Fluffy Telemann opera a barrel of laughs

Erica Schuller as Vespetta and Ryan de Ryke as Pimpinone in Haymarket Opera Company’s production of Telemann’s “Pimpinone.” (Photo courtesy of Charles Osgood Photography)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

In 1725, a light comic opera was presented in Hamburg between the acts of Handel’s “Tamerlano.” To modern audiences it seems a very odd way to present two operas, but the idea of a comic intermezzo (or “Zwischenspiel” in German) is what gave rise to Telemann’s “Pimpinone.”

Haymarket Opera presented “Pimpinone” as a stand-alone opera in three performances last week and proved that it is a fun and entertaining work that doesn’t require a serious opera on the playbill to give it ballast.

“Pimpinone” (full title: “The Unequal Marriage Between Vespetta and Pimpinone or The Domineering Chambermaid”) is a simple story combining a battle of the sexes with a battle of social standing. At the beginning of the opera, Vespetta (which means Little Wasp) is a young, unemployed chambermaid, and Pimpinone is an old, rich man of standing. Using her good looks, charm, and ability to run a household, by the end of the opera Vespetta is not only Pimpinone’s wife, but also the ruler of the roost. Both of the characters of the opera have gotten what they thought they wanted, but only Vespetta is satisfied with the turn of events.

This three-part opera (the three acts are each called an intermezzo) is silly and fast moving. Vespetta contrives to get herself hired by Pimpinone in part one, gains access to his money in part two, and is his wife and true boss of the household in part three. So, by the end of the proceedings the tables are turned: the powerless chambermaid has taken control of the man with money and status.

The music is typically brisk and engaging with Craig Trompeter leading a 13-musician ensemble in the pit with music that is beautifully paced and delivered with clarity and brio. Before parts one and three, they perform some Telemann music which is not part of “Pimpinone” to prepare the audience for the action to come. Telemann did not write any overtures for this work, so this choice not only gives the performance a more modern operatic feel, it adds depth and, along with a single intermission, takes a piece which lasts not significantly more than an hour a running time of just under two hours.

The results are delightful. Telemann’s arias are delivered with verve and conviction by Erica Schuller and Ryan de Ryke, who both appeared in the original Haymarket Opera production of this opera some six years ago.

They move skillfully across the stage, engaging in ridiculous and enjoyable capers. The comedy is mostly lowbrow, sometimes bawdy, with physical jokes that would be at home on “I Love Lucy” or “The Three Stooges.” This less-than-cerebral focus isn’t for everyone, but the rapid pace of the story means that things never stagnate, and the comedic skills of the singers are commendable.

De Ryke has a firm and steady baritone with pleasing tone and knows how to combine this with comic effects. He is outstanding with his funny aria that imagines a conversation between Vespetta and her godmother, with him singing in falsetto for the woman’s voices and adding his own voice for the commentary.

He convinces us that he knows his own importance and believes in his own dignity, and then proceeds to let all this slowly fray as he gives way to Vespetta.

Erica Schuller struggled with her singing in the first section on opening night, with notable pitch problems, but she settled in quickly and found her footing. She has good stage presence and was completely believable in her slow ascent up the social ladder.

She was also very pretty in a little section where she danced with light feet. Her enormous dress in the last section was a hoot, and she moved about the stage using this dress as a potent symbol of her newfound power.

The big physical fight between the pair near the end of the opera was very well done. It was frantic and funny, but never veered into the unpleasant.

The stage direction by Sarah Edgar was fluid, and she exploited all the comic possibilities. The sets by Lindsey Lyddan were simple but detailed and effective. The costumes by Meriem Bahri were thoroughly enjoyable.

“Pimpinone” is good fun but for many operagoers, not something you would necessarily want to see more than once. Perhaps this explains why there were a lot of empty seats on the main floor on opening night. Too bad, because this “Pimpinone” was a delicious little bon-bon.

Haymarket Opera Company has a gala fundraiser coming up. If you are interested in their “Early Opera Cabaret,” to be held Thur., May 9 at 6 p.m. at the Arts Club of Chicago (201 E. Ontario St.), visit their website for more information: haymarketopera.org.