In Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s 1733 comic opera La Serva Padrona (“The Maid Made Mistress”), a maid sets her sights on her boss, and through a combination of flirtatious behaviour and well-meant duplicity, convinces him that he has really loved her all along. The work is small and intimate with a deceptive simplicity that belies the sophistication of the music, allowing a fusion between comic theatre and comic opera.
It is, of course, a story that has played out in many times and many places — it is not unknown even here.
We have taken the music — the sly, wry and perky arias and duets — and have set the story in an Italian restaurant … somewhere in Hong Kong. Uberto is the very uptight Italian maitre d’, while Serpina is the not-very-conscientious local young woman he’s hired as waitress and who causes him no end of trouble. There’s another fellow working there but we’re not sure where he’s from because no one ever allows him to say anything.
La Serva Padrona is a short work — it was originally meant to be performed as light entertainment in-between the acts of a much longer serious work. (In Italian, it is even referred to as an intermezzo, or intermission.) We also added some additional arias from Gaetano Donizetti’s famous comic opera Don Pasquale, which debuted exactly 100 years later.
Those who pay attention to such things will notice that the work draws on the stock characters and situations Italian commedia dell’arte, a similarly timeless art form that influenced theatrical comedy all over the Western world, even finding it way into well-known films. We ourselves happily borrow from everything!
Most importantly, we want to prove that opera is for everyone — even you! The special production of just over an hour, and brought to you free-of-charge by the Italian Cultural Institute as part of the Italia Mia festival, will delight those both those who already know their way around the opera house — but especially, those who have never been before!
[Image is a detail from an RCA LP of La Serva Padrona with Anna Moffo]