Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - Lo frate 'nnamorato
Teatro G.B Pergolesi, Jesi - 2011
Fabio Biondi, Willy Landin, Nicola Alaimo, Elena Belfiore, Patrizia Biccirè, Jurgita Adamonyte, Barbara di Castri, David Alegret, Laura Cherici, Rosa Bove, Filippo Morace
Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
It's remarkable. Up until only a year or two ago, Pergolesi's reputation rested mainly on a few important sacred compositions (notably his Stabat Mater) and a few comic opera works that were perhaps more famous for the historical significance than for their musical qualities. Now, thanks to the work of the Pergolesi-Spontini Foundation and the release of all his operas on DVD (only his earliest religious drama Le conversione e morte di S. Guglielmo has yet to be released), we have a much more complete picture of a composer who tragically died in 1736 at the age of only 26. It's been something of a revelation.
The two most famous Pergolesi operas prior to these new editions of his other work - La Serva Padrona and Lo frate 'nnamorato - now actually prove to be among the lesser of Pergolesi's compositions when compared to his achievements in the opera seria style (particularly his incomparable version of L'Olimpiade). The place of these two works in opera history however is still assured and significant on account of the part they played in the Querelle des buffons, with the Italian opera buffa style moving away from the rigid formalism of royal entertainments on classical themes. Dealing with subjects relating to common people, they can undoubtedly be seen to have had an important influence on Mozart in this respect. Written in the Neapolitan dialect, the 'commedia per musica' Lo frate 'nnamorato has an even more down-to-earth quality and a more complex arrangement than the Intermezzo origins and the domestic revolutionary sentiments of La Serva Padrona.
The plot of Lo frate 'nnamorato - which is one of Pergolesi's earliest works - now seems quite typical of the genre that he helped create. There's a complicated web of romantic entanglements where everyone is in love with someone who doesn't love them, a situation that would likely end in unhappiness for all concerned were it not for some late revelations about lost relatives, secret identities and unexplained mysterious backgrounds. The social context however doesn't appear to be particularly significant - the marriages being arranged are more for convenience than for gaining of social status. The primary mover, for example, is an elderly gentleman, Marcaniello who hopes to marry one of his friend Carlo's nieces Nina along with his son Don Pietro marrying the other niece Nena, in exchange for a match being made for Carlo with his own daughter Luggrezia. Unfortunately Luggrezia is in love with Ascanio, so that messes up the arrangement somewhat, particularly since Ascanio is more drawn to Carlo's nieces.
The significance of Lo frate 'nnamorato of course is that this complicated set of affairs is played not for the sentiments of melancholy and despair over betrayal and unrequited love, but for the humour implicit in the situation. Little of that however comes from the main characters, although Don Pietro is certainly a bit of a joker who likes to flirt with the maids and tries certain unconventional methods of romantic persuasion while the others just seem to prefer bemoaning the lot that fate has drawn for them. It's actually the maids Vanella and Cardella however who are the real heart of the work - down-to-earth, a little more realistic about life, taking no nonsense from Don Pietro or indeed any of the other men and masters, two "serva padronas" irreverently making fun of their self-indulgence, false hopes, illusions and self-deceptions.
Without the seemingly minor contributions of Vanella and Cardella, Lo frate 'nnamorato would indeed be a rather conventional account of characters in the throes of despair over the trials of unrequited love, but the work also gains from Pergolesi's musical arrangements, his inventive comic writing and the earthy character of the libretto's Neapolitan dialect. That's given a fine account here in the 2011 production at Jesi by Fabio Biondi leading his Europa Galante ensemble on violin. It's a small ensemble of about 12 musicians, but as such the precision playing is all the more evident, as is the inherent warmth and lyricism within the score itself. It's a beautiful performance of the work that, unfortunately, isn't entirely matched by the production itself or the singing, which often feels rather lacking in life.
The singing on all the Pergolesi performances from Jesi so far has been of an exceptional standard, but their Lo frate 'nnamorato isn't the strongest. The problem could be that there are quite a number of demanding roles to fill here that require strong singers experienced and capable enough to handle the lyrical coloratura, and that's a bit lacking in some places. The young cast however are all good, the voices fresh, lyrical and distinctive, particularly in the roles where it counts. Patrizia Biccirè's Nena is one of the best performers here and Elena Belfiore - the mezzo-soprano used for the Ascanio countertenor/castrato role - is also excellent. The Act II trio between Ascanio, Nena and Nina ('Se 'l foco mio t' infiamma') is accordingly one of the highlights.
If the coloratura is tricky and shows up weaknesses in some of the singers, the staging itself isn't particularly helpful. The sets for Willy Landin's production are attractive however and the updating of the period to what looks like the 1950s doesn't do the work any harm at all. It's beautifully lit and coloured with warm sepias, oranges and browns, a provincial Italian village with gossipy neighbours and maids looking on and flirting with Don Pietro who arrives on the set on his moped. The stage directions however, although they try to keep the singers involved in some occupation, don't really succeed in making it come to life. The best performances then tend to be the ones then who manage to strike a good balance between the singing requirements and entering into the spirit of the work. Fortunately, in that respect the maids Vanella and Cardella played by Laura Cherici and Rosa Bove are both excellent, keeping the work vital and entertaining to such an extent that it drags a little when they are not on the stage.
Arthaus provide another quality BD release for Lo frate 'nnamorato. The image quality is superb, clear with warm colouration, and the audio tracks capture all the detail of the musical arrangements and the singing. The disc is a BD50, compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. There are no extra features other than Trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles and a booklet with an essay on the work. There is no synopsis, but the plot is covered briefly in the essay and there is a full track listing that helps initially identify all the characters.