What were you doing when you were 18? Counting the days until you graduated from high school? Maybe working your first part time job? Relishing in that peculiar freedom that comes from being old enough to be largely responsible for your private time, while still being young enough to have your basic needs provided by your parents? Whatever you were doing, chances are you weren't, like Mozart was at this tender age, finishing your first really mature opera buffa, La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend Garden Girl).
In an oeuvre so variegated and massive as Mozart's, it's natural that at least a few pieces have (at least temporarily) fallen by the wayside and not really enjoyed the renown they should in a just world. Such a piece is Giardiniera, a piece whose relative obscurity was at least partly due to the centuries long loss of the original Italian libretto. Shortly after the work's premiere in 1775, Mozart revised it as a German singspiel and it was that version which was performed, albeit not very regularly. In fact virtually a century ensued between two performances, one in 1797 and the next in 1891. As recently as the 1960s to early 1970s only the German form of the opera was performed since the Italian libretto was not discovered and the work restored to its original version until the late 1970s.
Giardiniera utilizes several common operatic tropes, many of which Mozart continued to mine for the rest of his brief career, including sets of starcrossed lovers, people in disguise, and class distinctions which further alienate people from each other. The piece is remarkable in that, aside from a lovely quintet which introduces several of the main characters, and the choral finale, this is largely an opera consisting of one aria after another, interspersed with traditional recitative and even the occasional spoken line. Ramiro (Liliana Nikiteanu in a role originally written for a castrato pines after Arminda (Isabel Rey), who has given him the cold shoulder. Don Anchise (Rudolf Schasching), the Mayor, pines after his garden girl, Sandrina (Eva Mei), who is in reality Marchioness Violanti, desperately in search of her lover Belfiore (Christoph Strehl), a Count who in what sounds like more than a mere lovers' quarrel had stabbed her a year ago and then fled. Her servant Roberto (Gabriel Bermudez), disguised himself as Nardo, another gardener, is in love with Serpetta (Julia Kleiter), the Mayor's maid who has her hopes pinned on marrying her master. Confused yet?
Keeping track of these mismatched couples is really not that necessary, because the charm of this piece is the effortless ebullience of Mozart's music, an ebullience that actually works against the emotional undercurrent of some of the characters' minor key arias (only Mozart can make sorrow sound so joyful). This is a brilliantly varied score, with a surprising amount of subtlety from a composer so young. Mozart varies his orchestral palette from the very ornate for the higher class characters, to an appealing simplicity for those lower born. This is not a swift moving piece, and indeed seems cobbled together, plotwise if not musically, from previous sources at times, including Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona and Piccinni's La Cecchina.
This Zurich Opera production benefits from a spare, modern dress retelling (though the peculiar set looks more like an abandoned California motel than a Mayor's estate in Milan). Stage director Tobias Moretti finds the right balance between the opera's kind of static aria-recit-aria syndrome and the farcical elements that support most opera buffa. The redoubtable Nikolaus Harnoncourt vigorously leads the Orchestra La Scintilla (in fact a bit too vigorously at times--watch how he whacks a lightstand during the prelude and has to rush to keep it from falling over on two violinists). The singing is uniformly excellent, with Bermudez' richly burnished baritone being the standout for me personally.
As with a lot of these television productions, I wish the television director would refrain from intercutting to the orchestra between sung moments. There's one especially grating example of this after the opening quintet when, believe it or not, there's also a photographer in the pit waiting until the singers have posed just right so that she can snap her picture, supposedly for press purposes. This sort of thing takes the viewer squarely out of the operatic experience and adds nothing to the presentation.
This is a charming, if lightweight, piece that even a lot of Mozart aficionados are unfamiliar with. This largely successful production should help to fill this rather notable gap in Mozart's regularly performed repertoire. Filled with lilting melodies and several magnificent arias, there's nothing pretend about La FInta Giardiniera--it's the real thing from an undisputed master.
La Finta Giardiniera isn't the sharpest looking opera BD due mostly to some annoying aliasing and line shimmer on Nardo's green pinstripe shirt. You'll also notice occasional edge enhancement (keep your eyes on the tree branches and twigs which dot the stage). That said, this BD delivers excellent color and detail, with everything from skin tones to the brightly colored costumes to especially the blue lit final scenes being reproduced with a great deal of vibrance.
The DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix is astoundingly good (there are some very slight intonation problems from the strings, but those aren't the fault of the sound mix). Balance is uniformly excellent between singers and orchestra, and spatial placement of the singers is uniformly spot on. Note for example in the opening scenes when the quintet sings from different areas of the stage and the surround channels are very smartly used. Fidelity and dynamic range are also supported admirably throughout the BD. There's also a PCM 2.0 mix available, which does a very good job of folding down the sound to two channels. Subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
Only an illustrated insert booklet with a short essay is offered.
One of the lesser known works in Mozart's canon, La Finta Giardiniera shows the composer right on the cusp of compositional maturity. Filled to the brim with gorgeous melody, if a surfeit of real character explication, this is a lovely opera that deserves more recognition. Hopefully this BD will help remedy that situation. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet