Illustration from the title page of a German vocal score to La finta giardiniera, printed around 1829.
Last night I saw the second of four performances of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera given at the Huntington Theater by the Boston University Opera Institute. Hallmarks of their program are fresh, clear voices brought along in a sane way in appropriate repertory, with stage time given in productions directed, conducted and designed with care. There was a bit of extra drama to this production as Craig Smith, a grand figure in the Boston musical landscape, suffered a heart attack during the final days of rehearsal and David Hoose came to the rescue. The good news is that Smith is doing well. Hoose brought the opera to the stage in fine condition.
I had seen Finta Giardiniera at Glimmerglass almost ten years ago with a cast that reads interestingly now: Giuliana Rambaldi, Sondra Radvanovsky, Marguerite Krull, Karina Gauvin and William Burden. And I didn't get it. The production may well have been at fault, but things that struck me forcefully last night didn't come across at that time. This is very late teenaged Mozart, or he may actually have been twenty at the time of the 1775 premiere. Gluck's librettist for Orfeo provided a text that has at its center the same situation that would explode ninety years later into Tristan und Isolde. A pair of lovers in a tempestuous relationship: he stabs her in a fit of jealousy and flees, believing her dead. She survives and goes out in disguise to find him. She does so as he is on the verge of marrying. Their reunion causes emotional turmoil and other plot complications. The dramatic device here isn't a potion but a night of temporary insanity that ends at dawn with recognition that their love is still there. In a great duet they reconcile. A conventional happy ending with three couples united ends the opera. At this point in Mozart's career, many of the arias are delightful and well composed but conventional in form and the orchestral introductions to some create problems for singers and director by going on at great length with no obvious dramatic function. But some of the numbers — just enough to make the situation achingly real--find the composer trapping into the inner life of the characters in a way that presages the great works to come. The crucial duet of reconciliation, in particular, is deeply human and compassionate — and beautiful music into the bargain
The opera is chock full of previews of things to come, particularly in Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni. Of principal interest is the entire matter of tone, as LFG mixes seria and buffo characters in a manner that will lead to Leporello interacting with Donnas Elvira and Anna, and Despina calling the shots chez Fiordiligi and Dorabella, albeit a bit more smoothly in both cases. In an uncommonly interesting program note, director Sharon Daniels (who drops a line that will resonate well with many opera lovers: "believing as I do that the composer is the first stage director") discusses second and third thoughts about how to direct and design this opera based on what seemed like conflicting signals from that very composer. At first she found grinding rather than shifting gears, and grand tragic arias that simultaneously poked fun at the over-the-top suffering of the character involved — a device to be found in later Mozart as well. Her eventual solution was to place the action in the Edwardian period, in the artifice of highly colored art nouveau decor and graceful very masculine and very feminine costumes.
Under Hoose's lively presentation of what Smith had prepared, ensemble was strong and the young cast sang strongly, particularly Jessica Tarnish as heroine Sandrina and Darren Anderson as the limpid, bright-voiced tenor hero Count Belfiore. But the cast as a whole deserves mention: petite, accomplished coloratura Stephanie Chigas en travestie as Ramiro, Michael Callas, who understood perfectly that Nardo was to be father to both Leporello and Figaro, Joyce Ting's witty minx of a serpetta, Courtenay Symonds, scoring in both comedy and voice as Arminda, and Oshin Gregorian as the flustered, frustrated Podesta.
Ms. Daniels arrived at a particular series of decisions on the proper mix of low comedy, pathos and high sentiment. That her decisions might or might not have been mine in any particular instance is irrelevant. The production emerged a unified whole. An indication that she had achieved her goal was that intermission conversation centered around plot points and the sincerity of a particular character's emotions at a particular moment in the story.