Thu, 28 Aug 2003

'La Serva Padrona' now in Jakarta

Gus Kairupan, Contributor, Jakarta

Poor Uberto ... rich, living on easy street, master of all he surveys; in short, a conglomerate (of the 18th century, that is). And to top all that, he's a bachelor.

You'd think that whatever he whispers would be a command to whoever happens to be within earshot, that all he has to do is lift a little pinkie and hordes of underlings rush forward to do his bidding. Including Serpina, the woman who runs his household.

So why is he yelling for his morning cup of cocoa, and not a soul comes flying to his side to obey him? And where is Serpina who is supposedly in charge of supplying him with the stuff? She's present all right, but knowing that her boss' bark is far worse than his bite she's long since decided to stop being a mere cipher in the house. Besides, she herself has a bag of tricks up her sleeve, one of which - the most vital one, actually - is a scheme to become Mrs. Uberto.

How she does it is the plot of an opera called La Serva Padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, 18th century Italian composer who, though only reaching the age of 26 (1710-1736), has had an enormous influence on the development of opera buffa, the term for comic opera, especially those that emerged in the 18th century.

In a way, opera buffa could be described as a reaction against opera seria, i.e. serious opera. Up to the 18th century it was opera seria that held sway, the kind of opera that had such top- heavy plots involving gods, goddesses, famous heroes, heroines, kings, emperors -- in short the sort of folk who, socially speaking, are miles above your friendly neighborhood butcher, baker and candlestick maker -- and yourself, naturally.

Boring? Depends on how you look at it and what you regard as your cup of tea. But evidently, even though opera seria was the be-all and end-all of musical stage forms in those days, there seemed to have been enough maestros around who thought that all that heavy drama stuff could well arouse some unwanted sound effects, i.e. snores, from the audience.

So what they did was shove in a bit of comic relief in the proceedings in the form of short but complete comical sketches that had nothing to do with the main plot. Pergolesi was definitely one of them and nothing could describe it better than La Serva Padrona.

You see, Pergolesi composed an opera called Il Prigionier Superbo, which would have been an opera seria, and he inserted La Serva in it to make audiences giggle a bit. So what happened?

La Serva Padrona, the intermezzo designed to lend the comic touch, outlived the main work. Perhaps no one knows about Il Prigionier Superbo even among opera buffs, but mention La Serva Padrona and you get knowing nods from all directions. It is now performed as a fully complete opera, though consisting of only one act. So are some of Mozart's stage works, like Der Schauspieldirektor.

Precisely how La Serva Padrona is to be staged here in Jakarta is a secret. Go and see for yourself. Suffice it to say that you won't be transported back to 18th century Europe, because the plot is something that fits in any period at any time, even in Indonesia during the colonial period.

It's firmly rooted in what in theatrical circles is known as commedia dell'arte -- a type of comedy full of stock characters like, say, a shyster lawyer, a young woman attracted to a young man and trying to make him jealous by pretending she's in love with a soldier, her mean penny-pinching guardian, but most of all and most importantly perhaps, a rather stupid older man of influence and wealth who's being had by his far cleverer underlings or servants.

That's what commedia dell'arte is all about and all those elements are present in La Serva Padrona, an opera with only four characters (actually three): Uberto, the wealthy not-so-smart older bachelor; Serpina, the maid with quite a sharp mind and even sharper tongue; Vespone (mute role), another servant in cohorts with Serpina; and a soldier named Tempesta (actually Vespone in disguise) whom Serpina introduces as her boyfriend in order to make Uberto jealous.

The production features an Australian cast: soprano Kylie Pointer as Serpina and Jerzy Kozlowski (bass) has the role of Uberto; director is Hugh Halliday while Phillip Green (no stranger to the classical music scene in Jakarta) conducts the orchestra (and singers too, of course) which since its inception in the year 1993, occupies the top position in the world of classical music in Indonesia as the most important orchestra.

The Capella Amadeus String Chamber Orchestra this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, and in that period has made enormous strides, not only in Jakarta, but in many regional capitals, while last December the group received standing ovations from audiences in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Taipei.

La Serva Padrona assuredly will not be an disappointment to classical music lovers in Jakarta.

La Serva Padrona to be performed at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta on Friday, Aug. 29. For further information and tickets, please contact Yuni at Yayasan Musik Amadeus, tel. 021-7662853/54/57.