Mozart: La finta giardiniera

Erin Morley Sandrina (Violante), Carlo Allemano Don Achise, Podestat, Enea Scala Comte Belfiore, Marie-Adeline Henry Arminda, Maria Savastano Serpetta, [Marie-Claude Chappuis Ramiro, Nikolay Borchev Nardo (Roberto), Dimitri La Sade-Dotti, Marcelo Rodrigues, Rolim de Goes figurants], Le Concert d’Astrée, Emmanuelle Haïm
176:00 (2 DVDs)
Erato 08256 461664 5 9

For long regarded simply as a precursor of the great comic operas of Mozart’s maturity, La finta giardiniera has more recently shown increasing signs of being accepted into the repertoire. Last year’s first-ever staging at Glyndebourne was mirrored across the Channel by this co-production mounted in Lille and Dijon. The attention is justified, the remarkable thing about La finta giardiniera being not that it fails to match the mature operas – that’s a given – but that much of the opera attains a standard that is notable for far more than its composer’s youth. So, while the long act 1 finale may lack the miraculous structural architecture of later finales, it is still an extraordinary achievement by any other standard, while the eventual act 3 reconciliation of Belfiore and Sandrina (he believes he has killed her some time before the opera opens) evokes an emotional response that reminds us that this is the same composer that would later write the shattering scene in which Fiordiligi finally capitulates to Ferrando.

La finta was composed for the Munich Carnival season and first given in January 1775, just two weeks before Mozart’s nineteenth birthday. Although termed an opera buffa, it belongs to a genre that includes parti serie, here the roles of Armindo and her lover Ramiro, and parti di mezzo carattere or intermediate roles that feature serious characters who may also find themselves in comic situations, in this case Sandrina and Belfiore. The remaining characters, the Podesta (or Mayor), his maid Serpetta and Sandrina’s servant Roberto have purely comic roles. Producer David Lescot has opted for a generalized production that relies more on props – a constantly changing (and sometimes fussy) array of plants and bushes in tubs in act 1, set in the Podesta’s garden – than sets. Costumes, if not specifically in period, at least nod in that direction, the unifying conceit being that everyone is dressed in white. It works well enough, though I’m not sure why Ramiro needs short trousers and a pair of tennis rackets or why the backcloth in act 1 needs to be so dark; we are after all in a garden.

The performance is immensely likeable. Having never been much of a fan of Emmanuelle Haïm’s work, I’m delighted to discover that on this evidence she is a splendid Mozartian. Tempos throughout are finely judged, and she draws from her orchestra idiomatic playing that encompasses variously both sensitivity and real dramatic strength. My one complaint is continuo playing straight from the René Jacobs’ school of gross over-elaboration. And would a fortepiano really have been used as far back as 1775? Exceptional among a young cast that is likely to be unfamiliar to most opera enthusiasts in this country are the outstandingly stylish Ramiro (originally a castrato role) of Marie-Claude Chappuis, the infinitely touching Sandrina of American soprano Erin Morley, and Nikolay Borchev’s splendid Nardo, his richly rounded baritone suggesting an outstanding future Don Giovanni. Enea Scala’s Count Belfiore sings more lyrical music with sensitivity, but his tone is liable to coarsen under pressure. Marie-Adeline Henry is a splendidly fearsome, Arminda, delivering her act 2 aria di furia with suitable venom, while fine comic performances come from Maria Savastano’s Serpetta and Carlo Allemano as the Podesta.

Some of the camera work is a bit close for my taste, but overall the presentation is excellent, though the English subtitles could have done with a proofread. La finta giardiniera is a long opera that can easily outstay its welcome; that it is does no such thing here is to the credit of all concerned. Finally, it is a sobering thought that this is the achievement of two of France’s second-tier regional opera houses.

Brian Robins