At sixteen years of age I was invited to lunch at the family house, in the beautiful Langhe area of Piedmont, by a young doctor who’d been to London to train at the now sadly defunct Italian Hospital in Queen square. I ate the most scrumptious meal I can remember and then we talked about music about which I was beginning to get interested in. Gino put on a record of something which immediately grabbed my attention by its lively themes and freshness. “La Serva Padrona” it was and I’ve been hooked on Pergolesi ever since.
Returning to London I spent all my hard –hoarded pocket money on a recording of this delightful intermezzo with the late-lamented Anna Moffo who only died in 2006 and with bass Paolo Montarsolo, and conductor Franco Ferrara, a 1962 RCA recording which I still treasure and do not feel has been surpassed despite the great developments in period playing and interpretation which have taken place since then. Gino also pointed out to me other Pergolesi operas, including one written in Neapolitan dialect Lo frate ‘nnamorato.
But the only other recording I managed to hear of Pergolesi was his last poignant farewell “Stabat Mater” written while dying of consumption at the convent in Pozzuoli.
And so my knowledge of Pergolesi remained at a stalemate for years. Apart from a frankly awful production of La Serva Padrona at Tregynnon Wales I never managed to hear any more of this wonderful composer born in Jesi and who died at the tragically early age of 26 – apart, that is from that blancmange concoction cooked up by Stravinsky in his 1920 ballet Pulcinella, which at least got the ball rolling again for Pergolesi.
That was my state regarding Pergolesi’ music until the internet and, in particular, WINMX (now sadly hacked to pieces) came along. I managed to get together most of Pergolesi operas which can be divided into opere buffe and serie and, of course, the irresistible intermezzi (of which La Serva is one) inserted between the acts of the opere serie. Furthermore, I increased my knowledge of his religious music which includes a fabulous mass and an exquisite Salve Regina all, on the same league as the more familiar Stabat Mater (which no-one less than JS Bach wrote a paraphrase on and who actually completed Pergolesi’s last unfinished fugue to the work!).
But still no live opera performance for me. Until yesterday that is. Pergolesi fans are a very particular breed and I was lucky enough last year to meet one who’d travel from Jesi to Pozzuoli to hear the music which to both of us remains so endearing, so life-enhancing, and so full of freshness.
We didn’t have to travel either to Jesi (see http://www.fondazionepergolesispontini.com/fps/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2551&Itemid=2987&lang=it) where there is annual Pergolesi festival) nor to Pozzuoli but to relatively nearby Pisa where, in the Sala Titta Ruffo of the city’s great Verdi theatre, the ensemble Barocco di Maggio Fiorentino Formazione, directed by Frederico Bardazzi, put on a performance I would have travelled far vaster distances to hear.
Il Flaminio tells the story of Polidoro, a rich Neapolitan, and his sister Agata, who live in a fine villa outside Naples with a household consisting of his secretary Flaminio (known by the rest under his assumed name of Giulio) who is in love with the young widow Giustinia who is favourably attracted to the youth who reminds her of an old lover of hers, also called Flaminio, when she was still nubile. Agata has also fallen in love with Giulio Alias Flaminio while Polidoro has fallen in love with Giustinia. To complicate matters Agata’s fiancé Ferdinando arrives at the country house (hence the nice back projection of an herbaceous border) while the two servants, Checca and Vastianio, flirt audaciously with each other. Following various vicissitudes the love between Flaminio and Giustinia develops happily and the young lad will then be able to reveal his true identity when he knows that his love will be returned. Together with them the other couples, Agata and Ferdinando are reconciled to each other and all ends happily ever after in a grand finale with dreams of love and faithfulness fully realised.
In other words, just a story of typical interweavings, subterfuges, misunderstandings, reproaches, arguments and quarrels between lovers such as take place most days in some quiet corner of Italian small-town squares. And indeed, the production was set in sort of present-day tycoon’s villa within easy reach of Forte dei Marmi
The recitatives were spoken and had to be translated from Neapolitan for the benefit of the mainly Tuscan audience. But what music and what singing! A true little baroque instrumental ensemble, complete with corni da caccia, baroque bassoon, theorbo, baroque guitar and baroque oboes shows that, after a late start in the field, Italian baroque ensemble know the “authentic” business to the full and produce a sound that is in every way more “period” than their pioneers in Holland and the UK.
For me the top-class singing came with Silvestri’s Flaminio and Grassi’s saucy Checca, outstanding not just for vocal delivery but also for acting.
The evening started at 8.30 pm and ended after midnight. There was just a short interval, the hall became hotter and hotter and the seats were rather hard. But such is the magic of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s music that it took over any thoughts of discomfort. To walk back through a gorgeous city like Pisa in the small hours was to be as happy as a tom cat in love and as light as a passenger in a Montgolfier balloon.
Truly a night at the opera to remember!