La finta giardiniera
The Guardian by George Hall
Premiered in January 1775, just before the composer’s 19th birthday, Mozart’s dramma giocoso has never been accepted into the canon of his great operas, which starts with Idomeneo, first performed six years later. Among the reasons for this is a problematic and involved plot, and also the difficulty of coming up with a neat English translation of a title that refers to its heroine pretending to be a gardener. Yet Harry Fehr’s Buxton staging, vividly designed by Yannis Thavoris and authoritatively conducted by Nicholas Kraemer, makes a surprisingly strong case for this disregarded piece.
Even so, the material remains challenging. Before the opera starts, the Marchesa Violante has been attacked and left for dead by her jealous lover, Count Belfiore. Together with her loyal servant Roberto, she takes a job as a gardener in the house of small-town mayor, Don Anchise. A year later, a wedding is due to take place at Don Anchise’s home between his niece, Arminda, and a stranger, who turns out to be Belfiore. The following restoration of Belfiore and Violante’s relationship happens via a tricky mad scene and subsequent duet, which sees the two main characters reconciled, against all odds, and is the high point of the score.
Yet Fehr clearly understands that the bulk of this piece is comic, and his setting of a contemporary US reality TV show (instead of the original 18th-century backdrop) turns out to be inspired, allowing him to draw comparisons between the social hierarchies and mismatched relationships presented in each, and to satirise them with wit and acuity. For much of the production, the setting-up of the catering tent for a society wedding – with Violante’s feigned gardener appearing as a florist – provides a busy background that just avoids intruding on the main events.
Top-quality standards, too, are to be found among the seven principals. Ellie Laugharne’s Violante is vital in tone and emotionally spirited, while Andrew Kennedy’s Belfiore offers high-energy singing and dramatic volatility. Tottering around in high heels and an impossible wedding dress, Stephanie Corley’s Arminda could keep up with the Kardashians while singing. Matthew Hargreaves is the loyal Roberto, Anna Patalong the determined Latina maid Serpetta, Catherine Carby Arminda’s sporty admirer Ramiro and Christopher Lemmings the permanently outmanoeuvred Mayor.