When Giovanni Battista Pergolesi composed La Serva Padrona in 1733, he did so for the likes of Teatro Colón. Teatro San Bartolomeo, the grandest stage in Naples, staged the baroque opera for the first time to celebrate the birthday of the Empress of Habsburg. Only members of the Austrian elite could attend.
But the story is undeniably vernacular. The whole thing lasts 45 minutes and takes place in a home dressing room. It covers the quotidian fussiness of Uberto, an elderly bachelor, who has gotten angry with his cunning maidservant, Serpina, for forgetting to bring his daily dose of chocolate. Uberto decides he must marry to rid himself of Serpina. But Serpina tricks Uberto into marrying her, after which he realizes he loved her all along.
Serva Padrona was the first opera that portrayed relationships relatable to common audiences. Its commercial success ignited the “quarrel of the buffoons,” an endless artistic battle between defenders of popular comic opera and those of high-brow, mythological dramas.
Nearly three hundred years later, the battle continues. In 2014, Argentine musician Pablo Foladori created Opera Periférica, a company whose raison d’être is that “any space can become a theater.” Last Thursday, ten of its artists staged Serva Padrona in the central hall of Belgrano’s Federico Lacroze train station, in Buenos Aires. That was opening night. Tomorrow they head to another type of “periferia” – the Buenos Aires Province. The company will stage its second show at Martín Coronado Station in Tres de Febrero at 11:30am, and its third at Andes Army Station in Hurlingham at 12:30pm.
“There is a great indeterminacy in train station performances,” said Manuel de Olaso, the music director, in conversation with La Nación. “In lyrical theater usually the unexpected comes when an audience member coughs, or a cell phone rings. But that’s it. In rehearsals at the station, on the other hand, once a passenger got swept up in the music and started singing with us.”
The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Workers at Metrovías, which operates the Urquiza line that carries more than 20,000,000 people annually through all three performance sites, celebrate that the show is a “daily transformation” of their journey. “We like enjoying music in unusual contexts,” said Luncy Ginzo, manager of institutional relations at Metrovías. “It helps us circulate new types of artistic expression.”
And the possibilities are endless. In March 2016, Opera Periférica teamed up with rap and breakdance ensembles to stage Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne in Villa 20. In August of last year, it debuted La Serva Padrona in subte stations and Retiro’s Villa 31. From the Urquiza Line this month, as Foladori says, “the opera will only move farther afield.”