Telemania! There was a time when Georg Philipp Telemann was a household name, a Bach contemporary, and a clear success across Europe. Sure, some of his work lasts (shout out to the viola players out there), but he’s not part of the pantheon.
But he’s certainly worth listening to, as the Texas Early Music Project proved this weekend with a staging of “Pimpinone,” Telemann’s 1725 comic opera. You might call this a Salon Opera, with just two characters and a backing chamber ensemble, but two characters get a great deal accomplished. In the handsome limestone and pine atrium of First Presbyterian Church in Northwest Austin, TEMP even managed to run supertitles, projected quite clearly on the stone wall.
The story is a familiar one, Vespetta (Italian for “little wasp”) comes charging into a bar, on a mission to find a new employer. Soprano Meredith Ruduski is utterly charming as Vespetta, and lives very much up to her character’s name, handing out business cards (“are you hiring” she playfully asked a few audience members, in between singing her lines), all the while winking and flirting her way into the employ of the hopelessly stunned Pimpinone.
Ruduski’s part is incredibly tough, rising and falling through a wide range of pitches, all while managing exhausting baroque trills with every few notes. Her partner, Pimpinone, played by New York’s Peter Walker, turns out to have a lovely, resonant bass-baritone underneath his nerdy taped eyeglasses.
Their charisma and interplay are fun to watch, physically, lyrically, and musically, with witty lines and elaborate duets. One of the highlights was Pimpinone’s musical interpretation of Vespetta’s gossipy telephone call. He reaches into a hilarious, squeaky falsetto to mock her tell-all conversations.
There isn’t an awful lot of plot here. Vespetta, as the audience guessed all along, turns into a gold digger, chafing under Pimpinone’s attempts to rule the house. He ends up wearing a tank top and hitting the Jack Daniel’s. It gets a repetitive in the middle section, but the enthusiasm of the performers made the opera easy to like. In between acts, we heard some of Telemann’s chamber music, which, it must be said, lacks the urgency and drama of much of Bach’s work. Though it does keep things light, and in step with the comic opera.
It’s remarkable how little our sense of humor has changed in the last three hundred years. Aside from the period chamber instruments, this was a different sort of offering from TEMP, a change of pace that was lively, witty, and (if you’re Pimpinone) a little sad.