The Servant turned Mistress | La Serva Padrona
La Serva Padrona or The Servant turned Mistress
La Serva Padrona is considered by many the mother of music theatre. Its importance, some believe, might have been overvalued as a consequence of the legend that surronds its premiere staged in Paris on August 1, 1752.
Following that performance, many French Enlightenment intellectuals, who took advantage of any occasion to question their national values – even in music – opened up a large-scale debate against the French music tradition of Lully’s and Rameau’s tragedie lyrique. The dispute has entered the music history under the name of ‘querelle des bouffons‘.
The “querelle des bouffons”
La Serva Padrona was to these intellectuals the striking revelation of a completely new type of opera: a light and enjoyable show suitable for the general public.
Simple melodies, fresh and realistic plot: everything in the Servant turned Mistress was the opposite of the difficult, complex and artificial French Opéra.
The debate became a national case with two opposite factions: on one side the “Italian party” made of music connoisseurs and intellectuals led by Jean–Jacques Rousseau and Diderot.
Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village
In 1753 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the Lettre sur la musique française, following the premiere of his own “intermezzo” the comic opera: Le Devin du village, staged at Fontainebleau on October 1752 and then at the Paris Opera in March 1753.
Jean-Philippe Rameau’s court opéra
The supporters of the French Opera – or “Court opera” – were instead mainly rich and powerful women, part of the court and close relations to the king. The debate was quite heated for about two years and finally died in 1764 after Jean-Philippe Rameau’s death.
As everything else coming from Paris, the debate had a wide resonance throughout Europe, which contributed to the aura of legend surrounding the composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and his premature death, at the age of 26, in 1736.
Turning a successful story into a masterpiece
La Serva Padrona, composed on a libretto by Gennaro Antonio Federico in 1733, is an intermezzo divided into two interludes. It was originally designed to be performed between the acts of the opera seria Il prigioniero superbo by Pergolesi himself, staged at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples on the occasion of the birthday of the empress Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick, wife of the emperor Charles VI and mother of the empress Marie Therese of Augsburg.
That very same libretto had been used by almost every composer in Naples and therefore was already popular in a number of successful versions. The definition of believable characters and the solid realism of the short story, revolving almost entirely around the characters’ psychology made of the libretto a success. Pergolesi’s genius turned it into a masterpiece.
The plot of the opera is quite simple. Uberto, basso buffo, is an old bachelor who lives alone with his maid Serpina, soprano and the servant Vespone, a mime.
Uberto, tired of Serpina’s increasingly whimsical attitude, decides to escape his waitress harassment by getting married. Serpina resolves that the bride will be herself and sets her strategy to that end.
She tells Uberto she has decided to marry too and that her husband will be gruff and irascible Captain Tempesta. Uberto is saddened by the idea of losing Serpina yet he reflects their different social status makes it impossible for him to marry his servant.
Vespone, dressed up as Captain Tempesta, appears claiming 4,000 scudi as a dowry; otherwise Uberto would have to marry Serpina himself. And so it happens that Uberto chooses the lesser of two evils and agrees to marry Serpina.
A revolution in 7 musical pieces
Pergolesi sets this very thin story in seven pieces, 5 arias and 2 duets, placed symmetrically at the end of each part. According to the Neapolitan tradition, arias are in the “da capo” form and are used to allow characters to express their feelings. “The action” is instead carried out within recitatives, accompanied by harpsichord.
Some words of the text are repeated to increase their comic effect, a common practice in Italian opera, which has Rossini as a supreme master.
Uberto’s pompous pedantry is well described in his first aria as well as his comic desperation in his last one, when he confronts himself with the dilemma marriage vs payment.
Serpina is equally well characterized in the first duet “I know him” and in the falsely pathetic aria “You will think of Serpina”. The orchestra is limited to strings, featuring a discreet accompaniment.
The reasons for an “evergreen” success
The Servant turned Mistress is one of the very few operas composed in the eighteenth-century that are still regularly performed. Contemporary public keeps appreciating its fresh and expressive musical language.
Pergolesi was able to capture and set to music in a dynamic way the personality of both, the enterprising and determined Serpina and the irresolute and restlessness Uberto. This reflects not only in their interaction but also in their way to talk to themselves or to the audience about each other.
By doing that, Pergolesi changes arias and duets from a static expression of feelings, to a dinamic exchange between characters, which in that relation influence and change each other.
Another feature of this revolutionary score are the rhythmic and short segments of melody: they will be the new format of the upcoming classical style.
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