“Pimpinone” revival proves a stylish battle of the sexes at Haymarket Opera

Sun Mar 31, 2019 at 2:08 pm

By John von Rhein

Erica Schuller and Ryan de Ryke in Telemann’s “Pimpinone” at Haymaket Opera. Photo: Gary Grasinski

When we think of Georg Philipp Telemann, that invariably means the vast catalogue of chamber, instrumental and orchestral works that put the North German baroque composer on par with his equally prolific contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi, in quantity if not quality.

But what of Telemann the opera composer? The best that question would elicit from most audience members is a blank stare, since only nine of his more than 50 operas survive in complete form. And, of these, only his 1725 opera buffa, Pimpinone, is staged with any frequency these days.

Hats off, then, to Chicago’s enterprising period ensemble, Haymarket Opera Company, for taking up the cause of this delightful little domestic sitcom, in a lively, stylish and engaging production that plays through Tuesday at the Studebaker Theater in downtown Chicago.

The bilingual libretto, which Telemann adapted from an existing text, is fairly formulaic, about how a crafty and ambitious young chambermaid, Vespetta, schemes her way into the pantry, money chest and, finally, marital bed, of her employer, the rich but foolish old Pimpinone. Eventually she rules the proverbial roost, thus reversing the traditional roles of master and servant.

Nothing remotely feminist here, but Telemann lavished some of his choicest melodic inspiration on the arias and duets, while the buffa as a whole proves him to be a master of the parlando style that led to Giovanni Pergolesi’s similarly plotted comic opera La Serva Padrona eight years later, and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro 53 years after that.

Haymarket enjoys proprietary dibs on the piece in Chicago, since it was HOC that mounted its belated local professional premiere in 2013. While singers Erica Schuller, as Vespetta, and Ryan de Ryke in the title role are repeating their roles, most of the production is brand new. Staged with abundant verve by HOC veteran director Sarah Edgar, and handsomely designed by Lindsey Lyddan (set and lighting) and Meriem Bahri (costumes), the frothy comic hijinks snugly suit the intimate dimensions of the Studebaker.

According to artistic director Craig Trompeter, the HOC board  decided that, rather than staging Telemann’s Orpheus as originally planned, it was more fiscally prudent to remount the smaller, two-character Pimpinone so that the company can build a larger cash reserve going into its 10th anniversary season in 2020-21.  Haymarket is committed to producing Orpheus in a future season, he said.

Pimpinone consists of three comic intermezzos originally designed to be inserted between acts of a larger serious opera. (One shudders to think how that scheme would play out today.) The composer-impresario wrote his arias and duets to Italian words, with a few exceptions, because that is what his Gansemarkt Theater public in Hamburg expected of an opera buffa. (Also, his roster was well stocked with Italian singers who naturally preferred to sing in their native tongue.) By the same token, Telemann set the recitatives in German, thereby ensuring that his audience could easily follow the plot.

The Haymarket presentation, which marks the 10th opera Edgar has staged for the company, adheres to the bilingual text, with surtitles sufficing to clarify the simple narrative.

Pimpinone’s succession of arias – saucy and headstrong pieces for Vespetta, confused patter and increasingly outraged numbers for Pimpinone, charming duets for the two of them – is supported by a nimble period ensemble of 13 players headed by concertmaster Jeri-Lou Zike, John Lenti on theorbo (long-necked lute) and Andrew Rosenblum on harpsichord. Trompeter’s cello completes the continuo group.

Haymarket makes a full evening’s (or afternoon’s) entertainment of the 70-minute buffa by interpolating Telemann string concertos before the first and third intermezzos. An intermission separates the end of the second act and the beginning of the third. The springy articulations and aerated textures Trompeter secures from his lithe, but never anemic-sounding, instrumentalists demonstrate how far this remarkable ensemble has traveled as it approaches its 10th anniversary.

How well Pimpinone suspends disbelief depends as much on the two singers’ acting ability as on their musical chops. Vespetta must be charming enough to make us go along with her shameless, indeed cruel, manipulation of her befuddled victim. Pimpinone, on the other hand, must come across as more sympathetic, more fallibly human, than your average basso buffo character – a rather passive but lovable codger who realizes too late the awful marital bind his appetite for pretty young things has gotten himself into.

Schuller and De Ryke satisfy on both counts. These accomplished baroque stylists have deepened their portrayals since their initial performances in their roles at Haymarket six seasons ago. Each enters fully into Edgar’s staging, situated as it is roughly halfway between early 18th century commedia dell’arte and The Three Stooges. The uproarious wrestling match near the end, when Pimpinone’s rebellious wife and her outraged hubby trade blows, making a mess of his decorous chamber, is proof enough.

Vespetta means “little wasp” in Italian, and waspish aptly describes Schuller’s show-stealing performance as the cunning shrew of a maidservant who wraps the hapless milquetoast Pimpinone around her little finger. The soprano’s clear vocal timbre and the limpid fluidity of her coloratura are an ideal match for a winning characterization. Schuller looks as lovely as she sounds in Bahri’s artful period costumes, which range from a servant girl’s plain petticoat to an elaborate hooped gown reflecting Vespetta’s rise in social position.

De Ryke appeared a bit cautious in his portrayal early in Saturday’s performance, but his Pimpinone soon came into his own as the cracks in the characters’ relationship widened into a veritable chasm. His sturdy baritone proved as agile as Schuller’s soprano in their concerted patter, and he made a real tour de force of the aria in which Pimpinone goes into falsetto to depict a gossipy conversation he imagines taking place between Vespetta and her godmother.

All told, this Pimpinone is among the finest historical excursions Haymarket has given us, and that says a lot.

Pimpinone will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave.312-898-7446; haymarketopera.org.

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