As part of the Meet the Young Artists week, The Royal Opera presents its first ever production of Pergolesi’s 18th Century comedy La Serva Padrona in the Linbury Studio. Young Artist soprano Ana James is joined by experienced Royal Opera bass Jeremy White in the 40-minute two-hander. Unfortunately, what promises to be a sparkling, if short, evening turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.
Pergolesi’s “Intermezzo in two parts” tells of the servant Serpina who doesn’t know her place but aspires to be mistress of the household. Director Harry Fehr, another of the Jette Parker Young Artists, reverses the basic situation. In his production the two characters are a married couple who role-play the parts of master and servant in a series of sexual games which includes spanking, dressing-up and strangulation. Act 2 even hints at the possibility of a threesome with a handsome young bellboy (Aaron Romano in a non-speaking role).
It’s quite a clever idea and the concept sustains through the short first act but doesn’t carry over to the second. It becomes increasingly difficult to make the leap between the original situation and the conceit of this production which soon becomes something of a burden.
Jeremy White gives a solid performance, although he and the director need to remember in Act 2 that this is a light and fast comedy. Uberto’s long monologue becomes quite leaden and by then White is really struggling with the idea that he’s play-acting the role of master rather than living it.
Serpina should be a wonderful opportunity for Ana James but I have to say she doesn’t quite rise to the challenge. She sings sweetly enough but her acting is lacking in animation and the fire that is essential to the character. Surely, Serpina is closely related to the commedia dell’arte character Columbina and she needs to be played with great physical commitment. The updated setting (to the 1920s or thereabouts) plus the translation into English don’t help her.
There is also a lack of sexual chemistry between the two, which is unfortunate when this is key to the interpretation. It struck me in the interlude, during which the band played a jaunty piece from the composer’s Il Flaminio, that perhaps they were supposed to be making love offstage as a culmination of their fantasy game. There was nothing in the acting leading up to that point to suggest that this was what was happening. This was acting and directing from the neck up.
Becs Andrews provides a fine setting and, in the pit, Andrew Griffiths leads his small ensemble in a suitably lively performance of the score. Lighting is by David Howe.
La Serva Padrona is a difficult piece to programme because of its length and this provided a perfect opportunity, so it’s a shame the production doesn’t do justice to it. There’s some fine music; maybe a little too much recitative for such a short work but some lovely touches from a largely under-rated composer. For that reason alone, it’s worth catching the production during its short run.