punishment his disloyal servants have to marry each other. “The world is put right again, the servant is the servant, the master is the master”, as librettist Valerio Valoriani puts it in his liner notes.

The resulting intermezzi are not pastiches musically. They belong to times much closer to ours. Structurally the build-up is mirroring Pergolesi’s: a short overture, a number of arias, duets and trios connected with recitatives – the latter mixing singing and spoken dialogue and are accompanied by a piano. The music is a conglomerate of styles: 20th century cabaret, quite jazzy at times, a nod at Kurt Weill here, a little ragtime there, a dose of atonalism rubs shoulders with Broadway musical. I believe listeners with some kind of experience of classical music, avant-garde and various genres of popular music will feel at home. It is like a kaleidoscope, there are surprises aplenty and in the end you will be quite bewildered. A hilarious experience in fact. Don’t expect too sophisticated singing and acting but you get an infectious entertainment, borderless, all-embracing. And Erika Luizzi is magnificent!

What I miss is libretto and translations. I didn’t get a nibble at Brilliant Classics’ home page either. But don’t let that detain you from hearing the old favourite by Pergolesi and this fascinating newly composed sequel!

Göran Forsling

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