On February 5th, Boheme Opera NJ will begin a new chapter in its 22-year history with performances of two comic chamber operas by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi at its new home, The College of New Jersey Center for the Arts. La Serva Padrona (The Maid as Mistress) and Il Maestro di Musica (The Music Master) will be performed in English — a transition from their native Italian that, in a sense, draws parallels with the pieces themselves, as they continue to find new relevance.
Pergolesi was one of the earliest composers of opera buffa, a new style of opera that came into fashion in Italy in the early to mid-1700s. These typically short pieces — light and comedic— appeared in the middle of longer, more serious operas (appropriately called opera seria) to help break the tension, a practice adopted from plays going back to Roman times. Today, we know this technique as "comic relief."
Written in 1734, La Serva Padrona was a hit in Italy — but when it was performed in France in the 1750s it sparked a “war." The so-called "War of the Comedians" between the defenders of French opera seria and those of Italian opera buffa "raged" for roughly two years. In the end, La Serva Padrona is still being performed, while The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, the successors of the opera buffa tradition, share a friendly stage coexistence with opera seria’s in Madama Butterfly and La Boheme.
Why the survival of opera buffa? An oversimplification may be nature itself: light and dark, tragedy and comedy. Two sides of the same coin, with one not being able to exist without the other. If we apply this idea in terms of human nature, imagine if we couldn’t find humor in the face of hardship — it’s doubtful anyone would have a motivation to get out of bed!
Digging deeper, there is the form — a short timeframe, which allows quick development and resolution — and the eternal theme of the romantic tension that exists between the sexes. Both La Serva Padrona and Il Maestro di Musica focus on relationships: more specifically, what happens when people are in love but don’t realize that they are in love.
La Serva Padrona tells of a wily maidservant who brings her elderly employer to the realization of his love and need for her, despite his protests to the contrary. In Il Maestro di Musica, a music teacher only accepts his feelings for his ingénue pupil when confronted by a rival for her love (if not for her questionable talent).
We know these themes, whether as Rex Harrison singing, "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face" at the end of My Fair Lady — a parallel to Il Maestro di Musica — or Richard Gere accepting his love of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman — a twist on La Serva Padrona.
Timeless themes delivered in a short time. Problems raised, problems solved. Everyone leaves getting what they wanted. It’s yours on February 5 at 7 p.m. Where else can you get all of that for $25 or less?
La Serva Padrona and Il Maestro di Musica. February 5 at 7 p.m. Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall. Directed and conducted by Artistic Director Joseph Pucciatti, with members of the Boheme Opera NJ Orchestra. Starring soprano Jendi Tarde, tenor Brett Colby, baritone Grant Mech and actor Jeffrey Stundel. For tickets and information, visit www.tcnj.edu/~arts/facilities/tcnjboxoffice or www.bohemeopera.com.