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The thirty-eighth season of the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, Frank Ell, director, (based at Warren Wilson College and performing there and in Hendersonville and Waynesville) presented their closing program in Kittredge Theatre.
To set the scene a little for this performance, keep in mind that it's closing night of a very successful season. The orchestra for this opera consists of a string quartet and harpsichord, somebody's undoubtedly beloved ancient Zuckermann kit, vintage ca. 1959. The orchestra is not in a pit but in the rear corner of stage right, inviting the feeling that we are in a nobleman's salon. The performers are their own stagehands. The conductor appears beforehand and adjusts his music on the harpsichord. The cello player comes out early and tunes his cello to the harpsichord and arranges the music stands. There are only two stands at first, for the violins. He goes off and returns with one more for himself. So now the first and second violins and the cello have stands. Vespone, Pergolesi's mute servant character, comes out into the audience, a-speakinga with anna Italian accent and warms up the crowd. The Festival Director, Frank Ell, introduces the College President, Sandy Pfeiffer, who has words of welcome, and then Ell introduces the opera. The performers come out, sit down, and the viola player realizes he has no stand. He looks around helplessly and in horror, then stands and says, "I'll go and get another stand." Exit stage right. And the cello player (the devil who set this up) grins at the violins and says, "That's the best viola joke ever!" A perfect start for opera buffa!
La Serva Padrona was conceived as an intermezzo, hence is not long and requires no elaborate sets. The Kittredge stage was a spare but delightful set, with a Tudor-revival great chair, a furniture-store Sheraton side chair, a golden oak center table, the sketchiest of bookcases, a hall tree, and the obligatory over-scale Warren Wilson flower arrangement on a pedestal. The orchestra in the corner is part of the set.
Don't worry if you can't follow the plot from my comments. It doesn't matter. Just relax and enjoy it.
Enter stage right Uberto, the gruff old master, clad in knee breeches, a bathrobe dressing gown, and a wig best described as "false hair"! Singing in extremely clear English, he utters the age-old complaint about how sorry his servant girl is. He is complaining to his other servant, a mute, Vespone. So who comes next? Serpina, the very worthless servant in question, with a dazzlingly-sung aria, "No, no, no, no, Serpina wants it so!" Every time she hits one of her several fff notes, Vespone dives for cover. The aria bends its way gently into a duet with Uberto. During Serpina's ensuing slow aria, love-besotted Uberto embraces and caresses Serpina's feather duster.
In the second intermezzo there's a fine recitative which includes a foolish dialog between the first violin and Uberto. Ranney continues his excellence with the aria, "Oh what a sorry mess that gives me great distress." At the same time, Serpina and Vespone are plotting to get Uberto to marry Serpina. The stratagems include tricking out Vespone as Captain Tempest, suitor for Serpina's hand. He shows up with swords loud clashing, intimidates Uberto into proposing to his servant girl, and blessed their union with his sword lying atop their joined hands. Once married, Serpina and Uberto break into a love duet in which the da capos are used for slapstick with Vespone. Joy reigns supreme, the scent of ham pervades the room, and a jolly time is had by all.
Praise for flawless performance goes to everyone involved: the director, baritone Todd Ranney as Uberto; his wife, soprano Catherine Robison, as Serpina; Warren Wilson's Chair of the Theatre Department, Graham Paul, as the mute Vespone; conductor Steven Williams (also on the Warren Wilson faculty); Fabrice Dharamraj, violin; Lenora Leggat, violin; Simon Ertz, viola; and music stand stooge, Philip von Maltzahn, cello.
Ranney and Robison are well-paired together and sang beautifully. Paul has the most flexible expression and the best sense of dancing every step of his role. And his diction, his eloquent elocution, the crispness of his lines was unequalled. (I did mention he's playing a mute, didn't I?)
The instrumentalists played with rollicking excellent verve while enduring the torments of the feather duster and wine flask of Serpina and Vespone. They were totally serious in their professional standards while sharing our laughs. Dharamraj's dialog with Uberto was especially note-worthy; everyone's intonation was superb. In spite of the inadequacy of the harpsichord, Steven Williams' performance was precise, stylish, and in the recitatives, appropriately alive and dramatic. Praise also to a man of many talents, Frank Ell, Festival Director, and, for Serva Padrona, producer and properties manager.
When my wife’s grandmother was in her early nineties, completely housebound and demented, my wife called her one day and asked what she had done that day. She said she had been to the “Presbyterian Opera.” Well, folks, Warren Wilson’s Kittredge Theatre is the Presbyterian Opera House, and La Serva Padrona was Presbyterian opera in the lap of Rome, and very fine!
This performance will be my standard of excellence for La Serva Padrona.