The Royal Opera – La finta giardiniera

La finta giardiniera – Opera buffa in three acts [Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ramiro – Sophie Koch
Don Anchise – Kurt Streit
Marchioness Violante Onesti (Sandrina) – Genia Kühmeier
Roberto (Nardo) – Christopher Maltman
Serpetta – Patrizia Biccirè
Arminda – Camilla Tilling
Count Belfiore – Nicholas Watts

English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Director – Annika Haller (based on a production by Christof Loy)
Designs – Herbert Murauer
Lighting – Reinhard Traub

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 2 October, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The 250th-anniversary of Mozart’s birth has seen many productions of all his operas over the course of the year, and these have included many of the early works of the canon.

The Royal Opera’s contribution to these is the opera buffa, “La finta giardiniera”, composed when Mozart was in his late teens, and which was originally performed in Munich on 13 January 1775. It is a fascinating work showing the composer on the brink of a more mature compositional style and musical expressiveness. At moments in this energetic performance, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists made one acutely aware that “Idomeneo”, another opera that received a Munich premiere, was only six years away. This is particularly so in some of Arminda’s vengeance or vendetta music, demonstrating that the fiery outbursts of Elektra in the later opera were musico-dramatic developments of music from this piece. It helped that Camilla Tilling gave such a spirited and full-voiced rendition of this negotiating the florid passages with considerable aplomb and without gaining any harshness to her tone.

Indeed most of the pleasure in the evening lay with the orchestra and the vocal soloists. Gardiner and the Royal Opera has assembled a cast of largely young and fresh voices, and the benefit of their lighter and brighter timbres accorded well with the bright strings and warm woodwinds of the orchestra. Sophie Koch as the ever-agitated or despairing Ramiro once again revealed why she graces so many of the world’s important stages. Her voice has a wonderful lower register, rich without being overly fruity and an open top with a tight vibrato that she uses intelligently to add wonderful shade to her singing. Her character spends most of the time in hopeless thrall to the changeable Arminda, and she characterised this well.

Austrian soprano Genia Kühmeier sings the role of the gardener Sandrina (in fact the Marchioness Onesti in disguise). She has a characterful limpid voice with a rather plaintive quality and sang most attractively. Her slow aria towards the end of the first act, over a beautiful pulsing triplet theme, was absolutely exquisite. However, she rather under-uses consonants and this lack of clear diction and over-reliance on production of a seamless uninterrupted line ultimately becomes a little wearing. One needs more than this for good musical drama – there was little difference in her vocal expression of madness at the end of the second act to contrast with her more lucid moments at the start and end of the piece.

It was good to see Christopher Maltman in strong vocal form, making much of little material and making his presence felt. The same might have been said for Patrizia Biccirè’s Serpetta, who had even less to do, but the director(s) of the production left her little scope to register her character in any depth. Kurt Streit’s voice is a little drier than of old but he remains an engaging performer and he acted the proud yet vacillating mayor well, if in a rather obviously buffo style.

As Count Belfiore, who has previously stabbed the Marchioness and believes her dead, Nicholas Watts was singing his first performance of the run – the earlier ones having been taken by Robert Murray. He made one realise that this character is, musically and dramatically, a prototype for later Mozart tenor roles such as Belmonte, Ferrando and possibly even Tito. Belfiore’s predicaments are not exactly believable in the dramatic sense but he wrung what emotion he could from the text. His diction was excellent, and it was when he sang with Kühmeier in duet that you noticed her lack of words.

As mentioned earlier Camilla Tilling turned in an impressive performance as Arminda, really using her recitative in a spirited way to move the action on and really supporting her portrayal. Of the cast she was the only one who rose above the deficiencies of the production, which seems not to know what to say about the piece. It is the weakness of the evening. The set is open, but there is an on-stage pool that the characters either have to negotiate in a rather clumsy fashion, or occasionally to wade around in (men only). There is also a ramp bridging the stage with the auditorium, which covered about one quarter of the pit to one side, leaving the orchestral balance somewhat lop-sided. Occasionally some of the characters, particularly Ramiro and ‘Sandrina’, ventured in front of the proscenium, but they never got into the stalls area itself so there seemed no reason for this design tic. In addition the singers seemed rather happier when behind the proscenium arch than when struggling to project from an area of the auditorium that patently does not make singing easy. In all the direction lacked a bit of heart and consistency. This is frustrating, as better focus might bring some of the comparisons with later operas more securely into view – especially the ‘Figaro’-like finales of the first and second acts.

The other saviours are the players of the English Baroque Soloists – playing with brio, beauty and heart, and constantly allowing the listener to register Mozart’s developing genius. One such moment was the sudden blaring of a horn towards the end of the first act, making everyone sit up and notice, and some elegant woodwind ensemble. Gardiner’s tempo changes were sometimes striking but not forced and certainly keep the pace.

So something of a mixed bag in terms of production and performance, but definitely of more than passing interest – good that Covent Garden decided to give the work a main-stage airing rather than marginalia it to the smaller Linbury Theatre.

  • The first night was 21 September
  • Remaining performances on 4 October at 7 p.m. and on 7 October at midday
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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