PrigionierGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Il Prigionier Superbo & La Serva Padrona

Teatro G. B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2009, 2011 | Corrado Rovaris, Henning Brockhaus, Antonio Lozano, Marina Rodríguez Cusí, Marina De Liso, Ruth Rosique, Marina Comparato, Giacinta Nicotra, Alessandra Marianelli, Carlo Lepore, Jean Méningue | Arthaus Musik

Last year saw the Blu-ray release of Adriano in Siria, the first Pergolesi opera made available through a new initiative by the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini to not only stage new editions of all the existing opera works by the composer - all of them rare, most all-but forgotten - but to have them all released to the public on DVD and, if we’re lucky, Blu-ray. The hopes raised by Adriano in Siria at the possibility of recovering some unheard of masterpieces are met with yet another extraordinary work (or should I say works, since the composer’s Intermezzos are also being recorded and paired with the main works) in the dramma per musica Il Prigionier Superbo (’The Proud Captive’), which is released here alongside the rather more famous, La Serva Padrona. And, happily, it’s another exceptionally well-performed production of a work that truly merits rediscovery and re-evaluation, which also looks and sounds just incredible in the High Definition Blu-ray format.

The originality and the brilliance of Pergolesi’s composition in comparison to other early Baroque works is evident right from the first notes of the overture of Il Prigionier Superbo, hammered out with rhythmic precision under the direction and harpsichord playing of Corrado Rovaris, with a sense of melody and use of instruments that sounds to me quite unlike anything else from this period. The work as a whole reveals similarities to other contemporaneous composers in certain respects, an unrelenting rhythmic force that reminds one of Agostino Steffani, with some furious Vivaldian flurries and a sense of Handelian dignity in the how it carries the affetto emotional core of the drama - to say nothing of the plot being a fairly standard opera seria one of a cruel king keeping lovers apart (most reminiscent in this case of Tamerlano with the father of the reluctant object of the king’s designs being held captive as a prisoner) - but there is at the same time something unique about the musical approach that gives further weight to the idea of Pergolesi being worthy of being regarded alongside those other illustrious composers. If he’s not quite as great as Handel in terms of opera writing (although Pergolesi only lived to the age of 26, so who knows what he may have been capable of in maturity), he’s at least up there with Vivaldi.

Recorded in the intimate and acoustically sparkling surroundings of the Teatro G. B. Pergolesi in Jesi, it’s the quality of the HD sound formats that reveal those telling details in the scoring and in the variety and use of the period instruments that Corrado Rovaris and the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani tease out of a work that would otherwise seem fairly conventional in form, the musical arrangements reflecting the rather involved circumstances and nature of Il Prigionier’s drama. In some respects, yes, it’s a fairly standard Baroque opera situation where the King of the Goths, Metalce has imprisoned Sostrate, the King of Norway, and is threatening to kill his prisoner unless Rosmene, Sostrate’s daughter, agrees to marry him. And, yes, it’s also fairly common for this to have other complications, with Metalce’s own wife Ericlea being somewhat displeased at the idea (to say the least - her emotional arias express her feelings much more forcefully) and Rosmene’s betrothed Viridate also being affected by the ruler’s romantic inclinations, to say nothing of the rumblings of discontent that this gives rise to among the populace who are stirred up further by the prince Micisda.

It’s how it’s all scored musically however - even more so than the usually long arias expressing love, rage and betrayal - that Pergolesi not only expresses the emotional content, but also suggests deeper conflicting sentiments and even connections between the characters and their individual motivations. Il Prigionier Superbo is surprisingly sophisticated in this respect, and there’s much in the music that is worth examining carefully. Set for some reason within a cave, Henning Brockhaus’ staging reflects the complications and sophistication of the arrangements, or at least it attempts to, but I’m not sure it doesn’t just end up needlessly complicating things further. You have to become familiar here not only with who all the principal characters are here - since the elaborate contemporary dresses they wear don’t necessarily reflect their position (although Metalce, the King of the Goths has a punky Goth hairdo and wears black leather and netting) or indeed their gender (only one of the three male roles - Sostrate - is played by a man) - and the complicated changing relations between them, but you have to associate them with the more traditionally attired near life-size marionettes (”artistic alter-egos” apparently according to the booklet) that also occupy the stage, each managed by puppeteers wearing executioner hoods. It makes it all a bit more visually interesting than the usually static nature of opera seria, enlivening the recitative sections in particular, but it’s also a little cluttered and doesn’t really add anything that couldn’t be expressed a little more conventionally by the singers alone.

