Mozart / La Finta Giardiniera / Zurich Opera 2006 (1)

This is a little comic opera written by Mozart when he was eighteen. The libretto is by Giuseppe Petrosellini. It is about — well, it’s about a lot of things, I guess, but mainly it’s about a young noblewoman named Violante Onesti who has disguised herself as a gardener after receiving a stab wound under circumstances that remain somewhat unclear to me even now that I have watched the opera. Suffice it to say that everyone thinks she is dead (that is, everyone thinks the Marchesa Onesti is dead) and Violante is operating under the nom de déplantoir of Sandrina.

As the opera begins, Sandrina is toiling away in the gardens of one Don Anchise, the Podestà (or municipal magistrate) of Lagonero. Anchise has taken a shine to Sandrina. Sandrina has a servant, Roberto, who is disguised as a different servant, Nardo, and who is in love with the Podestà’s housemaid Serpetta who is in love with the Podestà who is as I said enamored of the gardener. The Podestà has a niece, Arminda. It has been arranged that Arminda will marry a man she has not met, who turns out to be Count Belfiore, who used to be in love with Violante I guess before whatever happened with the stabbing. Belfiore, like everyone else, thinks that Violante is dead.

Now that we’ve got all that straight I will spoil the ending by saying that Belfiore and Violante get back together and it all works out fine, although we have to drop some mulch, uproot some plants, go mad for about twenty-five minutes and shave a cactus in order to get there. Who said opera isn’t exciting? (Did you know that cactus-shaving is a sport in Texas? They do it at rodeos. I saw a YouTube video once of a guy who buzzed an eight-foot Carnegiea gigantea in fifty-three seconds. It was amazing.)

This production of the opera updates the action to a modern setting. The story takes place in the courtyard of the Podestà’s house. There are some video screens in the windows looking onto the courtyard, in which we see both Arminda’s and Belfiore’s arrivals by car, and, later, the abduction of Violante, orchestrated by Serpetta and I believe Arminda. In the courtyard are two little garden patches, one of which is all cactus and the other of which is planted with both cactus and roses. I do not know much about plants but this strikes me as a questionable gardening plan. Don’t roses need fairly damp soil? But it doesn’t matter, since people keep dragging the roses up by the roots and giving them away. You kind of feel for Sandrina and Nardo about this. All that work!

The costumes range from straightforward (Don Anchise’s suit) to appropriately silly (Arminda’s ex-boyfriend Ramiro’s plaid school blazer) to very charming (Sandrina’s green dress and shoes). This slightly is off topic, but Eva Mei’s haircut is also very charming. It works with the dress, somehow.

The courtyard in Act I is strewn with dry branches. There are even some attached to the railings of the balconies that give out onto the courtyard from the second and third floors of the house. Obstacles, you see. Belfiore trips over them sometimes. And at the end of Act I, when Belfiore and Sandrina are caught together in the garden (long story) the others who discover them pile the branches around them and Ramiro, ominously, flicks on his lighter. Fortunately no one is set on fire — but we never believed they would be, since this is not that kind of opera.

There are no conspicuously weird touches to this production. Serpetta (Julia Kleiter) climbs a ladder up off the stage to one of the side boxes and sits on the edge of the box for her Despina-like aria “Chi vuol godere il mondo,” and all the singers are doubled by actors/dancers for the section in Act II where everyone is mistaking everyone else for someone they aren’t, but these gestures work. The latter, in particular, allows all the singers to be facing the audience while simultaneously not seeing one another, which I rather liked. And the fact that each person was touching someone who was ‘literally’ not the actual other character they thought they were — well, this is sort of an opera about mistaken identities, isn’t it?

(Next part here.)

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