I first became aware of Opera on the Spot this past summer when they announced that they would be performing two one-act operas by two twentieth-century American composers, Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti, at the Center for New Music (C4NM). The organization describes itself as “San Francisco’s pop-up opera troupe,” which consists of “a talented group of young, classically trained singers embarking on a professional career in Opera.” Because they have no set venue for their base of operations, they choose less conventional places for performances, including bars, community spaces, and restaurants. (They make monthly appearances at Caffe Delle Stelle in Hayes Valley.)
Last night three of the group’s vocalists, along with pianist Margaret Halbig, returned to C4NM with a new program of one-act operas. This time only one of the composers was twentieth-century American, Lee Hoiby. The other was the eighteenth-century Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with a performance of “La serva padrona” (the servant mistress). Ironically, this opera was also performed this past summer when it was included in the first full-length fully-staged production presented by the Merola Opera Program.
“La serva padrona” is an excellent choice for a group with reduced resources. There are only two vocal parts, the servant Serpina (soprano Jordan Amann) and her master Uberto (baritone Sergey Khalikulov). There is also a mimed role for Uberto’s valet Vespone (Aisha Campbell). The plot could not be simpler. Serpina is too headstrong to be treated as a servant; and she connives her way into becoming Uberto’s bride (and, thus, mistress of the house).
No credit was given in the program for last night’s staging, but the plot was given a more modern twist. The setting was moved to a contemporary bistro where Uberto was a customer and Serpina was the server. While the transformation reflected how contemporary language has banished the word “waitress,” the overall narrative did not fit quite as comfortably. Nevertheless, it was easy to accept the staging as a latter-day incarnation of the old battle-of-the-sexes comedies.
That perspective was delightfully reinforced by the skills through which both Amann and Khalikulov inhabited their roles. Gennaro Antonio Federico’s libretto has both characters disclose their respective natures through their words. In the absence of projection equipment, the English translations were written out on poster boards, which were then held up by Campbell during each aria. All recitative passages were sung in English.
Both vocalists delivered a spot-on account of Pergolesi’s treatment of the text. Every repetition elicited a new approach to execution, always with just the right balance of vocal dexterity and witty acting. The C4NM performing area was limited; but Amann and Khalikulov made the most of it with occasional ventures to “break through the fourth wall” into the audience area. If the attempt of the staging to translate the tale from eighteenth-century Naples to 21st-century San Francisco did not always fire on all cylinders, the delightful efforts of both vocalists more than compensated for any shortcomings.
“La serva padrona” was preceded by Hoiby’s “The Italian Lesson,” which he composed in 1981. Mark Shulgasser’s libretto was based on a monologue by Ruth Draper, meaning that the opera was a solo performance by soprano Campbell. Draper’s monologues were a major element of theatre during the first half of the twentieth century. Her admirers included both Henry James and Edith Wharton. The character in “The Italian Lesson” is a New York society matron who could have easily stepped out of the pages of one of Wharton’s novels. She embodies the proverb at the heart of The Philadelphia Story, “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.”
The plot begins with well-to-do Mrs. Clancy hiring an Italian tutor to lead her through the beauties of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. However, the lesson keeps getting interrupted, mostly by the telephone. (Hoiby’s opera may be taken as an homage to the one-act opera “The Telephone,” composed by Hoiby’s mentor Menotti.) Again, there was no credit in the program for staging; but Campbell’s portrayal deftly captured the spirit of the libretto through both her musical and her dramatic technical skills.
Nevertheless, the situation behind the narrative has become more than a little dated. If the attempt to modernize “La serva padrona” did not quite hit the mark consistently, one could still enjoy the fencing match between a woman and a man both firmly set in their ways. Mrs. Clancy’s character, on the other hand, has been unceremoniously deposed by the “new rich” of 21st-century life. Jean Stapleton could breathe life into the first performance of Hoiby’s opera because she knew whom she was mocking. That target is far more remote from Campbell’s generation, meaning that Hoiby’s more recent effort lacked the staying power of Pergolesi’s eighteenth-century chestnut.