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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
La Dirindina (1715) [32:00]
Dirindina – Elena De Simone (soprano)
Liscione – Filippo Pina-Castiglioni (tenor)
Don Carissimo – Carlo Torriani (baritone)
Lo Splendore di San Marco/Diego Bortolato
Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751)
Pimpinone (1708) [46:00]
Vespetta – Elena De Simone (soprano)
Pimpinone – Carlo Torriani (baritone)
Le Humane Virtý/Alberto Busettini
Director – Carlo Torriani
rec. live, March 29, 2014,Teatro Accademico di Castelfranco Veneto.
DYNAMIC 37719 DVD [78:00]

The genre of the Italian comic intermezzo is perhaps most remarkable for its absolute domination by one masterpiece: Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona (1733). This was the only example to survive into the nineteenth century and remains the only one likely to be known to non-experts. Yet behind and around it stand hundreds of other examples, in many cases representing very similar stories, and in comparable music.

For anyone new to the genre, there is a wonderful book which tells you everything you could wish to know: Charles E. Troy’s The Comic Intermezzo (1979). As Troy explains in detail, the intermezzi developed from the comic scenes that had become a fixture in Italian opera of the later 1600s. In the last decade of the seventeenth century, as efforts were made to ‘purify’ opere serie of these comic intrusions, so the comedy was literally separated out and made into an independent work – but one that would be woven through an opera seria, so that after each act of the main opera, there would be a comic diversion in the form of one part of an evolving intermezzo. La Serva Padrona, originally performed between the acts of Pergolesi’s own Il Prigioniero Superbo, was part of the greatest flourishing of the genre between about 1710 and 1740; by the mid-century the intermezzo was already in decline because of the steady retreat of opera seria in the face of the proliferation of comic opera. (One of the reasons for the great longevity of La Serva Padrona, intriguingly, is that it was co-opted by historians of comic opera and represented, inaccurately, as an early prototype of opera buffa rather than a comparatively late example of the comic intermezzo.)

One of the problems, in dealing with the intermezzi, is that because of the great cult around Pergolesi after his death, the way La Serva Padrona came to stand as an outstanding example of ‘natural’ Italian music in France (where it was championed by Rousseau), and the subsequent rise of the sometimes rather unhelpful category of ‘classical music’, they tend to be regarded as fundamentally musical works. They are not. They are little bits of popular theatre in which the text is as important as the music and the performance arguably more so. The misconception means that although a considerable number of comic intermezzi have been recorded in the CD era, as part of the restless search for new repertoire, as sound recordings they too frequently fall rather flat. They are not, in general, as musically rich as La Serva Padrona, and to borrow a metaphor of Edward Dent’s, they sometimes suggest “an economical person … determined to make the smallest amount of butter go the furthest possible way”.

DVD is a far more natural medium for these works, and Dynamic’s enterprising release of video recordings of Domenico Scarlatti’s La Dirindina and Tomaso Albinoni’s Pimpinone is exemplary. Both performances, beautifully directed by Carlo Torriani, make the viewer keenly aware of how very important the acting is to the overall effect. They are not, strictly speaking, authentic performances, in that they do not present the intermezzi in anything like the way they would have been presented in the eighteenth century. Rather, they are presented in eighteenth-century dress and in settings designed to evoke eighteenth-century Italy; it is a deceptive sort of historicism, but a very charming one, and probably the best way to interest a modern audience in works which, originally, would have appeared wholly contemporary.

may, I think, claim to be the earliest of all the intermezzi recorded to date: it was first performed in Venice in 1708. This puts it in the first decade or so of the independent intermezzo and it is fascinating to see how much it anticipates later developments. It actually tells the same story as La Serva Padrona, though in a more extended form. In the first part, a maid, Vespetta, is looking for work; she charms the foolish but wealthy old dandy Pimpinone into employing her. In the second part she takes advantage of his feelings and manoeuvres him into offering his hand in marriage, assuring him she will be a perfectly discreet and frugal wife. In the third part, now married, she shows she will be as extravagant and indiscreet as she likes, and there is nothing he can do about it. Originally, as these three parts would have been presented separately, the chronological gaps between the scenes would have been, as it were, ‘explained’; but it is noteworthy that the more compressed Serva Padrona, which can be imagined happening more or less in real time, has a considerable advantage when presented continuously, and this may be one reason for its triumphant survival after intermezzi were no longer required for their original function. Pimpinone includes some delightful, robust music, but it lacks something of the continuous melodic vivacity of La Serva Padrona, which one can recognize now as, in every respect, a refinement of an idea developed over several decades. Albinoni’s lengthy recitative sections would indeed be rather dull were it not for the fine comic acting of Elena De Simone as a beguiling, spirited Vespetta and Torriani himself as a gouty-looking Pimpinone seemingly half aware of his own stupidity. They play very much to the audience, or viewer, as the text, with its dozens of ‘asides’, demands, successfully combining comic realism with self-conscious theatricality – something all these intermezzi require.

Little is known of the private lives of Italian composers in this period, but one must suppose Domenico Scarlatti found some emotional difficulty in embarking on an operatic career which for over two decades overlapped with that of his far more famous father, Alessandro Scarlatti. Nevertheless, he achieved considerable success in the genre. La Dirindina was composed for the Teatro Capranica, Rome, in 1715, but ran into censorship difficulties and had to be cancelled. The earliest known performance of the text took place in Venice in 1725, but whether this used Scarlatti’s score or was newly composed is unknown.

Like Pimpinone, La Dirindina anticipates much that came later. It turns on the scenario of the singing lesson. Don Carrissimo, sung by Torriani, lusts after his pupil, Dirindina, sung by De Simone, and has difficulty focusing her attention on his musical instruction. She makes him jealous by talking of Liscione, a castrato. Liscione, beautifully enacted by Filippo Pina-Castiglioni, turns up with an invitation for Dirindina to perform professionally in Milan, and despite Don Carrissimo’s protestations she says she will go. In the second of the two parts, it is Liscione who instructs Dirindina on the best way to make an impression in Milan. She sings a scene from a Dido and Aeneas opera for him, and Don Carrissimo quietly entering misunderstands and concludes that Liscione is abandoning Dirindina, having made her pregnant. He attempts to get them to marry, but they laughingly refuse. As a big part of the joke is the idea that a castrato could become a father, one can see why the prudish Roman censors opposed the work. But the satire is broad and everything is laughed at including, delightfully, the medium of opera itself: how can Don Carissimo mistake a scene from an opera for a ‘real’ scene between lovers? Theatrically speaking, La Dirindina is a much more sophisticated work than Pimpinone, and the same goes for the music, which has its own games to play and involves a good deal of very entertaining burlesque. Although there have been good sound recordings available for decades (review review), its appearance on DVD is most welcome. It has been brought to life superbly.

In conclusion, this DVD is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the Italian comic intermezzo. La Serva Padrona remains the best, and most readily accessible, introduction to the genre, but anyone who has enjoyed that can proceed with confidence to these earlier intermezzi, especially La Dirindina. Similarly, anyone interested in comic opera before Mozart, who lacks the time to listen to two and three hour works, will find these little entertainments delightful.
David Chandler



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