02 Jul 2014
La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
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For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
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Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
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‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Theseus’ words to his wife, Hippolyta, spoken before the Mechanicals’ theatricals in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, would be an apt epigraph for Frederic Wake-Walker’s new Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera — the first time the House, for whom Mozart has been the cornerstone, has staged the composer’s adolescent experimentation with opera seria. For, Wake-Walker’s basic concept rests upon that old theatrical conundrum: reality or fantasy?
The artifice takes two forms: in Act 1 it is the stylisation of the eighteenth-century theatre, in the final two Acts it is the fickleness and elusiveness of the human heart — or, as Shakespeare put it: ‘O me! What eyes hath Love put in my head,/Which have no correspondence with true sight’ (Sonnet CXLVIII). So, in the opening Act the exhibitionism and stagecraft are foregrounded, before the very edifices of the stage itself are literally torn down in an effort to uncover the truth about love.
In interview in the Glyndebourne programme book, the director declares his intention to make the characters seem ‘not quite rooted in the real world’, a decision supported by the set which ‘removes the characters from any outside world’. He may define the ‘outside world’ as ‘any sense of politics or religion or anything’, but here ‘anything’ could also mean matters horticultural, for Wake-Walker places more emphasis on the ‘pretence’ indicated in the work’s title than on the disguised heroine’s assumed profession. The virtual absence of a garden is a pity, for the symmetries and geometries of the eighteenth-century formal garden both infer the desire to impose artificial order upon nature, but also permit much intrigue and subterfuge — as evidenced later by Mozart’s in Così and Figaro.
Instead, designer Antony McDonaldpresents us with what the director describes as a Lustschloss, ‘aplace where people can behave differently where people can come out of themselves and go crazy’. This feeding ground for folly is a gracious, if slightly worn-around-the-edges, rococo cupola room, appointed with towering windows, shadowy niches and firework recesses. In Act 2, this ‘real’ chamber is replaced by a papery pastiche; the crumbling façades are violently swept aside and amid the ruins the doting protagonists find themselves transformed into shepherd and shepherdess, adrift in a pastoral wilderness with only a dented mantelpiece and a dainty parlour sofa to hint at the ‘artifices’ of the formal, class-stratified society from which they have escaped. After the overt theatrical effrontery of Act 1, the direction makes little attempt subsequently to communicate directly to the audience with the result that character and situation are sometimes hard to fathom.
Christiane Karg, Joélle Harvey and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke anchor an expert Mozartean ensemble. Glyndebourne’s new Music Director Robin Ticciati conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Lighting designer Lucy Carter does provide some striking chiaroscuro effects, boldly complementing the directorial juxtapositions. But, overall it feels as if Wake-Walker is trying rather too hard to make sense of the nonsensical. Indeed, productions of the opera tend to be justified by the historical importance of this youthful example of Mozart’s musico-dramatic genius, and weaknesses blamed upon the inane libretto rather than the music.
The opera tells of Violante, who has been beaten and left for dead by her lover Count Belfiore — here we witness the aristocrat’s desperate bid to escape the crime-scene during the overture — and who takes refuge amid the flower beds in order to save her skin and her reputation. (It’s not clear why in the ensuing action she should selflessly save her abuser from accusations of murder, then forgive him and go to such lengths to win him back). Don Anchise, the Podestà (Mayor) of Lagonero, loves his new gardener, Sandrina (the disguised Violante), to the chagrin of his enamoured servant, Serpetta. Serpetta, though, has her own admirer in Sandrina’s cousin Nardo (actually her servant Roberto, in disguise). Arminda, the Podestà’s niece, casting aside her former lover, Ramiro, now adores Belfiore — Violante’s former lover and assailant. By the end, one can sympathise with Podestà who just seems to wish they’d all get on with it and marry someone, and give him some peace!
