Teatro alla Scala 2018-19 Review: La Finta Giardiniera
A Fine Performance With a Destructive, Though Fascinating, ProductionBy Alan Neilson
In 1790 the Burgtheater in Vienna premiered “Così Fan Tutte,” Mozart’s well-known and regularly performed masterpiece about the fickleness of the human heart. Yet, 15 years earlier, aged only 18, Mozart wrote “La Finta Giardiniera,” another opera buffa which also tackled the theme of love, albeit from a different angle, focusing this time on the madness which love’s unrestrained passions are able to unleash.
Although the opera is remarkable work for an 18-year-old, it would be wrong to bracket it alongside Mozart’s more mature operas, particularly with those he wrote in collaboration with da Ponte. Giuseppi Petrosellini, the librettist for “La Finta Giardiniera,” produced a fairly standard text, founded upon the accepted values of the period, in which love can only reach a happy conclusion when couples are paired with someone from their own social strata, and draws heavily on a variety of stock characters which would have been easily recognizable to contemporary audiences.
There is nothing subversive, and the cynicism with which da Ponte laced “Così Fan Tutte” is completely absent. Moreover, Petrosellini is unable to maintain the same level of dramatic energy which carries da Ponte’s libretti along with such force, or imbue the dialogue with the same degree of subtlety.
Whilst Mozart’s music is full of the expected quality, replete with wonderfully emotionally expressive numbers, the score does not contain the real pearls which are scattered so liberally in his later works. Also, its musical structure is fairly conservative, being composed largely of recitatives and arias, which on occasions compromise the dramatic impulse. The extended finales to Acts one and two, however, are innovative and point towards the developments which found their maturity in “The Marriage of Figaro.”
The main plot revolves around Count Belfiore and his ex-lover, La Marchese Violante, whom he has stabbed to death, or at least he thinks he has. As it happens, she has survived and now she and her servant Nardo work, disguised as gardeners, for the Mayor, Don Anchise, who has fallen in love with her.
Needless to say Belfiore turns up at the house, and is to marry the Mayor’s niece, Arminda. Add in her ex-fiancée, Ramiro, the servant girl, Serpetta, who is the object of Nardo’s affections, but who is more interested in the Mayor, and you have all the ingredients for a typical opera buffa.
The opera contains the usual expected comedic elements of mistaken identities, ridiculous coincidences, and bumptious characters making fools of themselves, most notably the lecherous, bumbling Don Anchise. It also, however, veers into areas which are completely serious, particularly in the case of Ramiro, who is an ardent, determined character, resolved to win back Arminda.
The director for this production of “La Finta Giardiniera” at Teatro alla Scala, Milan was Frederic Wake-Walker, who with the aid of Anthony McDonald, responsible for scenery and costumes, and Lucy Carter’s lighting created an engaging and imaginative interpretation.
Ostensively, this started as a straightforward production, which played up the comedy in the work. The setting was a large room in a villa, in the rococo style, which was starting to decay. Mirrors, big windows, doors an a fireplace took up almost the entire wall and were used for entrances and exits, the characters climbing in through the windows or escaping via the fireplace. It was all good fun and produced a lively atmosphere, and perfectly embraced the buffa spirit.
The costumes were colorful and typical of the period, although occasionally exaggerated in design to capture the comedy of the scene. The choreography was exceptionally well-considered, and the actors’ gestures were magnified in line with the performances practices of the time, although in this case done more for comedic effect than in an attempt to promote historical realism. By the end of Act one, the performance had clearly established a momentum.
After the interval, however, the dramatic emphasis started to shift away from the comedy and towards more serious considerations. The scene was the same, except it was now painted on paper; there was no possibility of climbing in through these windows!
As Sandrina (the Marchese in disguise) and Belfiore’s love for each other reignites, and their passions intensify they destroy the scenery, aided by the other characters, who are also under love’s irrational power. By the end of the evening, the stage has been completely trashed. The mise-è-scene was ugly, the charm of Act one had all but gone – dramatically, however, it was successful!
Moreover, Wake-Walker’s interpretation added further subtleties; while the characters were singing a significant aria, they would cast off their clothes, stripping away their superficial feelings, which like the (psychic) walls that are being pulled down, allow their deeper emotions, born of experience and reason, to connect with their true love.
So it was that Serpetta finally turns her attentions away from Don Anchise and towards Nardo, Arminda accepts Ramiro, and Belfiore and the Marchese are reconciled. Although it was a thoughtful and largely well-constructed production, the violence in Acts two and three occasionally had a jarring effect when put alongside the comedic elements, which were now downplayed.
Nevertheless, Wake-Walker’s overall conception of the opera worked: the initial superficial power of love is finally dispelled as its madness destroys itself, and allows a more mature love to develop, thanks to the balancing effect of reason.
Actress & Singer
The opera is an ensemble work, with the arias fairly evenly distributed amongst the cast. A successful presentation, therefore, requires strong performances in all the roles, and this was largely the case in this La Scala production. Unfortunately, Hanna-Elisabeth Muller, who was scheduled to sing the role of La Marchese Violante (Sandrina) was ill, and although she was unable to sing, did act out the role.
