FintaWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | Andreas Spering, Vincent Boussard, Colin Balzer, Layla Claire, Julian Pregardien, Ana Maria Labin, Julie Robard-Gendre, Sabine Devieilhe, John Chest | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 10 July 2012

Written in 1774 for performance in Munich when Mozart was just 18 years of age, La Finta Giardiniera (’The Fake Gardener‘) is never likely to be regarded as anything more than the work of an inexperienced composer who wouldn’t really find his own distinctive voice until the composition of Idomeneo (1781). Mozart had however already written seven operas by this time, and if La Finta Giardiniera doesn’t sparkle with the brilliance of those later mature masterpieces, there are nonetheless interesting parallels and prototypical characters here that would be depicted with greater detail and finesse in The Marriage of Figaro. In its own right however, La Finta Giardiniera is still an enjoyable little opera buffa of modest ambition that seems well suited to the surroundings of a summer evening in the gardens of the Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean in Aix (even if you are viewing it via internet streaming).

As performed by the orchestra of Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, conducted by Andreas Spering, the music of La Finta Giardiniera is as sprightly, pleasant and beautifully arranged as a Haydn opera, with delicate arias and recitative to play out the comic situation, and even if the work is mostly fairly conventional, it does have some delightful Mozartian touches. Dramatically, the situation doesn’t add up to much more than the typical opera seria plot given a bit of a buffa treatment, but even then, consisting of the old standard of mismatched couples finally finding their proper arrangement, it never really takes off dramatically or extends much beyond that. The most dramatic incident has already taken place before the opera even begins, with the Marquise Violante having survived an attack on her person by her fiancé the Count Belfiore in a fit of jealous rage. He believes that he has killed the woman that he loves, but in reality, Violante, along with her servant Roberto, calling themselves Sandrina and Nardo, are working in disguise as gardeners on the estate of the Podestà.

The opera itself operates within the romantic complications that arise out of this situation where there are characters in disguise and believed dead. The Podestà is in love with Sandrina, which infuriates his maid Serpetta. The rejected Serpetta is therefore in no mood for the attentions of Nardo who is persistently pursuing her. The Podestà moreover hopes to make a marriage of his niece Arminda to a rich noble, who turns out to be none other than the Count Belfiore. Don Ramiro, who is in love with Arminda, is evidently displeased by this. When the Count arrives for the wedding, Sandrine faints and the Count recognises her. Could it really be Violante? His love reawakened and his sense of guilt, Belfiore declares that he cannot marry Arminda. Everyone evidently is deeply unhappy and they spend their time moping and decrying their woes in arias. “Oh, how terrible things are, I don’t know what to do”, kind of sums up the content of these arias that describe their feelings of indignation, betrayal, unjust treatment and their confusion.

Oh yes, there’s lots of confusion, but evidently the idea is to somehow sort out all these mismatched couples and bring everything to a happy conclusion. In contrast however to the rather more accomplished and richly characterised Marriage of Figaro, for example, there is something rather pleasantly slapdash about the approach to resolution in La Finta Giardiniera, which is brought about by not much more than endless pleading after which the Podestà finally declares “Oh just marry whoever you want” to them all. The fact that there is an odd number of characters - seven - also means that at least one going to be left out of the rearrangements. Dramatically then, it’s far from satisfactory, since there is very little that happens to sustain interest in this situation for nearly three hours.

Musically however, the work is far from slapdash, though it is conventional and shows little in the way of inspiration or imagination. There are however one or two lovely little touches. In Act I, the Podestà describes his feelings for Sandrina as a symphony in the aria “Dentro il mio petto“, evoking instruments and sounds that the orchestra play to accompany his florid declarations. Breaking away from the strict solo aria, duet, recitative and ensemble arrangements, Mozart also manages to have the characters interact in these ensembles rather than all sing together or at cross purposes. It’s far from the complex Figaro arrangements however, as is the rather less well-developed dark garden setting for the confusion of identities and declarations of true feelings that ensue at the end of La Finta Giardiniera’s second Act, where Belfiore and Violante bewilderingly believe themselves to be Greek gods.

There are then modest pleasures to be found in La Finta Giardiniera, and they are brought out well in this production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Filmed on an outdoor stage, the sun setting during Act 1, the exterior location suits the garden setting beautifully. Accordingly, there is little need for stage props, the reflective floors, white chairs and the long-stemmed white roses that double as lamps providing the additional illumination and effects required for the limited drama. The sound recording is wonderful for an outdoor shoot, with no sign of intrusive microphones attached to the performers, the tone lovely and warm, with natural reverb coming from I don’t know where. The singers appear to be all new young artists, all very well cast for their respective roles with sweet voices well-suited to this early Mozart. There’s nothing too strenuous expected in the acting or the singing, and all sound and play this light buffo drama marvellously. If it’s slightly dull in places, lacking in any real verve or personality, that’s unfortunately down to the nature of the work itself.

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