Boussard, Vincent


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.

La Finta Giardiniera is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web site. Some region restrictions may apply.

HamletAmbroise Thomas - Hamlet

Opéra National du Rhin | Patrick Fournillier, Vincent Boussard, Stéphane Degout, Ana Camelia Stefanescu, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Nicolas Cavallier, Christophe Berry, Vincent Pavesi, Mark Van Arsdale, Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin, Dimitri Pkhaladze | Strasbourg, France - 26 June 2011

To be or not to be… an opera… that is the question.

That’s a bit of a predictable way to start a review of Ambroise Thomas’ opera version of Hamlet, but it’s still a relevant question that has divided opera-goers for years. Your view on that is likely to depend on whether you are an English-speaker and familiar with the Shakespeare drama or otherwise, and if you are more attuned to the traditions of French grand opera. The problem with Shakespeare in French – even though his work is venerated there almost as much as in the UK – is that it’s not really Shakespeare. In French it has none of the poetry of his Elizabethan period verse, and it translated into a rather prosaic, ordinary, commonplace (I know these all mean the same thing, I’m just listing them for effect) French that is almost indistinguishable from how modern French is spoken.

Adapting Shakespeare to opera is not without its problems either, but there are plenty of examples from Berlioz to Wagner, but most notably Rossini and Verdi, to indicate that there’s no reason why a lyrical presentation of the Bard’s dramas can’t work, and in some cases… dare I say it… even improve on the original. Well, maybe not improve, but there are certainly examples, such as Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, where the original elements are expanded upon to superb effect, but it’s hard to see how even the Gesamtkunstwerk nature of opera can add much that isn’t already contained within the original Shakespearean drama.

Particularly Hamlet, which in my view, and many others, is the greatest drama ever written. I may have been biased from the outset then, but, never having had the opportunity before to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet – or indeed anything by one of France’s most respected if little-known composers – I was keen to take the opportunity to see it performed on French soil in Strasbourg. Ambroise Thomas’ works are rarely performed, with only Hamlet and Mignon staged with any kind of regularity in France, but even here at the Opéra National du Rhin, Hamlet was billed as a rare classic rediscovered. Try as I might however, I couldn’t get the original text out of my head as the rather drab, colourless, dull (yes, for effect) and prosaic French libretto singularly failed to bring the drama and the poetry to life.

Hamlet

Act I and II set out the dramatic content of the opera. It opens with the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius (a invented scene not in the original, but effective enough to establish the context of the drama) two months after his brother King Hamlet’s death, and is then followed by the appearance of the ghost of the father talking to his son Prince Hamlet, telling him that he was poisoned by Claudius and that he must be avenged (“but go easy on Gertrude”, he bizarrely warns), and Act II ends with the travelling players re-enacting the crime (strangely and confusingly in this production, implicating the real people into the drama and not leaving much room for ambiguity).

Musically, it’s hard to find anything attractive about the early scenes, the score conventional and dull, full of old-fashioned academicism that has little relation to the dramatic tone or context of the piece, with one-note continuo during speaking sections and only the chorus coming in from time to time to add dramatic emphasis. Any attempts at originality are quite eccentric, such as a solo saxophone at one point. The staging at Strasbourg Opéra didn’t really find any interesting way to make this come to life (the appearance of the King’s ghost walking vertically down a wall notwithstanding), with a generic Court setting that never changed, with variation only in the lighting – but it did at least keep the dramatic action fluid.

Act III and IV however, post interval, present a totally different side to the opera, putting aside the exposition of the dramatic plot and allowing the emotional tone to find its own footing through some lovely duets and arias – in Hamlet’s confrontation with the Queen, and particularly in Ophelia’s extended lament and death scene. It becomes more like scenes from Hamlet (or inspired by Hamlet) set to music, and it certainly kills the plot progression stone dead, but the musical qualities work in favour of the opera and this is certainly preferable to the dreary dramatisation of the first half. As wonderful as this might be, it comes at the cost of the excision of some important and famous scenes, with several of the characters given short shrift. Laertes has a walk-on/walk-off part (pointlessly wandering through the dramatic scene between Hamlet and Ophelia with a suitcase at one point in this production), there are no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (not a loss really), and alas, poor Yorick’s name is forgotten by the gravediggers, giving Hamlet no opportunity to pose with a skull and meditate upon life (although he does so here, and quite effectively, in relation to Ophelia’s death). Even Polonius is reduced to a bit-part of about three lines, playing no significant part in the drama, and consequently coming out of the drama alive!

Hamlet

As do many other characters, for Thomas and his librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (taken admittedly from a reworking of the drama by Alexandre Dumas) – suddenly realise that they need to find a way to quickly wrap-up this non-drama. Shakespeare is thrown out the window and instead they tack on their own ending where the ghost of the dead King appears before the assembled guests, hands a knife to Hamlet and tells him to get on with it (“but don’t forget, go easy on your mother”). Hamlet duly obliges, despatching Claudius before himself expiring over the grave of Ophelia. To say I was bemused at the finale would be an understatement – flabberghasted, perhaps – and this is the revised version of the opera that was forced upon Thomas for the English permiere of the opera, as it was felt that the English audience wouldn’t accept the happy ending in the original version where Hamlet lives on and is crowned King! Putting Shakespeare aside however – and the developments of Act III and IV are such a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience that one is finally able to do this – it was a however a dramatically effective conclusion.

It helped that the singing at Strasbourg was of a fairly high standard. Hamlet is a baritone role, which one feels it should be even though it’s not a great operatic role (he’s even upstaged by Ophelia), but we had Stéphane Degout here (who I’ve previously seen doing Rameau) and he was in fine voice, as was Nicolas Cavallier in the bass role of Claudius. Hamlet of course notes that women are fickle and inconstant, and there was some inconsistency to the Romanian Ana Camelia Stefanescu as Ophelia, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Gertrude, but they were mainly hampered by the dramatic expression of the first two acts and both came through to excellent effect in the final two acts, particularly in Ophelia’s beautifully heartfelt lament. Despite the liberties taken with Shakespeare’s verse and characterisation then, and despite some conservative grand opera tedium in the drama of the first half, and with the help of some judicious pruning by Patrick Fournillier of the opera’s ballet sequences, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet proved to be such an experience that one can see why the opera remains popular in France, as well as why it’s not so highly thought of elsewhere.