Heidi Stober (Sandrina) in ‘La Finta Giardiniera.’ Photo © Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera, 2015
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s eighth opera, La Finta Giardiniera, written in 1775, when the German wunderkind was only 18 years old, represents another venturous effort by the Santa Fe Opera festival to introduce a lesser-known work by a big name composer.
A somewhat marginal dramatic undercarriage artificially inflated by Mozart’s rapidly developing musical gifts, “The Phony Gardener,” as the title might be translated awkwardly from the Italian, has been knocking on the door of the canonical repertory after first disappearing for more than 100 years. Since 1891, an Italian version with a German score carried on a rendition of Mozart’s composition until the 1970s.
In 1965 a copy of an Italian score that had been prepared after Mozart’s death was uncovered in a monastery in Moravia, which has underwritten the opera’s new lease on life, including this Santa Fe premiere. Meanwhile various cuts and edits and issues of attribution have subsequently opened new scholarly controversies.
La Finta Giardiniera tells the story of seven people in the midst of love affairs. Do the math and it will be self-evident that at least one of the lovers will be disappointed. Three pairs of lovers will figuratively hiss and scratch, cling and weep, before switching from their current relationships to potentially happier ones. Like a romantic comedy of modern movies, there are both serious and humorous scenes.
As Cori Ellison pointed out in the prelude talk before the performance, a convention of the time required the upper class characters to pair off with their peers in most circumstances, which also constrains the outcome in this case.
The lovers include the Podesta (William Burden), or mayor of the town who has fallen in love with his garden lady, Sandrina (Heidi Stober). She is non-committal, but has a mysterious past complicating her feelings and her situation.
The first act introduces the ensemble and their respective predicaments in a provincial drawing room lined with huge paintings. Off to one side is a little garden where Sandrina tries to fend off the Mayor’s advances without offending him. As it turns out, she also is the Marchioness Violante, living now in disguise after a violent incident with her former lover, Count Belfiore, (Joel Prieto).
The plot is sprung as Count Belfiore himself arrives in town to marry Arminda (Susanna Phillips) the mayor’s niece, who makes her entrance in a gown that is at least 10-feet wide in the peculiar fashion of the period. Arminda is angling for a prestigious match, despite the devoted attention of her jilted lover, Ramiro (Cecelia Hall). A cavalier and poet with a high-pitched voice, Ramiro is played by a woman, according to an operatic convention from the time when a castrato played the part. Serpetta (Laura Tatulescu), an amusing domestic servant with a sharp tongue, hopes in vain that the Mayor’s former attentions will return, while fending off the interests of Nardo (Joshua Hopkins), Sandrina’s garden helper, the one character in the cast who has his head screwed on properly.
The cast is consistently superb. The opera’s chief conductor Harry Bicket, an avowed admirer of this opera in particular, inspired the orchestra to a performance that foreshadows the Mozart’s spectacular operas to come, like Don Giovanni. Of special merit was the acting, where every gesture, every scowl and double-take was on the mark, often a counterpoint to the verbiage, which carried the deceptive narrative of frustrated love.
The lack of compatibility among the characters under their stressful relationships reaches a breaking point in the second act, when Sandrina is abducted and left to be eaten by the wolves in the nearby forest.
The transformation of the set into a wilderness of lost souls scrambling in the dark is a technical marvel, followed by an even more amazing restoration of order, reflecting a similar transformation in the characters, which will lead to a happy and harmonious resolution in the end. (This successful denouement is a tribute to the opera’s director Tim Albery and stage manager Melissa Tosto, who also handles the complicated cues in the Daughter of the Regiment this season.) This section of the opera also contains the scene in which Sandrina and the Count go bonkers and act out their cockamamie images of classical Greek deities.
Writing to his mother on opening night, Mozart said he was very happy with the reception of the original performances. “Thank God!” he exclaimed. “My opera was staged yesterday…and was such a success that I cannot possibly describe…the tumultuous applause.”
Contemporary critics have been impressed by the technical and artistic efforts brought to bear on La Finta Giardiniera, at least in part because it marks an important moment in the evolution of the young Mozart. But doubt seems to linger about the opera’s place in the body of work. As Erica Jeal of the Guardian wrote last year in a review from the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in the United Kingdom, “Still, at three hours (and even with the cuts), the work is too long, and though it contains choice arias, you will wait all night for the bullseyes that Mozart hits in his mature operas.”
Ensemble in ‘La Finta Giardiniera.’ Photo © Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera, 2015
Susanna Phillips (Arminda) and Joel Prieto (Count Belfiore) in ‘La Finta Giardiniera.’ Photo © Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera, 2015