I say that it’s the music that gives a certain weight and nuance to the arias, but the actual singing is no means neglected by Pergolesi for its power of expression, and, wonderfully, there is a very strong cast here to bring it to life. Although the work is obviously built mainly around individual arias - with one or two duets and trios and an ensemble finale - there is a sense of it being a true ensemble piece in terms of how each of the characters has an almost equally important role to play in directing the tone and structure of the piece as a whole. There’s almost an adherence to the purity of a Gluck or Wagner dramatic ideal already present in Pergolesi’s writing in this respect, with no main starring role and no show-stopping arias, but each performer nonetheless has the opportunity to express their ability and serve the dramatic purpose through wonderfully written individual arias or scenes, and each of them rises to the moment with some fine singing. The success of the production lies not just in the singers or the direction then, but in how they are marvellously brought together, with consideration for the nuances of the music and for the work as a whole.

It was the practice for Neapolitan opera to have a short comic farce for two or three singers played out in the intervals between the acts of the main dramma per musica, and Il Prigionier Superbo is paired here with its original Intermezzo - and the work that would come to eclipse it, at least in terms of historical importance - La Serva Padrona (’The Servant Turned Mistress’). It was this little comic interlude that would become the focus of a heated debate in France known as the ‘Querelle des bouffons‘ (1752) over the superiority of Italian comic opera over the rather stuffy long-winded academicism of the royalty-approved native French form. It’s not difficult to see why a work like La Serva Padrona would be so popular, its subject matter and irreverence showing a pre-revolutionary disrespect not only for the nobility, but also in how it takes opera further away from the myths, gods and legends of opera seria by making common people and their down-to-earth affairs the subject of the work. You can see the influence this might have had on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but La Serva Padrona goes one step further here with its suggestiveness and the outrageous situation where a shameless maidservant not only demands to be treated as an equal with her exasperated master, but also believes that she is worthy of marrying him.

That’s evidently not as shocking an idea now as it might have been back in 1732, and that’s maybe why the director Henning Brockhaus chooses not to rely on the traditional setting of the noble/servant relationship, but sets it instead in a circus which is perhaps more in keeping with the farcical, colourful nature of the work and its historical legacy. Again though, rather like the staging for Il Prigionier Superbo, this doesn’t really add anything to the work - which as an Intermezzo was never intended to be fully staged in any event - but it serves well enough for the comic elements that ensue through the scandalous behaviour and flirting of a circus performer, Serpina, who just won’t know her station and show deference to the commands of the ring master, Uberto.

Aside from its historical importance, La Serva Padrona’s reputation and fame is merited as a comic drama as well as in its musical arrangement. It’s only 50 minutes long and there is quite a bit of recitative within that (Corrado Rovaris’s harpsichord playing making this a little more musical that it otherwise might be), but there is also a great deal of humour in the situation and some lovely lyrical beauty in the arias which have the same effervescent character that is in all Pergolesi’s compositions. It’s sung and played reasonably well here with an appropriately light touch by Alessandra Marianelli and Carlo Lepore, even if it’s not the most witty staging or interpretation of the work. That impression however might be as much to do with seeing the Intermezzo placed in its original context for the first time in centuries alongside a work that now looks to be the superior achievement. With this and the previous DVD release of Adriano in Siria revealing the considerable qualities of Pergolesi’s dramma per musica work now placed alongside his religious compositions (his Stabat Mater and the recently rediscovered oratorio Septem verba a Cristo in Cruce moriente prolata) a re-evaluation to consider Pergolesi as one of the greatest composers of his time looks assured.

As indicated above, credit goes not just to Jesi and the Pergolesi Spontini Foundation for putting on these works, but also to distributors who are putting them out on Blu-ray, since the High Definition format allows these rare opera works to be fully appreciated by a much wider public. The quality of the A/V on this Arthaus release is impressive, all the more so for the detail that the audio mixes in particular bring out of the period instruments and playing of the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani. Unlike the interweaving of Adriano in Siria and Livietta e Tracollo one within the other, the Dramma and the Intermezzo here were filmed on separate occasions (one in 2009, the other in 2011) and you have to watch each piece separately, which is probably preferable for home viewing. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean.