Look at the presentation of the characters
in the heading! You get the message, don’t you? It’s one of those
comedies that abounds in confusion, disguises and mistakes but
itself out in the end. There isn’t much depth in the characters.
Mozart at twenty had not yet become the great psychologist
who could fill out the emptiness of the stock figures and
inject life and blood. Maybe he wasn’t interested in this
libretto but rather keen on getting an opportunity to write
operas, something that Wolfgang Hildesheimer hints at in
his Mozart monograph. Still the opera isn’t without interest
since Mozart couldn’t avoid writing first class music whatever
the circumstances. Had there been a telephone book in Munich
at the time he could probably have set it to music as well.
For La finta giardiniera he composed a string of pearls
of beautiful arias.
At the premiere on 13 January 1775 the
Munich audience were enthusiastic. Mozart wrote home to his
mother: “… there was a terrible din with applause and shouting:
Viva maestro.” What was new at the time was the mix of buffo
and serious arias and what starts as pure comedy eventually
becomes something less jolly. It ends, not in total happiness
but having attained a clear-eyed view of life. Director Tobias
Moretti goes some way in the booklet commentary to presenting
it as a work of the Enlightenment, “removing the various
veils and coverings from before the eyes, making room for
light in hearts and minds …” quoting Christoph Martin Wieland.
Maybe this is giving too much importance to a ho-hum libretto,
but the work certainly ends with music of almost sacred character.
There are hints at this duality as early as the overture.
With hindsight one can see and hear an embryo of what would
become fully developed a dozen years later in Don Giovanni.
Belfiore’s second aria, Da Scirocco a Tramontana (DVD1
tr. 17) is a kind of catalogue aria, where he accounts for
all his illustrious ancestors. Elsewhere he gives a couple
of caricature-like arias to the Mayor. In act two there’s
both a variant of the “maestro di cappella” aria with illustrative
instrumental solos as well as something that could be a blueprint
for Bartolo’s aria in Le nozze di Figaro. Sandrina’s
cavatina (DVD1 tr. 23) is a serious piece full of genuine
sorrow. In act 2 she has a dramatic opera seria aria that
also points to the future.
Tobias Moretti has transported the action to the present time
with all that this implies. Ramiro walks about with headphones
around his neck and in one hilarious sequence puts them on
and lets loose with some supposed hard rock song, exactly
timed to Mozart’s music. I normally don’t care much about
these journeys in time – the Harnoncourt Clemenza di Tito from
Salzburg which I reviewed earlier this year was a scenic
catastrophe – but this production worked tremendously well
and the performance was a joy throughout. Well, not quite.
Towards the end there was a feeling that both Mozart and
the director were ticking over. However all of act one comes
across as the most hilariously funny and entertaining opera
comedy I can remember seeing, filled with gags and surprising
turns. At times it felt more like watching a slapstick show
than an opera performance but it was definitely done with
taste – no cheap tricks. A rosette then to Tobias Moretti!
Of course the performance would have fallen flat with less
congenial actors. The whole cast turned out to be full-fledged
comedians and the many close-ups gave telling evidence as
to both the extraordinary acting talents engaged and the
obviously very detailed instructions from the director.
Vocally, too, there wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Liliana Nikiteanu,
in the trouser role as Ramiro, had a secure beautiful high
mezzo-soprano with fluent coloratura. The experienced Rudolf
Schasching, who spent a great part of act one consuming copious
amounts of food and drink, has lost some of his former sonority
but is today a splendid character singer. He executed the
Mayor’s comic arias with aplomb. Sandrina/Violante is a serious
role and Eva Mei had both the required power for the dramatic
second act aria and the lyrical quality for the Cavatina.
Gabriel Bermudez was an excellent comedian with wonderfully
flexible facial expression and vocally he did what was possible
with his not too inspiring arias. As Count Belfiore Christoph
Strehl sported both dead-pan comic talent and one of the
most mellifluous and beautiful lyrical tenor voices of today;
still this department is unusually well-stocked at the moment.
He is certainly destined for great things. Isabel Rey sang
and acted her larger-than-life prima donna to perfection
and she has developed from the fairly soubrettish young girl
I heard a dozen or so years ago to a fully-fledged lyric
dramatic soprano. The soubrette part in this opera, Serpetta,
was taken excellently by Julia Kleiter, whose fresh, youthful
voice was a pleasure to hear, just as much as her charmingly
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s credentials as a Mozart conductor are well
known by now. He is a man of contrasts which was obvious
in the overture where he worked with dynamic extremes. His
intentions were well realised by the excellent orchestra “La
Scintilla” – a suitable name since their playing on historical
instruments was really scintillating. As always, period instruments
lend an extra edge to the sound, making the music a degree
more urgent. The choice of tempos by this conductor has
sometimes been controversial and in one or two instances
there was a feeling of sluggishness – notably Belfiore’s
catalogue aria – but in the main the music was admirably
The sets were modern-functional: a two-storey façade backstage with
doors and windows, the latter turned out to be TV screens
on which off-stage action occasionally could be seen, as
for example Arminda arriving by limousine. Flowers en masse
in the first act, mostly cacti which were both subjected
to shaving and Belfiore’s bottom landing on them. The floor
was scattered with twigs which the actors had to avoid stumbling
over and which towards the end of the act were placed around
and over Sandrina and Belfiore as a symbolic funeral pyre.
The act actually ended with a close-up of a spill being lit.
Not one of Mozart’s most important scores and the plot is so silly
that Moretti’s approach is the only viable way to perform
it today. The main reason for acquiring this set is the hilarious
comedy – the first act especially – and the excellent singing
of arias from at least the second uppermost drawer. When
feeling low I will keep this set at hand to cheer me up.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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