Arts: Upstairs, downstairs

Andrew Stewart finds Pergolesi's domestic comedy well served by Benjamin Luxon's directorial debut
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The Independent Culture
Although there are no obvious signs of a green baize door at David Solomon's Broomhill country house, it's tempting to imagine that the master was able to move with ease from his private theatre to the servants' quarters for a spot of post-performance fun. Certainly Broomhill offered the ideal venue for Pergolesi's ever popular La serva padrona, that unusually witty treatment of the maid who has Milord at her service.

Broomhill's sparky new period-costume production marks Benjamin Luxon's professional directing debut, its success suggesting that he knows how to draw decent acting from singers and appreciates the importance of entertaining an audience. The Cornish baritone, left partially deaf by the onset of Meniere's syndrome a few years back, is presently considering future career opportunities. La serva padrona served notice that Luxon has a rare balance of wit and wisdom that should guarantee him worthwhile employment.

Among the ancient myths associated with Pergolesi's intermezzo, few have less grounding in truth than the persistent claim that the role of Uberto, the master of the house, "sings itself", offering the sort of music that gives instant satisfaction to the baritone voice. If that be so, then many singers have fallen badly at the first fence, unhappy with the wide vocal range demanded in the score. Matthew Hargreaves is blessed both with the basso qualities necessary to give substance to the character and with the lightness of voice to explore Uberto's upper reaches - a bass-baritone of attractive tonal richness, coupled with secure flexibility. What's more, he has a knack for the natural delivery of Italian recitative lacking among so many otherwise admirable young British singers.

Marie-Louise Aitken's sassy Serpina, the serving maid, managed to catch her man with a teasing mix of vocal expression and body language, even if the former was less varied and alluring than the latter. Her delivery of "A Serpina penserete", however, was vocally and dramatically powerful, a match for Hargreaves's best work.

The wrinkled retainer Vespone, played by Jason Furnival, bumbled and fumbled with an awkwardness that seemed to come naturally, gingerly soaping Uberto's chops during his first aria before setting to work with a rusty cut-throat razor, and later powdering his master's wig to add further realism to the scene of domestic absurdity.

The conductor, Charles Peebles, neatly side-stepped the problem of finding a suitable chamber opera to share the bill with Pergolesi's short masterpiece by prefacing the work with a programme of other pieces inspired or written by the short-lived Italian. Admittedly, Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances have no connection with Pergolesi, and some of the original tunes used by Stravinsky as the foundation for his Pulcinella-based Suite Italienne, played with passionate intensity by cellist Josephine Knight and pianist David Wickham, have since been attributed to others. Even so, their fresh neo-classicism echoed the uplifting spirit of the overture to Pergolesi's comedy of manners Lo frate 'nnamorato, delivered with great panache by Broomhill's resident orchestra, Eos. As in La serva padrona, Peebles here extracted fine things from the small band, highlighting the value of making clear dynamic contrasts and setting judicious speeds.

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