That Friday time slot -- after dinner but before dancing, drinking, or the brave walk back to the Libe -- is perfect for catching a quick show and discovering once again how talented Carleton students are. Last week’s main event, La Serva Padrona (“The Maid as Mistress”) was the first in what will hopefully be a long succession of performances under the sleek new billing “Opera at the Weitz.”
The impetus to bring the 1733 Giovanni Pergolesi work to Carleton began during a conversation that student director Julian Pozniak ‘14 had with Music Professor Laurence Burnett during his freshman year. Although Pozniak admitted that he was, at times, overwhelmed trying to coordinate both the conducting and directing, the end result was a clear success.
Alec Scott ‘13 was very convincing as the lazy, slow-minded Uberto whose quotidian challenges included having his chocolate brought to him and reading a book without falling asleep. Eventually, he tries to find a wife, in order to escape the overreaching of his maid, Serpina, played by Caroline Bolster ‘15.
Scott was especially hilarious toward the end, portraying a dimwit in deliberation interacting with his thoughts as if they were tangible entities as he sang the “aria son imbrogliatio io gia!” (“I am all perplexed!”). Bolster ordered the other characters around with her elegant, devious smile and a beautiful voice that soared to hit notes few would dare try.
Samuel Vinitsky ‘16, who showed himself as a talented singer last term in “Story of My Life”, played a mute in this production but still brought lots of energy as Umberto’s servant, Vespone.
Probably the funniest moment of the night came when Vespone, disguised as Serpina’s husband-to-be, hopelessly tries to keep on a fake mustache as part of her ruse to win Uberto’s hand in marriage.
Emily Kolenbrander ‘14, Julian Killough-Miller ‘14, Nada Batu ‘14, Deborah Shapiro ‘13, Grace Whitmore ‘14, and Pozniak all put forth great performances in the chamber orchestra. They carried the pace during the evening with fun, accessible music.
One of the biggest challenges when putting on this kind of production is coordinating the music with the action, made even more difficult due to the six-week winter break without practice.
The fact that the cast had mature voices and lots of acting experience certainly made Pozniak’s job less daunting. Scot is familiar to many for his roles in The Tempest and Tis a Pity She’s A Whore; Bolster also has a theater background and had attended an opera workshop.
Blocking was an area that could have been problematic, but besides a couple of confusing moments in a Tom-and-Jerry-like scene at the beginning, the show did a good job fitting the action to the words and melody.
The actors mixed it up well during repetitive arias -- even finding several creative ways to involve the musicians -- and overall made good use of a space that could have felt too big for a small cast.
The story was not one that begs to be read deeply into and, since a summary provided in the program ensured that the audience didn’t have to worry about trying figure out the plot, most of one’s time could be devoted to simply enjoying the music, voices, funny expressions and the absurd struggles of an inept Italian and his house-helpers.
The piece, basically written as filler in 18th-century Naples, somehow made its way to college students in rural Minnesota. The show put forth considerable effort to conform the costumes, gestures, music and overall atmosphere in to the piece’s original setting -- it even included a harpsichord.
The English supertitles were also present in this version but absent in the original. They facilitated a great moment when Vespone broke the fourth wall to stare at the supertitles and read that Uberto was describing his hideous appearance.
Occasionally, the audience could read them before the performers sung the line and so the comic timing was slightly off, but the supertitles created other self-gratifying laughs if one recognized cognates to a romance language.
As far as operas go, Pozniak placed La Serva Padrona on the less pretentious side of things: there were no 400-pound Wagnerian sopranos with Viking helmets and spears here. But this meant a great introduction to an audience that contained many who were new to the genre.
“It’s a different genre of music, but really it shouldn’t be considered any different from rock, or pop or jazz,” Pozniak said. “It fits into the shared musical culture, and even though it’s not something that everyone listens to all the time, it should still be a means by which we can better understand each other. It sounds cliché and generic but when you live with this music long enough, you really do come to believe it.”
When asked what he thought of the opera’s diminished social profile compared to 200 years ago, he said that some prevailing notions (e.g. that Beethoven is the center of music or that we should only play things by the greatest composers) could result in classical music getting stale.
“We don’t get new artwork or we think new artwork isn’t as good as the old stuff,” he said.
“With that mentality, it becomes relegated to this status that’s only for the highest of aristocrats to enjoy, when, really, it’s just music. Hopefully we can convince people through this performance, even if just a little bit, that this kind of art form can be enjoyed by everyone.”
The smiles, cheers, and whistles of “ta-ta-TA ta-ta-TA ta-ta-TA” that flowed out the Weitz doors after the show indicated success.