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Garden of delights

An early Mozart opera gets a classy, intelligent staging

Posted: November 05, 2008

By Frank Kuznik

Move over, Richard Wagner! Long before the Teutonic tyrant was composing his marathon music dramas, 18 year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cut his operatic teeth penning a four and a half hour opera buffa, La finta giardiniera. The National Theater, staging this work for the first time in the theater’s history, has done a masterful job recreating and freshening it for modern audiences.

La finta giardiniera (literally, The Feigned Gardener) presents a number of thorny problems. Mozart actually wrote two versions of the work, the first based on an Italian libretto, which premiered in Munich in 1775 (and lasted just three performances). Several years later, he was asked to rework the piece as a German Singspiel for Johann Heinrich Böhm’s theater troupe in Salzburg, where it debuted in 1780. (That version played at the U Hybernů Theater in Prague in 1796.) Because parts of the first score were lost, piecing together a unified work that reflects the composer’s original ideas and intent required a major piece of music scholarship.

The libretto, an odd combination of buffa and seria elements, is by modern standards a mess. The key plot point in the story has taken place a year earlier: Count Belfiore, in a passionate rage, stabs his lover the Marquise Violante Onesti and leaves her for dead. But Violante recovers and goes in search of Belfiore. Disguised as the humble gardener Sandrina when we meet her, she’s working at the estate of Magistrate Don Anchise, who is preparing for the wedding of Arminda, his niece. Arminda’s betrothed turns out to be Belfiore, whom Sandrina still can’t decide whether she loves or hates. Meanwhile, the Magistrate has a thing for Sandrina, whose loyal servant Nardo has a thing for the housemaid Serpetta, who is madly in love with the Magistrate. Oh, and then there’s Ramiro, Arminda’s old boyfriend, who wants her back. And just to really confuse matters, Ramiro is a soprano in a trouser role.

What to do with all this? The husband-and-wife directing team Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, who did such an impressive job with the National Theater’s La clemenza di Tito two years ago, first extend the stage platform out beyond the orchestra, practically into the front row of the audience. This opens up the action and gives the characters, who spend the entire night chasing each other around in fits of unrequited love, room to breathe.

The Herrmanns also make a completely counterintuitive move by introducing yet another character into the piece — amor, in the person of Mireille Mossé, a pint-size French actress who barely reaches the other players’ waists. An invisible, sprite-like character, she introduces each act with some witty bon mots about love and then floats through the action, hovering over the characters’ shoulders, tweaking their motives and movements, and occasionally snatching a drink or a cigarette away when they aren’t looking.

This is totally baffling for about the first 15 minutes, but over the course of the evening it becomes the glue that holds the opera together. With no real theme beyond the madness of love — Sandrina and Belfiore even go temporarily insane at one point — there’s no rationale for the characters’ behavior. It’s like watching a carousel, with scenes of frustrated passion going around and around. Moussé’s tuxedo-clad Cupid gives method to the madness and adds some nice bits of comic relief.

Of course, the main reason for staging La finta is the music, and in that it does not disappoint. Like Apollo et Hyacinthus, La finta is a surprisingly mature work, both musically and emotionally. Mozart broke the rules for writing opera buffa arias with this piece, and, in doing so, created not only soaring, lovely melodies but emotional depth and resonance. Over the entire four-plus hours, the music never once lags, maintaining a sweet lyrical flow and lustrous tone, accented by sparkling coloratura lines.

Using a bright, spare set and a minimum of props, the Hermanns keep the focus on the singers, which in this case works very well. La finta features the single most impressive opera cast in recent memory in Prague, with each of the seven singers turning in a strong, nuanced performance. Jeffrey Francis as the Magistrate and Andrew Staples as Belfiore also showed some nice acting chops at the Oct. 25 premiere, and Kateřina Kněžiková demonstrated once again why she is the most promising young voice in the National Theater stable.

With its sexy costumes, comic pratfalls and breezy rendition of the score (by conductor Tomáš Netopil), this production belies all the serious work that went into its making. But it is in almost every way exceptional and, for the serious opera fan, not to be missed.

By Frank Kuznik

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