La finta giardiniera at Buxton Festival
Planet Hugill by Robert Hugill
Buxton Festival’s second offering this year was Mozart’s early comedy La Finta Giardiniera in a production directed by the young English director Harry Fehr, designed by Yannis Thavoris. Nicholas Kramer conducted with a young cast including Ellie Laugharne, Andrew Kennedy, Christopher Lemmings, Stephanie Corley, Catherine Carby, Anna Patalong and Matthew Hargreaves. I caught the first night on Saturday 6 July 2013.
Mozart wrote the opera when he was 18, it was commissioned for the carnival season at Munich and the libretto wasn’t Mozart’s choice, but was selected for him and had been originally written by Giuseppe Petrosellini for Pasquale Anfossi and performed in the 1774 carnival season in Rome. Mozart’s version, premiered in 1775 was highly popular. Mozart re-worked the piece with a German libretto as a singspiel, Die Gartnerin aus Liebe which was performed in 1779/80 and it is in this form it became known to modern audiences as the manuscript score of the first act of the Italian opera buffa had disappeared. It reappeared in the 1980’s and has been winning friends ever since.
Mozart’s buffo comedy was written five or six years before his first mature masterpiece, Idomeneo and twelve years before his first mature comedy Le Nozze di Figaro. In La Finta Giardiniera the young composer is far less in control of the plot, La Finta Giardiniera is far more madcap than anything Da Ponte came up with. The libretto has a lot in common with 18th century opera seria librettos, in that plot logic is far less important than situation, and the presenting of opportunities for the display certain types of emotion. In fact, the plot is relatively straight forward once you can get over the enormous amount of co-incidence that is involved.
Violante (Ellie Laugharne) is disguised as a garden girl, Sandrina, having been attacked by her lover Count Belfiore as year ago and left for dead. She, and her servant, Nardo, (Matthew Hargreaves) are working for Don Anchise (Christopher Lemmings), the mayor, who is in love with Sandrina. His housekeeper, Serpetta (Anna Patalong) is in love with him, and Nardo is in love with her. Don Anchise’s friend Ramiro (Catherine Carby, en travestie) is staying with him, Ramiro laments the fact that his fiancee has dumped him. They are preparing for the wedding of Don Anchise’s demanding niece Arminda (Stephanie Corley). When she appears, it turns out that she is Ramiro’s ex-fiancee. When Arminda’s new fiancee appears, it is Count Belfiore (Andrew Kennedy) who recognises Violante and is still in love with her and is torn. With me so far?
We all know that it is going to end happily, the point is not the ending but how we get there. There are the usual alarums and excursions. Violante/Sandrine has a tendency to fainting and both she and Belfiore end up in the forest thinking that they are demi-gods. A striking device. Finally, when they sleep it off, they have a long scene where they gradually accept that they love each other.
Throughout all this (and there is a lot of it, uncut there is around 4 hours of music), Mozart presents us with a sequence of arias which anticipate his mature works. In Arminda we can see Elettra, in Serpetta we can see Despina, in Sandrine/Violante we can see Fiordiligi, etc. Though he has no control over the plot details, his music humanises the characters and, in the huge set piece finales in acts one and two, he anticipates quite brilliantly the music of his mature operas.
Fehr and Thavoris took the decision to set the opera in the modern day and to give it a setting which would make sense of the more alarming twists and turns of the plot, so La Finta Giardiniera was re-invented as a modern soap-opera. This had the great advantage of clarity, we knew exactly who was whom and every single member of the cast was brilliantly in character, the result was very convincing and very funny.
The main set was a huge marquee on the side of Don Anchise’s house in which the wedding preparations were taking place. For the scene in the forest, we moved to the basement. Again, this was an extremely sensible functional decision, providing Fehr and Thavoris with a realistic environment where it might be believably pitch dark. This scene was very well staged and was, again, very funny.
The opera was cut, there is around four hours of music which was trimmed to just under three hours. Most of the cuts were to individual arias and the big set pieces, the act finales and the long duet in act three, were pretty much left alone.
But where Fehr missed out slightly is in the soul of the piece. He seems to have made the mistake of concentrating on the libretto, whereas Mozart’s music very much humanises the characters. A setting with more naturalistic character setting, which encouraged us to ignore some of the crazier plot turns, might have been more in sympathy with the music. This was noticeable in the forest scenes. In the original Belfiore and Violante/Sandrine think they are demi-Gods, but this lacked any degree of resonance when the setting was transferred to a basement, and the characters utterances simply became ravings.
The long scene in act three, when Belfiore and Violante are reconciled, was beautifully done, taking the characters seriously and here Kennedy and Laugharne were able to touch us with their character’s plight.
Elsewhere, Laugharne seemed to have wandered in from another TV programme, as her touching and delicate lamenting threaded its way through the piece. Laugharne, miraculously, managed to elicit our sympathy for a character whose plight was, to a certain extent, self-inflicted. From the moment in act one when Kennedy’s Belfiore arrived, you felt the two needed their heads banging together. Laugharne and Kennedy did created a believable spark between them, no matter what other craziness was going on.
The advantage of Fehr’s approach was that each character was highly and distinctively coloured which gave us a clear idea of who was whom and what was happening. Kennedy was a delightfully self-absorbed Belfiore, completely unaware of the chaos he was causing and with a wonderfully dodgy haircut (I trust that it was a wig). Stephanie Corley was glorious as the high maintenance bitch Arminda, with her big aria clearly showing her to be an antecedent of Elettra. Corley clearly had great fun with the role, looking glamorous and completely egotistical, but singing brilliantly too. It has to be said that in writing the music, Mozart took no prisoners and all the characters get tricky music to sing.
Catherine Carby was nicely believable en travestie as Ramiro, and if she could not make the character more than a sad, moping sap, she did at least make him one with a bit of spirit. Anna Patalong was a complete delight at Serpetta, the housekeeper, who was definitely Despina on acid. Patalong is one of those stage creatures who are eminently watchable whether or not they are part of the main action. And she sings too.
Christopher Lemmings had the rather unfortunate task of being the rather wet Don Anchise. There was nothing he could do to make the character have more backbone, but in fact Lemmings did rather come over as a bit fey at times. Still, his vocal contributions had a certain confidence about them. Matthew Hargreaves was a in complete command as the comic servant, the only sensible one in the whole bunch.
I have to admit that, by the end of act three (acts two and three having been run together without an interval) I was beginning to tire and the delights of the soap-opera were wearing thin. Despite the cuts, I felt that the piece was still stretched a little too far, and might have benefitted from a few further cuts and the insertion of a second interval. But the cast certainly did not tire and kept the energy going to the very end. And the audience around me had obviously not tired either, everyone finding the performance very funny.
Nicholas Kramer in the piece drew some fine playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra. Though there were one or two awkward transitions, possible where cuts had been done, which seemed to sit a little oddly. But generally the standard of the orchestral playing matched that of the singing.
The joys of La Finta Giardiniera are very much those of discovering the nuggets of mature Mozart in the younger man’s work. Fehr and Travoris went a little too far, I think, in cheering the piece up but they had the benefit of a very fine cast who entered into the conception completely and gave us a fully rounded performance.