Friday, August 03, 2012

Mozart: La Finta Giardiniera

Mozart: La finta giardiniera
(The pretend gardener), K. 196 (1774)

Nardo: Gordon Bintner
Sandrina: Jennifer Cherest
Podestà: Casey Candebat
Belfiore: Theo Lebow
Ramiro: Sarah Mesko
Arminda: Jacqueline Piccolino
Serpetta: Rose Sawvel

conducted by Gary Thor Wedow
directed by Nicholas Muni

Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, August 2 and 4, 2012

The Merola Opera Program
San Francisco Opera

Eastside Road, August 3, 2012—
NO LOVER OF MOZART can afford to ignore La finta giardiniera, an opera at the exact emergence of the Romantic music drama from its Baroque and classical sources. Mozart was a month shy of his eighteenth birthday when he traveled with his father and sister from Salzburg to Munich in early December, 1774. Someone — we're not sure who — had obtained a commission the previous summer for the opera, which Mozart apparently began working on in September.

The libretto, probably by the Roman poet Giuseppe Petrosellini, was taken verbatim from an earlier opera of the same name, by the now-forgotten Pasquale Anfossi. (It had premiered a year earlier, in December 1773, in Rome.) It's in many ways a stock item, with three couples from three social classes (nobility, courtier, servant) and an aging comic majordomo-type animating a plot given to disguises, mistaken identities, tangled courtships. (One recognizes elements from commedia dell'arte, and prefigurations of Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro.)

A significant aspect of the libretto, though, is its preoccupation with madness. Insanity, both feigned and temporarily real, permeates many arias and ensembles; it's remarked on by the characters; it's even reflected in some of Mozart's orchestration. Irrationality was a frequent subject of attention during the Age of Reason, and while Petrosellini's libretto is pure comedy, and Mozart's setting in his own description pure opera buffa, there's a subtext here that makes me think of, for example, Tom Stoppard theater, where heightened intellection reveals the irrational undertones of otherwise apparently explicable behavior. Let Robert W. Gutman set the scene:
The opening tableau of… La finta giardiniera had already given notice of fatigue with the masquerades and hollow nostalgia of the aristocratic world. The curtain rises upon a seeming Edenic haven of security, a garden in which five protagonists sing together of bucolic contentment. Then, one by one, they reveal their true feelings, dissecting their emotions in a series of short solos telling of hidden sorrow, furious jealousy, and both unrequited and unwelcome love. Having disclosed the pain and eroticism beneath the idyllic surface, they reassume their public postures in a repetition of the beginning ensemble, now revealed to be a fiction… the scene becomes a travesty of the affected and already old-fashioned pastoral opera, a comment upon the nature of so-called reality, and an indication of the growing stress between directness and reserve, between the spontaneous and the formal.
Mozart: a Cultural Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999); pp. 123-4
La finta giardiniera is a portrait of transition: from feudal to republican social orders; from post-Baroque pastoral comedy to the Romantic drama of Mozart and da Ponte; from the symmetries and harmonic simplicity of Classical music to the expressive gestures and tonalities of Romanticism. Little wonder the opera was neglected in its day, disappearing after three performances. Gutman again:
…Wolfgang determined to impress Munich and went astray because at the same time he determined to impress himself no less. In a miscalculation born of divergent desires — on one hand, a desperation to carry the city by storm, on the other, a dizzying hunger to make the most of his freedom from the musical restrictions of Salzburg, so stifling to his inclinations — he fabricated an overambitious score rich in stylistic contrarieties and with finales of a complexity beyond anything a Galuppi, Piccinni, or Gassmann [his rivals] had attempted.
Op. cit., p. 340
Mozart returned to the score five years later, cutting and revising the score to conform to a German translation of the text. It was probably presented once or twice in 1780, and again in 1789, when it was still failed to find favor. "More for the conoisseur who knows how to unravel its refinements than for the dilettante… nearly always difficult… in the highest degree tasteless and tedious", run phrases quoted in Robert Gutman's book.

I've listened to the opera a few times in the recording contained in the Brilliant Classics integral recordings of the Complete Mozart — a box of 170 CDs I wouldn't want to be without. The recording was made live at the Monnaie in Brussels in 1989, and I find it more rewarding than does Robert Levine, for example. I have not studied the score, available online as a free download and (for money) on paper as reprinted by Kalmus: when I get a few days, I will.
The reason I'm writing about La finta giardiniera this morning is simple: there's one more chance to see and hear this beautiful, complex, rarely performed opera, in a faithful and entertaining production, in San Francisco, where the Merola Opera Program is presenting it, sung in Italian with English supertitles. We heard it last night, and I thought it was superb. The young cast had clearly spent a lot of time preparing their roles, and they sing clearly, musically, with good intonation.

Nicholas Muni's direction seemed both resourceful and uncommonly intelligent, and all seven of the singers can act, facially expressive and gesturally effective. They often have business even when silent; they accomplish this tellingly, filling out their roles without upstaging other characters. Jealousy, despair, tenderness, insanity — all are readily communicated, often with subtlety. There is broad humor, of course — send-ups of stock medical jokes, for example. But nothing is ever uncontrolled; the fun never goes over the top; you can laugh without losing track of more serious (or at least more interesting) subtexts.

Gary Thor Wedow's conducting was energetic yet generous, and he and his orchestra brought out Mozart's rich colors and textures. La finta giardiniera enjoys its own score: in his first aria the Podestà (the comic Don Alfonso-like character presiding over the action) refers to the dulcet flutes and oboes, the somber violas, the violent trumpets and drums: Mozart is pointing up his orchestrational skills here. There are some surprising harmonic transitions in this score: Wedow presented them urgently. Elsewhere he instructed strings to play sul ponticello, underscoring the dramatic tension.

The singers are young, strong, attractive, and nimble. I won't single anyone out: every one of them was utterly persuasive in the role. There's a lot of fioratura in Mozart's score, which recalls vocal writing as distant as Handel's between stretches of pastoral lyricism. All seven singers negotiated quick passagework, leaps across the range, quick alternations of piano and forte, rarely failing to articulate the text clearly.

La finta giardiniera is a long opera: even cut — this production suppresses a few arias — the evening ran over three hours, with one intermission following the first of the three acts. I didn't find it overlong, and the cast didn't show any signs of fatigue either. We ran into them celebrating in a local bar-restaurant after the show, at midnight: a convivial scene. Youth, talent, enjoyment, energy; and Mozart: who can resist?

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

Was there last night and agree on all points. The opera was an astonishingly beautiful surprise (why didn't anybody tell me how great the music was?), and the cast was wonderful. It was also a perfect "young singers" opera with huge, meaty roles for everyone that challenged but didn't strain their voices.