Mostly Mozart – La Finta Giardiniera (19 July)

La Finta Giardiniera

Don Anchise (Podesta) – Adrian Thompson
Sandrina – Lisa Saffer
Count Belfiore – Iain Paton
Arminda – Majella Cullagh
Ramiro – Michelle Walton
Serpetta – Carla Huhtanen
Nardo – Damian Thantrey

Garsington Opera Orchestra (incorporating the Guildhall Strings)
Steuart Bedford

Paul Curran – director at Garsington
Tamara Harvey – director at Barbican
Kevin Knight – designer
Bruno Poet – lighting designer

Reviewed by: Kadir Hussein

Reviewed: 19 July, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Commissioned for the 1775 Munich Carnival, 19-year-old Mozart’s dramma giocosa had only three performances and was not done again in his lifetime except in the German translation. The original Italian version could not be performed in our own day until the missing recitatives of Act One were found in the 1970s. The artificial and complicated plot must be one the silliest in all opera, involving a series of misguided infatuations, resolved when, after going mad, the hero and heroine recover and rediscover each other.

The music is generally light and fast moving, with little evidence of the depths heard in the G minor (No.25) and A major (No.29) symphonies previously composed. The most memorable numbers are the serious ones – “Geme la tortorella”, a graceful cavatina for Sandrina about a mournful turtle-dove; “Vorrei punirti indegno”, an impressive piece of indignant fury from Arminda and “Dolce d’amor compagna”, a florid invocation to Hope by Ramiro; and the extended scene of reconciliation for the two principal lovers, Sandrina and Belfiore.

Part of the Barbican’s “Mostly Mozart” series, this semi-staged concert followed the new production at Garsington Opera (a country house festival) which opened in June. The giardiniera at the Barbican Hall consisted of a square wooden floor with a couple of wooden benches semi-surrounded by small green trees. The singers wore 18th-century costumes and visibly enjoyed frolicking about in this mildly amusing slapstick comedy.

Despite a number of cuts in the score – including Sandrina’s opening arias in the first two acts, Belfiore’s first aria in the first act and Podesta’s only aria in the second act – this still was a very long evening. I doubt the opera would be performed if it were not by Mozart: there is simply not enough variety – too many similar fast arias – to sustain interest. Despite this reservation, everyone involved gave his or her best to make it an enjoyable evening.

The small orchestra, especially the strings, played beautifully for Steuart Bedford, who conducted with spirit, elegance and wit. There was not much lingering – more opera buffo than dramma giocosa! Shouldn’t Sandrina’s cavatina about the turtle-dove be taken a little slower so we could have savoured the lovely melody.

I do not usually care for Adrian Thompson’s rather monochrome and hard tenor but the grotesque self-glorification of Podesta was well characterised. Lisa Saffer’s bright, white tone – and unfortunately thin at the top – is not to my taste either, but she sings with great commitment and has a good trill. Iain Paton’s modest tenor seemed to have difficulties with some of the lower notes but again was fully in character. Majella Cullagh as the haughty Arminda (with a galleon in full sail as a hat!) was marvellous. Her clear, firm and silvery tone is pleasing to the ear, and is based on a rock-solid technique. Her deliciously executed trills in “Si promette facilmente” (Act One) elicited audible delight from the audience. Michelle Walton’s rich mezzo was suitably fiery in “Va pure ad altri in braccio” (Act Three) and ably projected in the Hope aria but, unfortunately, she lacked a true trill. The purely buffo characters, Serpetta and Nardo, as portrayed by Carla Huhtanen and Damian Thantrey respectively, did justice to their comedic roles – the worldly-wise soubrette Serpetta is very much a precursor of Despina in Cosi fan tutte. Nardo’s three ways (Italian, French and English) of trying to seduce Serpetta in “Con un vezzo all’Italiana” had people in the audience laughing out loud – especially when Damian Thantrey tied a white handkerchief over his head to portray the English method of seduction!

A well performed and enchanting confection for a summer evening!

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