Paisiello’s Excellent “La Serva Padrona”

cover GB2578-2

PAISIELLO: La Serva Padrona / Valeria La Grotta, sop (Serpina); Giuseppe Naviglio, bar (Uberto); Orchestra Barocca Santa Teresa dei Maschi; Sabino Manzo, cond / Bongiovanni GB2578-2 (live: Taranto, Italy, April 19, 2018)

Poor Paisiello had the misfortune to write an opera based on the same exact libretto as a timeless classic by his predecessor Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and even by the time his version premiered in 1781 everyone was still going to see and hear the Pergolesi version. Yet although Paisiello’s version is not quite as bouncy as Pergolesi’s, it is by no means musically inferior, as this new issue of a live performance clearly shows. But that wasn’t the end of Paisiello’s misery. A year later, in 1782, he wrote a hit opera of his own, Il barbiere di Siviglia, but unfortunately lived long enough to see it wiped off the boards by Rossini’s version, which premiered in February 1816 (Paisiello died in June of that year).

This is not its first recording—there are competing versions on the ARTS Music and Nuova Era labels—but it is the first to use the unpublished critical edition which has no cuts in the recitatives or pezzo chiuso numbers. As a gimmick, it is also pitched down to 415 Hz (which, as I’ve pointed out in my chart on pitches used in European theaters of the late 18th century, is incorrect, as many of them were using A=440 or higher) and has one of those whiny, innocuous-sounding straight-tone orchestras.

But what a lively and interesting work this is…in my opinion, actually superior musically to the Pergolesi, whose music is exceedingly simple and strophic, with very little in the way of melodic invention or overall musical development. Paisiello was clearly no Mozart, but he certainly wasn’t a hack composer, either. Uberto’s aria “Sempre in contrasti con te si sta” clearly had some influence on Rossini, and in fact the manner by which Paisiello makes him sound impatient is much better than Pergolesi’s. In addition, although Paisiello, like Pergolesi, used a fairly small orchestral palette, his orchestration is subtler and more interesting. In short, the music is just plain better. Even when he throws in a few bits of fioratura for the soprano, the effect is humorous and charming rather than sounding intrusive. The only set piece that I didn’t particularly like was Serpina’s aria “Donne vaghe i studi nostril,” which was kind of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, using a very simple and repetitive melody.

It also helps that our two principals (the servant Vespone is again a mute role) have both excellent voices and a keen comedic sense. Baritone Giuseppe Navigilio has a fine, rich voice with a very attractive timbre and not a hint of wobble. and I also liked the fact that, in addition to her bright tone and excellent command of fioratura, soprano Valeria La Grotta has a “smile” in her voice, an extremely rare commodity among singers nowadays. I was not terribly surprised to read, in the booklet, that her voice teacher was the superb Roberta Invernizzi, whose singing I have long admired. Also, both singers have crystal-clear diction, also a rarity nowadays.

As for Sabino Manzo’s conducting, it is brisk and serviceable enough to not annoy one too much. although the strings seem to be out of synch in attacking one particular chord during Uberto’s recitative “Ah! poveretta lei!.” I wish I could say more about the orchestra, but in addition to the bizarre sound of the straight-tone strings it suffers from under-recorded sound. I’m guessing that the microphones were placed right above the singers, who come across clearly, but which receded the orchestral sound somewhat. Yet given the overall excellence of both the work and its performance, I was rather taken aback by the sound of the applause. It sounds as if only about 30-50 people were present, and for the most part they don’t sound very enthusiastic.

Recommended, particularly to lovers of late-18th century opera.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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