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PERGOLESI: Il Prigionier Superbo; La Serva Padrona

spacer Il Prigionier Superbo. De Liso, Rodríguez-Cusí, Comparato, Rosique, Nicotra; Lozano. La Serva Padrona. Marianelli; Lepore; Accademia Barocca de I Virtuosi Italiani, Rovaris. Productions: Brockhaus. ArtHaus Musik 108068 (Blu-ray) or 101654 (2 DVDs), 177 mins., subtitled

PergolesiDVD

Il Prigionier Superbo is a three-act opera seria with six characters — two kings, two princes, two princesses. La Serva Padrona is a two-part comic intermezzo with two singing characters — master and servant. It was performed between Prigionier's acts when they bowed in 1733, as Naples theaters reopened after earthquake-forced closure. Prigionier vanished from the stage, but Serva Padrona grew popular, helped establish opera buffaand helped start a pamphlet war between Italian and French opera supporters in Paris.

This release brings the operas back together in Festival Pergolesi Spontini performances from the Teatro Pergolesi in Jesi, the composer's birthplace, near Ancona. They are separate productions, Prigionier from 2009, Serva Padrona from 2011, though they share the period orchestra Accademia Barocca de I Virtuosi Italiani, conductor Corrado Rovaris, stage director Henning Brockhaus and a gravelly stage floor.

Prigionier's gravel is earthquake rubble, in which partying twenty-first-century actors find old marionettes, identify with them and play out their drama: one king imprisons another, pursues the latter's daughter and forces her to save either her father or the prince she loves; the other must die. Marionettes, marionettists, party servers, quake refugees and human remains clutter the stage, and the viewer struggles to clarify. Just one of the four male characters — the imprisoned king, a tenor — is sung by a man. (Just one of the other three, the prince lover, was sung by a castrato in 1733.) The princess at the center is an alto whose prince lover sings in a higher tessitura than she does.

Brockhaus stresses the modern play-acting over the old drama by keeping the singers in party attire and largely in their modern personas. Fancy dresses, high heels, styled hair, bare shoulders and cleavage abound, and women ostensibly playing men don't act like men. At first confusing, this brings refreshing relief from the usual "pants role" trappings of flattened chests and manlike walks. The initially incongruous clash of elegant ladies and a homeless camp pays off in sharp frissons when, in Act III, they wrap themselves in broken-down cardboard boxes and one climbs into a trash can. 

From the harpsichord, Rovaris leads a vivacious performance of an engaging score. Each singer is at least good, but the three mezzos stand out — for sheer voice, contraltoish Marina Rodríguez-Cusí as the beleaguered princess; for dazzling technique, Marina De Liso as the dastardly king of the Goths; for expressivity, Marina Comparato as the prince lover. Comparato gets the two best arias, a Handelian bravura blast with trumpets and a haunting lament. The "proud prisoner" of the title is tenor Antonio Lozano, who stands on his wheelchair for his bravura aria. Agile soprano Ruth Rosique and beautiful soprano Giacinta Nicotra sing the remaining princess and prince. Improbably and quickly, all ends happily.

Serva Padrona's gravel is the floor of a circus tent, where Serpina serves as a novice dancer under strongman/ringmaster Uberto. Clowns, freaks, dancers and (simulated) animals enliven this thirty-seven-minute romp, which centers on a large swing, where clever Serpina sexily cavorts and drives Uberto, first seen with an issue of Playboy, nuts, until he agrees to marriage. Bass Carlo Lepore sings handsomely; his acting is generalized. Soprano Alessandra Marianelli, expressing feelings and sexuality through nuanced singing, is visually and vocally captivating. spacer

MARK MANDEL

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2