La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

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
— 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 CosÏ
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 faÁades 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 Podest‡ (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 Podest‡’s niece, casting
aside her former lover, Ramiro, now adores Belfiore — Violante’s former
lover and assailant. By the end, one can sympathise with Podest‡ who just
seems to wish they’d all get on with it and marry someone, and give him some

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

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. JoËlle Harvey was acerbic and spirited as the spurned
Serpetta, and she used her bright soprano most expressively. As Podest‡, 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

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.

Claire Seymour

La finta giardiniera Podcast — Festival 2014

Cast and production information:

Don Anchise (Il Podest‡, Mayor of Lagonero), Wolfgang
Ablinger-Sperrhacker; Sandrina (La Marchesa Violante Onesti), Christiane Karg;
Ramiro, Rachel Frenkel; Serpetta, JoËlle 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

image_description=Photo by Tristram Kenton
product_title=La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above photo by Tristram Kenton

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