The Mozartists’ La Finta semplice: No Masterpiece but a Source of Near-constant Delight

08/06/2018

Mozart La Finta semplice (semi-staged): Soloists, The Mozartists / Ian Page (conductor and stage director). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 6.6.2018. (CC)

The Mozartists’ La Finta semplice (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Cast:

Rosina – Regula Mühlemann
Ninetta – Chiara Skerath
Giacinta – Sophie Rennert
Don Polidoro – Alessandro Fisher
Fracasso – Thomas Elwin
Don Cassandro – Lukas Jakobski
Simone – Božidar Smiljanić

Production:

Assistant Director – Adam Torrance
Lighting Designer – Mark Doubleday
Design Supervisor – Emily Adamson
Lighting – Paul Halgarth

Not every day one gets to experience a Mozart opera which has a catalogue number of K51. Started in January 1768, with the intention of a Vienna premiere, it was instead first performed in Salzburg in May 1769, apparently the only performance of La Finta semplice in the composer’s lifetime.

It is almost incomprehensible that this score is by a boy so young, a mere 12 years old. That said, it is not great Mozart. Pre-echoes to later operas are easy to spot: the maid Ninetta predicts the great things in store for, for example, Despina Così; Cassandro’s pardoning scene at the close of the opera reminds one, looking back through the telescope the wrong way, of Figaro. Misogeny has a place, here Cassandro, later Così. The plot, which like Figaro takes place in one 24-hour period, includes the marriage-fixated, hilarious Frank Spencer precursor Polidoro as counterbalance to Cassandro’s rather negativist view on the fairer sex. The libretto is based on a text by the well-known Carlo Goldoni and adapted by Marco Coltellini. The plot itself finds Giacinta in love with the Hungarian captain Fracasso. The problem is gaining Fracasso’s acceptance from Giacinta’s brothers Don Cassandro and Don Polidoro. Enter the pretended simpleton of the title, Rosina (Fracasso’s sister), who accepts proposals from both Cassandro and Polidoro. Rosina sets Polidoro tests/trials (perhaps we shouldn’t look too far to Zauberflöte here!). Subplots of theft add to the happy chaos. When eventually, through a number of tortuous twists, Giacinta, Fracasso, Ninetta and Simone (the latter pair the downstairs, servant couple, with Simone the Captain’s sergeant) are on course for weddings, and Rosina admits her deception, there is that clemency from Cassandro.

There were minimal stage props in this production, and some of them were made to look as if they were off-the-cuff, notably the borrowing of orchestral violinists’ bows as ‘swords’ for a duel (Cassandro v. Fracasso, if I may phrase it like that). The scene where Rosina and Cassandro communicate only via signs was an utter delight, as was The Mozartists’ response to Mozart’s sonic imitations of a dog yelping and barking. The orchestra was situated at the back of the stage with the action in front, which led to something of a logistical issue: Ian Page’s back was near-perpetually to his singers. And indeed there were moments – plural – of bad ensemble between singers and orchestra. Interestingly, I note that Duncan Hadfield, reviewing the Classical Opera Company under Ian page at the Linbury in 2000 in this opera (review), noted similar partings of the ways.  But the orchestra remained fresh of intent throughout, and the Overture (a tripartite affair) was full of energy, with rustically blaring horns.

The superb Regula Mühlemann took the part of Rosina, the pretend simpleton of the title, carrying the role off with superb deportment, style and vocal beauty and panache. Whether she was the star female lead is far from clear, though, as Swiss-Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath was simply sublime as Ninetta, as she had been in a selection of arias with The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall in January this year (see my review; interesting that one of those arias sung by Skerath was Rosina’s ‘Amoretti, che ascosi qui siete’ from Finta semplice). Skerath was everything a Mozart maid should be: cheeky, light, coquettish and everywhere beautifully stylish.

Don Cassandro, taken by Lukas Jakobski, could ham it up rather, but that, presumably, was all part of the fun; it just felt a little over-the-top. He is a fine singer, though, and this was a very creditable Classical Opera debut. The two tenor parts are Don Polidoro (the superb Alessandro Fisher) and Fracasso, the Hungarian Captain (Thomas Elwin). The Captain’s sergeant, Simone, was taken by the bass Božidar Smiljanić, who could come across as a touch weak at times.

Continuo activity, sometimes frenzied, always apt, was done with aplomb by Pawel Siwczak (harpsichord), Alex Rolton (cello) and Cecelia Bruggemeyer (double-bass). La Finta semplice is not a masterpiece, but it is a source of near-constant delight. Next up in the Mozart 250 series is Bastien und Bastienne, a smaller affair (only three soloists in that opera) in September this year at the Wigmore Hall before a performance of Gluck’s Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo back at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in late May 2019. An embarrassment of riches.

Colin Clarke

For more about The Mozartists click here.

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