- Intermezzo in 2 parts
- Composer: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
- Libretto: Gennarantonio Federico
- First performed: Teatro San Bartolomeo, Naples, 28 August 1733
For a comic interlude of 45 minutes, La serva padrona carries a lot of weight on her slim shoulders. She’s the ancestrix of both the Italian opera buffa and the French opéra comique.
The wily maidservant Serpina (little snake!) tricks her employer, Uberto, into marrying her, becoming both servant and mistress. She wears the pants right from the start; she refuses to serve him his hot chocolate, or to let him go outside. He pouts, he protests – but Serpina gives the orders. Uberto, we suspect, is happy with the outcome; he’s attracted to the girl he raised, but too comfortable with bachelorhood to act, until threatened by a furious soldier (his mute servant in disguise, a ruse later adopted by Count Almaviva).
La serva padrona is agreeable, particularly when performed by a pair of talented comic actors. The music is simple and tuneful, but not brilliant; the highlights are probably the duet “Lo conosco, a quegli occhietti”, which ends the first scene, and Uberto’s aria “Son imbrogliato io già”, part opera seria parody, part buffo patter aria.
The opera’s two scenes were performed between acts of Pergolesi’s Il prigioniero superbo (not a success). Intermezzi (comic interludes, usually involving a domestic situation and commedia dell’arte characters) alternated with opera seria’s acts of classical heroism and virtuoso castrati as early as 1706; as Zeno and Metastasio developed opera seria, there was no longer a place for the humorous servant scenes of the sort found in, for example, Monteverdi’s Poppea. A comedy sandwiched in a serious work seems odd to a modern audience, who expect to see a single work undiluted, but remained the rule well into the 19th century; ballet would be performed between the acts of a Rossini or Verdi opera. (In France, of course, the ballet was worked into the opera.)
Pergolesi’s little work was a typical intermezzo, but was soon seen as the definitive example. “Not much noted at the time,” Thomas Bauman writes, “it later gained national and international recognition as a stylish exemplar of a new comic manner, one of spare textures, witty motivic play in both voice and accompaniment, and an overall vivacity suggestive of on-stage gestures at every turn.”
La serva was a model for the opera buffa; Warrack & West point to its common, everyday characters; natural voices (prominent role for bass; no castrati); sharp characterization; witty, lively libretti; and sentiment and everyday emotions (no formalized expressions of love).
We can see its influence clearly on Rossini and Donizetti’s opere buffe, or even Mozart. The elderly, pompous buffo bass Uberto is the ancestor of Dr Bartolo or Don Pasquale, for instance, while Despina, Susanna, and Rosina (Rossini’s) owe much to the cunning Serpina.
In France, La serva provoked the Querelle de Bouffons between supporters of Italian opera buffa and admirers of French tragédie lyrique. Eustache Bambini’s Italian company performed the opera at the Académie royale between the acts of Lully’s Acis et Galatée in 1752. (The work had already been staged at the Comédie-Italienne in 1746 without excitement.) The Coin de la reine – the Queen, intellectuals, and connoisseurs, including Rousseau (inspired to write his own opera, Le devin du village), Diderot, Grimm, D’Alembert – believed that “Italian opera had refreshed a moribund tradition with greater simplicity and naturalness, putting less reliance on elaborate techniques” (Warrack & West). The Coin du Roi – Louis XV, Mme de Pompadour, the court, and aristocracy – believed, on the other hand, that Lully was the operatic nonpareil. Pamphlets flew furiously for two years until the king banned Bambini’s troupe. It was replaced at the Opéra by Rameau’s Aristophanic Platée, which the Italian faction hailed as a masterwork.
A French translation, La servante maîtresse, ran for 150 consecutive performances at the Théâtre-Italien from 1754. Pergolesi’s opera was the model for the French comédie mélée d’ariettes, which eventually developed into the opéra comique of Philidor and Monsigny.
- Thomas Bauman: ‘The Eighteenth Century: Comic Opera’, in The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, 1994
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997
- UBERTO, an old man (buffo bass): Gioacchino Corrado
- SERPINA, his maid (soprano): Laura Monti
- VESPONE, his servant (silent)
- Introduzione: Aspettare e non venire (Uberto)
- Aria: Sempre in contraste con te si sta (Uberto)
- Aria: Stizzoso, mio stizzoso, voi fate il borioso (Serpina)
- Duetto: Lo conosco, a quegli occhietti (Serpina, Uberto)
- Aria: A Serpina penserete, qualche volte e qualche di… (Serpina)
- Aria: Son imbrogliato io già (Uberto)
- Finale – Duetto: Per te ho io nel core (Serpina, Uberto)