La finta giardiniera Benefits from an Excellent Ensemble Approach

02/12/2016

Mozart, La finta giardinieraSoloists, Royal College of Music of Opera Orchestra, Michael Rosewell (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 28.11.2016. (MB)

Cast:
Violante/Sandrina – Josephine Goddard
Belfiore – Joel Williams
Anchise – Richard Pinkstone
Arminda – Ida Ränzlöv
Ramiro – Katie Coventry
Serpetta – Harriet Eyley
Roberto – Julien van Mellaerts

Production:
Harry Fehr (director)
Roxana Haines (assistant director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
John Bishop (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

I saw my first Finta giardiniera close to eight years ago, at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre. In between, I have also been fortunate enough to see a very different staging, indeed a more or less total reimagining of the work, from Hans Neuenfels, in Berlin. Now, it was back to the Britten Theatre for a new staging. Not too bad, then, for a work that hovers on the fringes of the repertory – although how absurd that a work fully the equal of any of Haydn’s operas is still so relatively neglected, if not quite so scandalously neglected as Haydn’s works themselves. Three cheers, though, to the RCM, for another splendid evening, and for placing such faith in this lovely work!

Harry Fehr’s production is ‘based on one which was first presented at the 2013 Buxton Festival’: slightly odd wording, but anyway. The important thing is that it is fresh, lively, abidingly theatrical. It does not explore the depths that Neuenfels did in his Pforten der Liebe; there is little, perhaps no, sense of the darkness of love, nor indeed of the German director’s fantasy. By the same token, though, it avoids the tendency towards preciosity of the previous RCM production (Jean-Claude Auvray). A moneyed, contemporary Long Island setting works well and, quite simply, looks good. Yannis Thavoris’s excellent designs are resourceful in their suggestion of broader social milieu, but also provide elegant framing for the action. For my taste, Fehr perhaps overplays the farcical element; there were certainly times when I wished the production would calm down, just a little. On the other hand, a work very much, I think, in the tradition of Carlo Goldoni arguably brings Mozart closer than he had previously come, or would come again, to the world of Rossini. I just do not think it is that close, and should have preferred something that engaged with the surely undeniable presentiments of Così fan tutte. (On the other hand, when one thinks what Così often must endure…) In any case, all is smartly, slickly accomplished – and it offers a fine showcase for the young singers.

Fortunately, there was not much in the musical performances that approached Rossini. (However much I may differ from the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt with respect to what I want to hear in Mozart, I certainly share with him that vehement opposition he voiced to any tendency towards unvariegated breathlessness.) Michael Rosewell’s reading did not draw especial attention to itself. Tempi were judiciously varied; perhaps a little more variety would not have gone amiss, but I am being ungrateful. The spirited playing of the orchestra only occasionally had me miss the sound of a slightly larger band (strings a parsimonious 6.5.4.3.2), but that may well have been as much a matter of acoustics. Jo Ramadan’s harpsichord continuo proved supportive, exhibiting none of the irritating exhibitionism one often hears today (especially on the fortepiano). Orchestral solos were well taken throughout; if one does not miss the clarinet in Mozart, one must be on the right track.

The disguised marchioness herself, Violante/Sandrina, received a likeable performance from Josephine Goddard, integrity of character at the heart of her reading. Joel Williams’s cavalier, not a little devilish Belfiore would clearly return to her, and he did. The sparkle of his eminently musical performance was matched, at the very least, by Ida Ränzlöv’s Arminda, dressed to kill (not quite literally, although one would not necessarily have been surprised) by Thavoris. Richard Pinkstone’s tenor contrasted enough from Williams’s to suggest difference of character; his subtly more buffo (never too much) demeanour confirmed it. (There are considerable distinctions of social order in Mozart’s writing, even this early; almost the only thing this opera lacks is the later delineation and depth of individual character.) If Pinkstone’s Anchise, splendidly contrasted to this summer’s outstanding Hänsel und Gretel Witch, thereby attested to considerable versatility, Katie Coventry’s Ramiro confirmed her gift, as shown by her Hänsel, for the mezzo trouser role, both in timbre and demeanour. Such alertness and social awareness extended to the pair of servants rounding off the cast: Julien van Mellaerts’s affable Roberto and Harriet Eyley’s knowing Serpetta, very much in the line of Pergolesi. Ensemble was tight throughout, permitting different lines to tell and yet also to combine. Such is the essence of this opera; it was equally the essence of this performance.

Mark Berry

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