Swiss soprano Julie Martin du Theil stepped in at the last minute, and sang standing at the side of the stage. Although occasionally underpowered, she gave a graceful, yet expressive performance, displaying a refined technique.
However, it was not an ideal situation and the dramatic effect was slightly compromised.
The Swiss tenor, Bernard Richter, played Count Belfiore as an unattractive immature dandy, who by the end of the evening had matured. Richter engaged freely and confidently with his character, singing in an easy-going manner which, of course, was founded upon his solid technique.
In his aria “Care pupille belle,” he timorously attempts to kiss La Marchese’s hand, the seductively warm timbre of his voice charming both La Marchese and the audience, until he realizes it is Don Anchise’s hand, and recoils in surprise.
His excellent phrasing, subtle coloring and dynamic control allowed him to give a splendidly nuanced and expressive rendition of the passage of recitative, “Ah non partir… …m’ascolta,” and the following aria “Già divento freddo, freddo.”
Mozart also included a couple of duets in the work, and “Dove mai son” between Belfiore and La Marchese contains one of the most beautiful melodies in the score. It is understated and interrupted with recitatives, before morphing into a second duet of equal beauty “Tu mi lasci?” but together they delicately capture the two lovers feelings as well as the spirit of the work itself. Du Theil and Richter sang the passage with sensitivity and delicacy, their voices complementing each other’s wonderfully.
Changing Things Up
The Croatian tenor, Kresimir Spicer, played the role of Mayor, Don Anchise in true buffo style, hamming it up at every opportunity. His attempted seduction of Sandrina in Act one was marvellously and ludicrously played out: likening his feelings for her to the instruments of an orchestra in his aria “Dentro il mio petto io sento,” he boldly locks the doors and presses his claim, while stripping off his clothes down to his golden briefs and struts proudly around the stage. Vocally, he has a strong tenor with an engaging voice, but at times, tended to rely on power at the expense of subtlety.
Originally written for a castrato, the part of Ramiro, Arminda’s rejected suitor, was essayed by the mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo. Her voice has an innate beauty, which she used skillfully to characterize the role.
Her aria, “Dolce d’amore compagna,” allowed her to display her carefully crafted phrasing and the beautiful delicacy which she can inject into her singing. It is an aria about the hope Ramiro still has in finding love with Arminda, and nicely captured the deep longing he feels.
Whilst the aria, “Se l’augellin sen fugge,” in which Ramiro hopes never to fall in love again was sung with a more strident edge, affording Cirillo the opportunity to show off her precise and refined coloratura, and finely molded embellishments.
Anett Fritsch mocked her own character, Arminda, portraying her as an aristocrat from an opera-seria; overly serious, domineering and, of course, very jealous. It was an effective and convincing portrayal, underpinned by a solid singing performance.
Her voice, however, has a crystalline edge to it, which at times, became a little too hard and shrill, which compromised an otherwise pleasing performance.
As the servant girl, Serpetta, Giulia Semenzato put in a very strong performance. Playing her as Despina type character, she essayed the role perfectly. She was, by turn, bold and clever, stroppy and cunning. She was always hovering around somewhere, with an ear to what was going on, her excellently designed costume matching her vivacious personality and magnifying her already powerful stage presence.
Her voice, too, was suitably matched to the character. It was fresh and agile, with wonderfully penetrating high notes. Moreover, Semenzato has that rare gift of being able to capture the sympathy of the audience through her personality.
Mattia Olivieri in the role of Roberto, La Marchese’s servant, and disguised as Nardo, the gardener, also put in a strong acting and singing performance. Whether acting out serious or comedic episodes he always convinced.
He possesses a rich dark voice, strong and resonant, and sings with a great deal of agility, which he showed most ably and with great success in the aria “A forza di martelli.”
This production of “La Finta Giardiniera” was performed using period instruments, and who better therefore, to lead the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala than the conductor, Diego Fasolis, a master in period instrument presentations.
Throughout the evening Fasolis maintained an excellent balance between the orchestra and the stage, occasionally compensating for the not unsurprising imbalances caused by Muller’s illness. More impressive, however, was the elegant and graceful sound that he elicited from the orchestra, which helped define the production. Tempi and dynamic variations were energetically fostered. All of which helped in the creation of a sparkling performance.
Certainly, this is not an opera to compare to Mozart’s more famous works, but it has a lot to offer in its own right; the music oozes with charm and quality, the drama is engaging, and even it lacks the dramatic impetus and depth of the da Ponte operas it is not a dull one-dimensional work.
The blend of comedy and serious drama in any work is always a difficult art to get right, and Wake-Walker did not do a bad job, although he possibly overplayed the destructive side a little. Nevertheless, it is a valid interpretation and certainly engaged with the underlying dramatic drivers, which ultimately made for a successful performance.