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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More amazing rare Pergolesi from Jesi, 4 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Pergolesi: Il Prigionier/ Serva Padrona (Antonio Lozano/ Marina Rodríguez Cusí/ Marina de Liso/ Accademia Barocca de I Virtuosi Italiani/ Corrado Rovaris/ Henning Brockhaus) (Arthaus: 108068) [Blu-ray] [2012] (Blu-ray)
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 pair of works, since the composer's Intermezzos are also being recorded and released alongside the main works) in the 1732 dramma per musica Il Prigionier Superbo (The Proud Captive), which is released here alongside its rather more famous Intermezzo, 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.

Il Prigionier Superbo, right from the outset, demonstrates 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 Steffani, with some furious Vivaldian flurries and a sense of Handelian dignity in the how it carries the 'affetto' emotional core of the drama - but there is at the same time something unique about the way the musical approach reveals the emotions behind the drama. Directed by Corrado Rovaris and 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 the conductor and the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani tease out of a work that would otherwise seem fairly conventional in form. The musical arrangements rather seem to reflect the more involved circumstances and nature of Il Prigionier's drama, showing a sophistication that suggests deeper conflicting sentiments and even connections between the characters and their individual motivations.

Set for some reason within a cave, Henning Brockhaus' staging also 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. Nearly all the roles are played by females (Jesi seems to prefer the female voice to countertenors) who wear modern dresses, regardless of whether they are playing men or women, their roles ("artistic alter-egos" apparently according to the booklet) acted out by more traditionally attired near life-size marionettes. 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, since there is a very strong cast here more than capable of bringing it to life. There are 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 their 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 drama 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 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, Serpina, not only demands to be treated as an equal with her exasperated master, Uberto, but also believes that she is worthy of marrying him and becoming the dominant one.

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. Aside from its historical importance, La Serva Padrona's reputation and fame is merited as a comic drama as well as for its musical qualities. It's only 50 minutes long and there is quite a bit of recitative within that, 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, but that could be as much to do with the work being placed in its original context for the first time in centuries alongside a work that now looks to be the superior achievement.

As indicated above, credit goes not just to Jesi 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 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 the home viewer. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Oct 2012 00:37:35 GMT
Thank you very much for taking the time to write so extensively and so well. I have just been watching the Jesi production of Adriano in Siria - which is fantastic - and will certainly now be buying this one too.
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