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REVIEW: La Serva Padrona Ascends at Icehouse (Mill City Summer Opera)

Rodolfo Nieto (center) and Madison Holtze (right) in Mill City Summer Opera’s production of the opera La serva padrona. Photo by Jasmin Kemp.

Mill City Summer Opera leaped onto its first-ever second stage last night. The company’s compact production of La serva padrona is a light-hearted, entertaining gem staged at the Icehouse in Minneapolis. The 45-minute, intimately staged piece makes a pleasant entertainment over dinner or drinks, while leaving plenty of time in the evening for other affairs.

Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, which premiered in 1733, was one of the most performed operas of the 18th century. It has lively, engaging music; a simple plot about a maid conspiring to make her employer marry her; and ample opportunity for comedy. As staged by Crystal Manich (Mill City Summer Opera’s new artistic director), it is presented in a contemporary living room with a single father (Uberto, played by Rodolfo Nieto) gradually falling under the wiles of his maid (Serpina, played by Madison Holtze).

Single father Uberto (Rodolfo Nieto) can barely dress himself without help from Serpina (Madison Holtze) – but he can sing a killer bass line. Photo by Jasmin Kemp.

In musical terms, the performance has much to recommend it. Nieto’s rich bass voice fills the air-conditioned Icehouse interior, with Monday’s patrons leaning forward in their chairs as he soared through the piece’s famous low passages. His reluctant romance with Holtze’s Serpina is filled with small touches of visual humor; while you could sit back and listen while eating your dinner, there are too many little chuckles being triggered from the stage to want to keep your eyes on your plate.

Manich’s staging has Serpina undercutting practically every move by the bumbling Uberto to establish boundaries and independence. (Look for the moment he tries to dress himself.) As Serpina, Holtze brings a dulcet soprano voice and imbues the character with great flair.

The pit ensemble, led by Lara Bolton at the keyboard, fills one side of the Icehouse stage. Its presence slips quickly into the back of your mind, as does the use of an electronic keyboard instead of a harpsichord and an electric bass instead of an acoustic instrument. The sound is full, imminent, and a lovely twist on the normal Icehouse concert experience.

La serva padrona concludes Wednesday, July 17 with performances at Icehouse in Minneapolis at 6:30 PM and 9 PM.

Basil Considine