The Teatro Dom Pedro V is a gem. Built in 1860, it both looks like and is a traditional theatre, with gold-fluted columns, plaster molding and orchestra pit. It is, for better or worse (and in many ways better), small with fewer than 300 seats. One can hardly think of a more idyllic place in which to perform opera, yet this Easter weekend production of an opera buffa double bill was the first there in several years.
But even setting aside market considerations, the Dom Pedro’s size restricts what can be performed there. The stage is only some seven meters wide; the orchestra pit is correspondingly small. While there are a number of “small” operas, few if any are very well-known and “reducing” a large opera can be less than straightforward, something which might help explain the relatively rarity of opera in the theatre.
But appropriate, enjoyable and accomplished operatic works can be found. Duetto consisted of two, both one-acts: the relatively well-known La Serva Padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1733) and undeservedly rare Il Segreto di Susanna by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1909). Both feature a soprano, baritone and non-singing mute actor. This is perhaps less coincidental than it might first appear, since the two librettists were both drawing inspiration from the Italian commedia dell’arte.
La Serva Padrona is a farce in which a maid—Serpina—tricks her boss Uberto into marrying her, something which was not in the end terribly difficult, the boss being a willing victim. The story line, if not necessarily the farcical element of the other servant dressed up as a soldier, has particular resonance in, especially, expat communities in East Asia. Susanna’s secret is that she smokes, something women didn’t do or least rarely admitted to in the first decade of the last century; her husband Gil thinks her furtiveness is a sign of an affair. It ends happily, with the couple puffing away together.
Asked to do the adaptation for the Dom Pedro V, I wished to set the stories locally. La Serva Padrona is such a timeless tale that it seemed a missed opportunity to leave it in a vague 18th-century Europe when Macau had, in the mid-19th century painter George Chinnery, an iconic expat. There is no record of him marrying his maid (he was, indeed, already married and was, by some accounts, in Macau to escape the fact), but his portraits and views of the city are among the best-known images of the then Portuguese enclave. Serva’s protagonist became “Giorgo”, a painter in the process of painting a couple of portraits; the view out the large triple windows might have been mistaken for a Chinnery watercolor.
One difficulty with Il Segreto di Susanna is that societal disapproval of women smoking was a rather short-lived phenomenon; it hard today to imagine this as a serious enough transgression that Susanna would feel the need to hide it. The words of libretto, however, in which Susanna describes the effects, indicate that perhaps the substance being smoked was something other than tobacco. We took the hint, if that is what it was, and Segreto was then set in the the 1960s when consumption of that other substance was simultaneously popular and frowned upon.
The action takes place in the aftermath of a party; their well-situated apartment has a view over the Dom Pedro V Theatre itself, which can seem through the windows.
The fact that the musical requirements for the two operas are identical allowed them to be played through, with the characters repeating in the two works: these are essentially the same people, something emphasized by carrying over symbolic elements from La Serva Padrona into Il Segreto di Susanna.
Various exigencies, musical and otherwise, required that the the singers be accompanied by piano rather than a small orchestra. Since we didn’t want a solo piano in the pit, it took its place on stage. Channeling Chekhov, I decided that if a piano were to be on stage, taking up a good third of it, it had to be integrated into the drama. Both operas contain a mute servant; we had a place for a (mute) pianist. Ecco.
But this required an explanation as to why the pianist was in the story. The two operas were wrapped in another narrative of a perhaps not entirely fictional small opera company putting on an opera buffa double bill. The two protagonists have a budding relationship which maps on the plots of the opera (intermission includes an engagement). The scheduled pianist does not show up, but crisis is adverted it turns that the third member of team is an aspiring pianist.
The intimacy of the theatre allows both theatricality as well as direct interaction of between cast and audience: Susanna strolled down the theatre’s central aisle after intermission showing off her ring. Video during Segreto’s reflective intermezzo linked the onstage and off-stage narratives.
The production was fortunate to have two pairs of talented young singers: sopranos Julieth Lozano and Etta Fung as Serpina and Susanna and baritones Jacob Bettinelli and Stefan Gordon and Giorgio (Uberto) and Gil. Alessandro Ferretto did double duty as pianist and Vespone and Sante.