When Mozart wrote La Finta Giardiniera in 1775 at the age of nineteen opera buffa was flavour of the month and opera seria rather out of vogue. The composer, however, favoured the depth that the latter could bring to characterisation, and it shows in his creation that falls somewhere between the two camps. Although the plot, which sees the Marchioness Violante disguise herself as a gardener to win the Count Belfiore who tried to murder her, sounds fanciful enough, the range of emotions that the characters express make each feel very three-dimensional.
This concert performance by the Academy of Ancient Music, under the baton of Richard Egarr, actually aided the exploration of each figures emotions. The absence of sets and full drama meant that attention was focused entirely on the people, while the set-up generated its own form of interaction between the characters. The opening and close to Act I saw the cast in a line bombarding the audience with a series of different perspectives, as each sang of their own personal sadness or confusion at the turn of events. While this helped us to focus on the feelings of the individual characters, the skilful execution also aided understanding of the synergies between their perspectives, giving the piece a high degree of coherence.
Andrew Kennedy and James Gilchrist carried off the roles of the Podest and Count Belfiore with aplomb, providing us with two very different takes on privileged pomposity. With firm voice, puffed out chest and large arm gestures Kennedy was the archetypal upper class figure, as sure of his own worth as he was capable of being irascible. Gilchrist, in contrast, presented the Count as a man somewhat deluded by his own status. So caught up in his own world, he could all too easily be knocked down so that every act of assertion could be followed by a hasty retreat, an awkward raised eyebrow or a downward curl of the lip. His light tenor voice also possessed a remarkable degree of firmness and resonance, while his subsequent descent into madness revealed that there were many sides even to this character.
As Sandrina (the Countess in disguise as the gardener) Rosemary Joshua provided a beautifully understated performance, her voice pure and sensitive, her mannerisms subtle and moving. Klara Eks stern, haughty Arminda had a powerful and focused voice and a priceless scowl, although she also revealed that she was not entirely devoid of compassion or immune to pain. Elizabeth Watts was a suitably feisty and red-blooded Serpetta and Andrew Foster-Williams an instantly likeable Nardo, while Daniela Lehners spirited and effective performance as Ramiro proved just how well this role, originally written for a castrato, can work for a mezzo-soprano.
Perhaps the real star of the evening, however, was the Academy of Ancient Music itself. Egarrs intricate understanding and sure command of Mozarts score shone through at every turn, so that there seemed nothing outlandish or inappropriate about the variety of frequently subtle and moving effects that he brought to the music.
At over three and a half hours La Finta Giardiniera places great demands on the singers and as Act II progressed a few lost a little in vocal lustre. It is more remarkable, however, just how well each sustained themselves over the long haul, and it only required a short break to bring everyone back to their best for a breathtaking Act III.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk