Santa Fe, N.M. — The big surprise of this summer at Santa Fe Opera is Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera, which roughly translates as “the imposter gardener” with a feminine ending, which means that this phony gardener is a female. Mozart wrote this delightful confection when he was all of 18. Yet, all of the hallmarks of his later masterpieces are here, albeit in nascent form.
The plot is confusing to relate but easy to follow on the stage. Reading the plot line ahead was not all that enlightening, but once the opera started all of the complicated, and farfetched, relationships were apparent. Let’s just say that it involves one pair of lovers, a count and marchioness who broke up when he tried to kill her. She escaped only wounded and that is why she is pretending to be the gardener for the pompous Podesta (like the mayor). That very same count arrives at the estate to marry the Podesta’s bubblehead viper of a niece. She is, in turn, perused by a knight, sung here by a mezzo-soprano. Much goes on and it all ends up at night in the woods. The count and marchioness go temporarily mad, everyone is confused, but everything ends up merrily in the end. (I warned you.)
All this folderol makes for a delightful evening of opera and each of the singers get ample opportunity to show their stuff.
Chief conductor Harry Bicket, who is a specialist in this repertoire, is responsible for the musical sparkle. His tempi were right on and he kept the opera moving along briskly. The orchestra played with clarity and he was always right with the singers.
Heidi Stober brings a gleaming soprano voice to Sandrina, the disguised marchioness. She also pulls off the most complex dramatic part, pretending to be a lowly servant and transforming into royalty. She also has to forgive the count that tried to kill her with a knife. Almost no one could make this work, but she gives it a decent try.
Spanish tenor Joel Prieto, in his company debut, brought a bright tenor voice to the role of the conflicted Count Belfiore. He looked like a teenager playing a grownup, but he managed to wrap himself in some dignity in the face of extraordinary events. After all, he thought that the marchioness was dead, by his hand nonetheless—but here she is working as a gardener for a minor functionary when he arrives to wed his crazy niece.
Soprano Susanna Phillips, in the most outrageous costume and wig of the evening, steals the show as Arminda, that wacky niece. She is the first one to tell the count that she is demanding and down right unpleasant when crossed, and she is crossed easily.
As her erstwhile, but unsuccessful, suitor, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall, also in a company debut, was a believable male in the pants part of Ramiro. Her earnest wooing and crestfallen endurance of Arminda’s rejection brought a touch of normality to the silliness.
Tenor William Burden, in the second silliest costume and wig on the stage, was wonderful as the bumbling Podesta. His sense of comic timing brought as many laughs as his antics.
Laura Tatulescu brought an entire vocabulary of nasty looks to her very appropriately named role of Serpetta, the Podesta’s housekeeper.
Joshua Hopkins was excellent as Nardo, the marchioness’s servant, who loyally followed her and took menial employment in the Podesta’s service to stay nearby. He has little to do except to be quiet and long suffering. This he does with aplomb. In the end, he ends up with Serpetta (mostly because everyone has to pair up at the end).
The team of director Tim Albery, set designer Hildegard Bechtler and costumer Jon Morrell keep the action safely in the 18th century. A curved wall is painted to become the Podesta’s abode. It is a series of doors that alternate with painted-on large landscape paintings that all appear to be the same. On the opposite side of the stage, the garden is a small square plot with neat rows of obviously artificial flowers. In the second act, when everyone becomes unhinged, the set is deconstructed, why is a mystery, with only some bare branches raised to be the forest.
The two over-the-top costumes for the two comic leads are nicely offset by rather dull costumes for everyone else. The ladies are in black and the count wears a distinguished blue silk cutaway coat. In the second act, his coat is removed and his shirt of half torn off in a fit of passion with the marchioness, although they are both seized in a fit of madness a the time. Everyone else is disheveled as well by then.
But all is well that ends well and everything is quickly forgotten as the three couples are married.
Mozart was at the beginning of his amazing career when he wrote this opera. It has a vague resemblance to his masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, and you can sense the lessons he learned from Finta. Here, the music for the different characters is not as distinct, especially in the ensembles. In Figaro, each character has his or her unmistakable music to sing. Also, there are a lot of arias in a row in this early work. They are there to allow the singers to show off, of course, but in Figaro they are integral to the story line. An exception to this is the last act of Figaro, in which he crowds in a string of arias, two of which are routinely cut.
But that old saying that the child is the father of the man certainly fits in this case. Finta is engaging from start to finish and deserves to find a spot in the repertoire. Not as a curiosity, but as a first-rate comic opera in its own right.
» Other reviews from the 2015 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Verdi's Rigoletto
- Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment
- R. Strauss's Salome
- Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain