Pathos? Check. Elegance? Right again. Apollonian restraint? In abundance. But comedy? Hmm.
In its chamber opera productions of recent years and its more ambitious biennial shows, the Boston Early Music Festival has chosen repertoire that highlights many fascinating aspects of the under-trafficked operatic Baroque. But comic opera, until this weekend, has rarely been high on its agenda. We might here picture the scandalized French writers who launched the famous “Querelle des Bouffons” of the mid-18th century: “O what times! O what habits! . . . They are laughing at the Opéra, splitting their sides with laughter!”
The offending comic vehicle in this distant if much-anthologized war of words — one that swept up writers as important as Jean-Jacques Rousseau — was Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona,” written as a featherweight intermezzo to be performed between the acts of the composer’s longer and much more sober “Il prigionier superbo.” In this case, the overarching opera has been all but forgotten, while Pergolesi’s comic gem, about a capricious household servant who charms and cons her master into marriage, has achieved immortality.
For its annual chamber opera production in Jordan Hall, the BEMF creative team paired “La Serva Padrona” with another Pergolesi intermezzo, the charming “Livietta e Tracollo,” about a wily country girl in pursuit of a thief who dons various disguises — now a Polish woman, now an astrologer — to elude her before repenting through marriage.
Borrowing an ounce or two of whimsy from these source materials, and with a nod to a popular form of the time, director Gilbert Blin served up the two intermezzi in a pastiche of his own invention; that is, rather than run them in succession, this production interlayered scenes from both operas, switching the action back and forth, and heading off the whole affair with the overture from “Il prigionier superbo.”
Juxtaposing the works in this way kept the afternoon’s pacing lively, even if it underlined some of the redundancies and stock plot devices between the two. Yet even these one hardly minded given the quality and vibrancy of the singing from Amanda Forsythe and Erica Schuller (sopranos), Douglas Williams (bass-baritone), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone). The BEMF chamber orchestra was perched right in the center of the staging — so close to the action that oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz at one point had his pockets picked — but more to the point, it conveyed the full measure of Pergolesi’s wit through a performance with all the zest and earthy opulence one has come to expect from these outstanding musicians. The house on Sunday, the second of two performances, was far less full than this production deserved.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.