La Finta Giardiniera
Now this is how you do Mozart! La Finta Giardiniera may be a relatively minor work in the Mozart canon, the youthful product of an 18-year-old composer, but even this early opera contains seeds of the greatness that would follow. If you set the right tone between all the old-style ‘woe is me’ arias and Mozart’s playful interpretation of them, La Finta Giardiniera can be a surprisingly entertaining and revealing piece. Buxton clearly recognise the potential within the work and they get it marvellously right in this delightful production at the 2013 Buxton Festival.
La Finta Giardiniera can potentially be a little dull and static in places due to its structure and the necessity of the singers to deliver plot exposition through recitative and arias, but even that is dealt with in a clever way here in Harry Fehr’s production that keeps everything visually interesting and mobile. The tricky backplot of Count Belfiore’s attempted murder of the Marquesa Violante is covered during the overture (‘Previously on La Finta Giardiniera …’) with a couple of flash-frame scenes and newspaper headlines that set the tone perfectly for what follows, injecting a little humour but also working to make the plot comprehensible and meaningful.
The main setting for the production is classically contemporary, retaining the setting of Don Anchise’s mansion and garden, but updating it to a marquee that has been set up on the estate for the forthcoming wedding of the Count Belfiore to Arminda. In disguise as Sandrina, Violante with her minder Roberto – going under the name of Nardo – are not so much servants in the employ of the Podestà as employees of the catering firm contracted for the wedding. Not so much a gardener either, Sandrina is more of a florist preparing the bouquets and garlands for the tables. Every other updating is along similar lines and works wonderfully, not just in keeping with the tone of the work but truly invigorating it.
It helps that there is good choreography of the action and that’s there is careful and realistic attention paid to the characters and the interaction between them. In the early scenes then, not only does everyone have to sing complicated arias that express their situation, but they have to do so while setting and arranging tables. It could be distracting but it’s not and there’s actually a sense of things being constructed and pieced together, of preparations being made for a wedding that’s not on a terribly stable foundation, each of the characters finding themselves sat at a table on their own by the time we get to Mozart’s delightful ensemble at the end of the first Act.
All of this helps to give substance to what can be a rather confusing and open plot. Mozart’s later works are indeed much more complex than this, but they have more nuanced characterisation and music that makes them easier to follow. La Finta Giardiniera needs a little more help and it had that at every stage here. The handling of Sandrina’s abduction by Arminda, where she is locked in a dark cellar and searched for in the dark by all the characters, isn’t quite as brilliant as a similar situation in Le Nozze di Figaro for example, but the way the farcical misunderstandings are staged here is just hilarious. Even the bizarre mad scene of Sandrina and Belfiore works well here, but it helps that the personalities of the characters have been so well and consistently established in the earlier scenes.
That’s as much to do with the first-rate cast assembled here as it is to do with Harry Fehr’s brilliant stage direction and Yannis Thavoris’ clever set designs. The singers were able to just throw themselves fully into their characters and the situations and, without exception, sang marvellously. Matthew Hargreaves was an engaging Nardo and Anna Patalong as a deliciously spiteful Serpetta. Stephanie Corley however provided the most entertainment as a particularly feisty Arminda and was a clear audience favourite. Even if things didn’t quite go her way, she clearly relish every moment of the whole affair, and still somehow managed to seem to come out on top. The slightly more sensible characters (it’s all relative) – Christopher Lemmings’ Don Anchise, Catherine Carby’s Ramiro, Andrew Kennedy’s Belfiore and Ellie Laughame’s Violante/Sandrina provided excellent counterbalance to all this frivolity with great singing, but were also allowed to let themselves go as the occasion demanded.
Nicholas Kraemer conducted the Buxton Festival orchestra with attention to this kind of detail, finding that there is more than adequate verve and brilliance in this early Mozart score to allow such expression. La Finta Giardiniera will never be regarded as one of Mozart’s great works, but Buxton’s production demonstrated that there is considerable merit in the work nonetheless. In the process – alongside their charming Double Bill of Saint Saëns’ La Princesse Jaune and Gounod’s La Colombe – it wholly justifies why their approach to the revival of such lesser known opera works is invariably successful.