Impressive Team Work in La finta giardiniera
Mozart, La finta giardiniera – Die Pforten der Liebe: Soloists of Berliner Staatsoper, Staatskapelle Berlin / Christopher Moulds (conductor). Schiller Theater, Berlin, 19.4.2013 (MB)
Podestà: Stephan Rügamer
Sandrina: Annette Dasch
Belfiore: Joel Prieto
Arminda: Alex Penda
Ramiro: Stephanie Atanasov
Serpetta: Regula Mühlemann
Nardo: Aris Argiris
Countess: Elisabeth Trissenaar
Count: Markus Boysen
Hans Neuenfels (director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)
Hans Neuenfels’s production of La finta giardiniera, to which the subtitle Die Pforten der Liebe (‘The Portals of Love’), has been added, received its premiere in November last year. The cliché of being destined ‘to divide opinion’ seems unavoidable here. I found it in many respects fascinating, causing me to reflect not only upon the work, but once again upon the concept of the musical artwork, especially in performance. That is not to say that I thought every aspect of Neuenfels’s reworking convinced or was indeed ‘necessary’, but then one could say the same about most allegedly ‘traditional’ stagings. (It seems that designer Reinhard von der Thannen and dramaturg Henry Arnold – of Heimat 2 fame – deserve credit here too.) I am certainly not claiming that there is anything wrong with presenting the work ‘as it is’, or rather ‘as it has come down to us’,(which is not really the same thing at all,) but there should be room in theatre and in musical performance for re-examination, for disruption of what one might perhaps, in Benjamin-mode, call disruption of the work’s aura, not least when reception history plays a role, as it does here.
For there is something of a resurrection, or better, resuscitation, of the Singspiel-tendencies within the work and its history. It was, after all, as early as 1780, just five years after the Munich premiere, that the work was reimagined as Die verstellte Gärtnerin for Augsburg, a reworking with which Mozart may have been involved. The original Italian version of the first act having been lost for almost a century, La finta giardiniera as we understand it would not be revived until 1979, in Munich and Salzburg. I do not share Neuenfels’s poor opinion of the libretto, but nor do I think it an inviolate masterpiece, should indeed such a thing exist at all. (One can esteem Da Ponte’s libretti, without prescribing cruel and unusual punishments for those who might wish to make changes in particular performing circumstances.) There is, then, reordering. Recitativi secci without exception are cut., and we have introduced Neuenfels’s own German dialogue, centred upon an elderly Count and Countess – less a matter of flash-back to the action we recognise (though there seems to be an element of that) than of collage and sometimes of interaction. ‘German humour’ does not necessarily communicate itself well to foreigners, even if Emanuel Schikaneder suggests otherwise, and I cannot claim that all of it does in this particular case, though there are some splendid moments, not least that involving painful delivery of carrots from actors’ trousers, in preparation for their reduction in an electric blender (pictured above, with oranges). Eyebrows might also be raised by the return of Neuenfels’s wife, Elisabeth Trissenaar, as the elderly Countess. (A Berlin friend tells me that she reappears with wearing regularity in his stagings.) That said, I thought she performed her role splendidly, and there are plenty of conductors who cast spouses or lovers more often than might be strictly necessary.
More fundamentally, there remains an alertness to the darkness of ‘love’, whatever that might be, without turning to tragedy; a sense of fantasy by turns wide-eyed and surrealistic that seems to point in some sense towards The Magic Flute; and a sense in theory (if not, alas, always in practice) that Mozart’s music is the principal reason for our interest. Probing our conceptions of love seems to me a definite advance upon what is in some respects a stock buffa libretto. My thoughts turned to Neuenfels’s Così fan tutte, which I saw in Salzburg in 2000, and almost alone seem to have admired. There was kinship too with Stefan Herheim’s brilliant rethinking (again for Salzburg) of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a work transformed into a new and yet ancient parable concerning love, sex, and gender. Herheim’s staging is more thoroughly thought through, partly, I suspect, because he has a superior ear for music, and also (perhaps a related point) because he never stoops to banality. But if, as I hope, the Neuenfels ‘work’ should be released on DVD, it ought to be seen. It would, moreover, be interesting to see whether the shock of the new would bear repetition. There is, in any case, more than a hint here of Berlin’s Komische Oper invading the Staatsoper, just as Harry Kupfer once made that same journey – a sense of welcome cross-fertilisation in the city’s operatic world.
The Staatskapelle Berlin was on excellent form throughout. Though not so often recognised as such, this is one of the world’s great Mozart orchestras, indeed one of the world’s great orchestras. There was fullness of tone without over-ripeness; woodwind contributions were simply delectable. If Christopher Moulds began the Overture with incessant haste, his reading soon calmed down without that entailing a loss of inner life. The delights (and they are manifold) of Mozart’s scoring were present for all to hear, even if listeners (as many understandably did) were confused or even appalled by what they saw on stage. The cast was excellent too. Joel Prieto’s honeyed tone made light yet substantial work of Count Belfiore. The match with Annette Dasch’s somewhat more hochdramatisch soprano might on paper have seemed questionable, but in practice worked very well, Dasch’s Sandrina offering cleanness of tone and dramatic commitment in equal measure. Alex Penda’s Arminda impressed in very much the same fashion, seizing her role by the scruff of the neck, and turning it into something beyond the call of duty. Aris Argiris offered a different experience, as befits Nardo, warmer, more buffo, welcome in its reinstatement of tendencies of character and genre the staging sometimes overlooked – or at least played down. But all of those participating brought something, both individually and collectively, to the experience. In an opera of this nature, and a staging of this nature, one needs a true sense of company, a sense that was here most impressively achieved, whether in vocal, acting, or orchestral contribution.