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November 25, 2005

Ah, wilderness! - Mozart's La Finta Giardinera by the Royal Academy Opera

Posted by David Conway

Mozart's La Finta Giardinera
Royal Academy Opera
conducted by Iain Ledingham, directed by John Ramster
at the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre
Royal Academy of Music, London
21st, 23rd, 25th, 28th November 2005

David Conway experiences the strange predecessor of Mozart's comic masterpieces.

On one aspect of Mozart's La Finta Giardinera ("The Spoof Garden-Girl") nearly all commentators are agreed – that its libretto is one of the most idiotic, inept, and incoherent in the history of opera. Given the competition, this in itself is enough to mark the work exceptional.

The work is further handicapped by the premise that underlies the action, unacceptable in these days of political correctness, but, I would have thought, pretty quease-inducing even in the eighteenth century. A year before the action begins, Count Belfiore stabbed in a fit of jealousy his lover the Marchesa Violanta and fled, believing he had killed her. The Marchesa however not only survived, but still loves the Count and is determined to find him.

At curtain up we find that the Marchesa has adopted the implausible strategy of disguising herself as a gardener's girl named Sandrina, and is working for the Mayor of Lagonero alongside her servant Roberto, who has adopted the name Nardo. The mayor's niece Armida is due to meet her fiancé, who turns out to be Belfiore. In a series of episodes the Marchesa and the Count, without any convincing motivation, recognise each other, deny their own identities, go mad and return to sanity, and marry. In the end everyone ends up with the "right" partner except for the Mayor (who had fancied his chances with "Sandrina").

This farrago had proved an acceptable hit when set by the composers Piccini in 1770 and Anfossi in 1773, and was therefore thought to provide a good opportunity for the 18 year old Mozart to work up for the 1775 Munich carnival.

Nowadays this book seems to show only how much opera buffa was in need of the shot in the arm which the genius of Da Ponte was able to supply in his great collaborations with Mozart. Nonetheless we should bear in mind how tastes swing to and fro: in 1862 the critic Chorley wrote of one of these later masterpieces:

The utterly stupid trick put on two girls by their two lovers, abetted by a nimble Abigail, cannot pass at this time of the day […] a mine of treasure is drowned for ever and ever. There is no hope for Così fan tutte on the stage.
It is gratifying therefore that the Royal Academy Opera has undertaken a production of the Giardinera so that we may see whether the music of the young Mozart can redeem it for a 21st century audience.

From the first it is clear that this opera is several steps ahead of Mitridate rè di Ponto which I reviewed earlier this year in its Covent Garden revival. Whereas the 14-year old Mozart was able to produce a stream of virtuoso arias, devoid of any overall musico-dramatic structure or direction, the sense of architecture in Giardinera, in sequences of contrasted music leading to frenetic finales in Acts I and II and a traditional resolution in Act III, is evident. The conducting of Iain Ledingham was well-paced to match, and was able to sustain the action and our interest despite any failings in the libretto.

Our attention was also engaged by auguries of the later operas. Giardinera also has its "Abigail", the servant Serpetta (Louise Deans) who teases, and ends up with, Nardo/Roberto (Viktor Rud) – a prefiguring of Leporello. Rud, who last year was an excellent Papageno in the RAO's Magic Flute, is that rarity, a natural and convincing opera comedian – his own Leporello will be worth seeing when we have the opportunity. The jealous ravings of Arminda (Julia Spòrsen) put one immediately in mind of Donna Elvira, whereas Belfiore (Nicholas Mulroy), far from seeming a natural-born killer, is rather imbued with the wetness of Don Ottavio.

The music of these avatars often seems on the point of breaking into the music of their later incarnations. Mozart uses, albeit without his eventual finesse, the chromatic sequences and melodic and rhythmic inflections which were to become his trademarks. Indeed it seems he perhaps over-egged the pudding. The whole was rather too rich for what was expected for a Carnival entertainment and lasted only three performances. Some however spotted the potential. The poet Schubart wrote at the time a critique of the Giardinera which still applies:

Flashes of genius appear here and there, but there is not yet that still altar-fire that rises to heaven in clouds of incense, a scent beloved of the Gods.
He added:
If Mozart is not a plant forced in the hot-house, he is bound to grow into one of the greatest musical composers who ever lived.
The most fascinating music occurs in the most bizarre scene, at the end of Act II where the Marchesa (Amanda Forbes) has been abducted to a wilderness prowled (we are told) by ravening beasts. To this place approach, singly, all the other characters in the hope of either rescuing the gardener or gloating over her distress. After a series of mistaken-identity encounters in the dark, the scene ends with Belfiore and the Marchesa, driven to lunacy, believing that they are Hercules and Medusa. The musical tension throughout this sequence overrides the nonsensical machinations of the plot and doubtless played a significant part in leading Schubart to his prophecy.

The problems which this opera sets for the director must be evident and John Ramster acquits himself rather better than might be expected in the circumstances. Influenced perhaps by recent stagings of Così, we have a spare, functional set (designer Vicki Cowan-Ostersen) and a very downbeat interpretation of the "happy ending". Six mute footmen provide sufficient stage "business", including genially miming oboes and flutes during the aria of the Mayor (Michael McBride) who hears these instruments as an effect of his infatuation with his gardener-girl. The singing is never less than engaging, but the two real vocal stars were Spòrsen as Arminda, and Katherine Allen as her spurned lover Ramiro (who gets in my view a very raw deal in Ramster's final tableau). The arias and recitatives of these two lovers in a pressure-cooker of passion – rather more credible than the artifice of the relationship between the Count and the Marchesa - approach very closely the heights of Mozart's maturity and were delivered with great intensity and musicality.

Whilst I cannot honestly say that this production will encourage me to see future staged versions of La Finta Giardinera, I shall certainly wish to return to its music. In all, then, this is yet another thoroughly commendable production by RAO, where the talents of tomorrow have been able to reveal to us both the delights and the problems of this neglected work.

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