Mozart’s Pretend Gardener Becomes a Soap Opera
Mozart, La finta giardiniera, Buxton Festival Opera, Northern Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas Kraemer (conductor) Opera House, Buxton, 6.7. 2013. (RJF)
The Marchesa Violante, under the name of Sandrina: Ellie Laugharne (soprano)
The Contino Belfiore: Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Don Anchise, the mayor: Christopher Lemmings (tenor)
Arminda, Don Anchise’s niece: Stephanie Corley (soprano)
Ramiro, a friend of Don Anchise: Catherine Carby (mezzo)
Serpetta, Don Anchise’s housekeeper: Anna Patalong (soprano)
Roberto, Violante’s servant under the name of Nardo: Matthew Hargreaves (bass baritone)
Director. Harry Fehr
Designer. Yannis Thavoris
Lighting. John Bishop
In the summer of 1774 Mozart was invited to write the second carnival opera for the coming winter. In Munich the second was traditionally less important than the first and was comic rather than serious. The official genre of dramma giocosa, rather than opera buffa, implies a dramatic story with a happy ending. The other virtue of the genre is that the composer did not have to wait to hear the singers before composing, the casting being more by type and comic aptitude than by voice. With the need for seven principal voices this would have welcome to the eighteen year old and it is probable that most of the music was written before Wolfgang left Salzburg.
As the programme says, by the standards of opera buffa, La finta giardiniera plot is a straightforward one. Nonetheless, Director Harry Fehr adopted the modern trend to update the production so as to, he hoped, make it more meaningful in the present day. It seemed his intention was to represent Mozart’s creation as a modern day soap, complete with all the complexities of confused sexual relationships, domestic violence along with giving the mayor, a JR Ewing hat when he had to act in a judiciary capacity. All in all the updating worked, although there were times, as after Violante was imprisoned in the over elaborate boiler room of the mayor’s house, when the shenanigans verged on slapstick.
Structurally the most interesting features in La finta giardiniera are the finales to act 1 and 2 in particular. Overall the orchestration is distinctly richer compared with the composer’s earlier opera seria and it is occasionally possible to hear pre-echoes of the greater works in the genre to come ten years later in the composer’s masterly creations with the librettist Da Ponte. On the rostrum Nicholas Kraemer conducted with a nice balance of Mozartian taste to match his overall pacing and support for the singers. In its entirety the work is long, with each role getting his or her aria in the last act as in The Marriage of Figaro. With this in mind cuts were made to reduce the timing spread across arias, duets and recitatives. Despite this there were longeurs in the final act that would have benefited from further excision on a hot evening in a theatre without the benefit of air conditioning.
The imaginative staging was apparent during the overture, with the curtain being dropped and lifted each showing, in brief ways, illustrating the background to the story of domestic violence and crossed love. The singing was adequate, but not outstanding, with the women being significantly better than the men. Best of all was Anna Patalong as Serpetta, Don Anchise’s housekeeper. Her acting matched her singing. Not quite her vocal equal, Ellie Laugharne as The Marchesa Violante, disguised as the eponymous gardener girl, acted with conviction and sang with a warm soprano albeit a little lacking in legato. Notable too was the acting of Stephanie Corley as the feisty Arminda, Don Anchise’s niece, who pranced elegantly on high heels and short skirt, or in marriage attire, willing somebody, preferably Belfiore, to take her to the altar. In the latter role of Belfiore, the violent lover who later does not know if he is seeing double, AndrewKennedy’s tenor now sounds too edgy and harsh for Mozart’s mellifluous music. In the travesti role of Ramiro, the mayor’s friend, Catherine Carby failed to create a character, not helped by her tennis attire, with Christopher Lemmings and Matthew Hargreaves more successful in that respect despite not being first class in the singing department.
All in all, the playing of Mozart’s music graced this production despite the idiosyncrasies of the set. However, I do not think that a period staging was beyond the wit of Buxton and might have challenged more meaningful characterisation in the acting and singing. Far too often updating is the easy option for the producer whilst leaving the singers to pick up the scraps and create a true Mozartian ambience in their sung portrayals.
There are further performances of this La finta giardiniera on July9th, 12th, 15th 18th and 21st July. See http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/opera-series/.
Robert J Farr