In the title role, Christiane Karg blends expressive grace with technical virtuosity, her gleaming soprano soaring through effortless, long-breathed phrases. Sandrina’s end-of-Act 1 aria was imbued with romantic pathos, and Karg characterised the seria situations without undue caricature. She didn’t quite convince as a horticulturalist though but this wasn’t her fault, as she was not helped in this regard by the direction or costuming: attired in cornflower blue silk gown, as she sighed and waned, this Sandrina did not look ideally made for agricultural exertion beyond a touch of gentle rose-pruning.
Her troubled lover, Count Belfiore, was pleasingly sung by Joel Prieto. The Spanish tenor’s physical elegance was matched by his beautifully shaped vocal lines and tenderness of tone, although perhaps Prieto’s voice is a little too slight to convey Belfiore’s insane ardour. More commanding of presence was Nicole Heaston as Arminda, whose strong tone and ability to carry off some fantastically extravagant costumes impressed equally. Arminda’s rejected lover, the black leather-clad Ramiro, was sung with flexibility by mezzo soprano Rachel Frenkel, her rich lyricism sparked by a flash of fire in her excellent Act 2 aria. Joèlle Harvey was acerbic and spirited as the spurned Serpetta, and she used her bright soprano most expressively. As Podestà, tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke delivered an arresting Act 1 aria and was a picture of buffo bumptiousness throughout.
Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt was indisposed, and was only able to sing the recitatives of the heroine’s devoted servant Nardo, his mute, lively acting supplemented in the arias by Gavan Ring’s warm bass resounding from the side of the circle. Ring deservedly received the most appreciative applause of the evening — and, it would have been fitting if he had been able to join the other principals on stage rather than receive his accolade from the shadows of the auditorium.
Wake-Walker has judiciously applied the pruning shears to both arias and recitative, and there is some re-ordering, but — even with such a uniformly excellent cast, and especially in the long second half — there are a few redundant arias, showing that the precocious composer might have acquired musical mastery but had not yet sharpened his dramatic instincts. That said, there are many moments which look ahead to the treasures to come, most particularly the two Act final ensembles where conductor Robin Ticciati moved things along swiftly, highlighting the juxtapositions between characters. And, there was a directorial nod towards Don Giovanni with the cloaked entrance of the masked gang, searching for Sandrina, at the end of Act 2, as the characters mistook other’s identity in the darkness.
Ticciati expertly guided some of today’s finest baroque specialists, from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, through a graceful, limpid performance. The pace was neither too leisurely nor too frantic, Ticciati responding thoughtfully to the juxtaposition of comic and serious, and the dramatic details were judiciously pointed with some fine instrumental solos and the astute, sensitive continuo playing of Andrew Smith and cellist Luise Buchberger.
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the four lovers return to regularities of the Athenian court after the lunacy of the fairies’ wood, one of the beloveds, Demetrius, remains bewitched — order is restored but it is an order that depends upon enchantment and fantasy. This seems to be Wake-Walker’s essential argument: that the moment of most clarity, when Sandrina and Belfiore recognise the artifice about them, is also the moment of most madness. The director has moved Nardo’s Act 1 aria — which asserts the folly of loving women, accompanied by the mad frolics of the violin — to the final Act, preceding the closing duet in which the lovers realise that madness and love are indivisible bed-fellows. It’s a neat idea, but one might counter-argue that in fact the route to madness is to try to make sense of the absurd plot. In this case, depth and credibility of characterisation might be a surer path to ‘truth’ rather than artifice.
Cast and production information:
Don Anchise (Il Podestà, Mayor of Lagonero), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker; Sandrina (La Marchesa Violante Onesti), Christiane Karg; Ramiro, Rachel Frenkel; Serpetta, Joèlle Harvey; Nardo (Roberto), Gyula Orendt/Gavan Ring; Arminda, Nicola Heaston; Count Belfiore, Joel Prieto; Director, Frederic Wake-Walter; Conductor, Robin Ticciati; Designer, Antony McDonald; Lighting Designer, Lucy Carter; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday, 28th June 2014.