Frederic Wake-Walker, who directed Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of La finta giardiniera this year before introducing the touring version, says that he enjoyed tackling a Mozart creation that does not have as much weight of history hanging over it as Le nozze di Figaro or Die Zauberflöte. This is because Act I of the composer’s ninth, and arguably first mature, opera went missing soon after his death and was only rediscovered in the 1970s. Until then the only complete score available came from the German Singspiel version, Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, written four years later in 1779.
Wake-Walker has made the most of the opportunities this relative freedom has afforded him, but the production’s strength lies in the way in which the innovative staging is the product of a thorough understanding of the piece, and a detailed exploration of each character.
La finta giardiniera stands predominantly in the opera buffa tradition highly popular at the time of composition, and yet the characters possess a depth and three-dimensionality uncommon to the genre. This point is brought out by seeing them frequently adopt the stock gestures that would be associated with their characters. In moments of confusion and madness, however, these are executed with such speed and freneticism that it is as if each figure has spun off its axis to become a full-blooded human being rather than just a standard type.
There is a range of additional touches to take the idea even further. Mozart ensured that his score stressed the scenario’s hierarchies by giving the musically simpler recitatives and arias to the lower class figures of Serpetta and Nardo. Wake-Walker mirrors this in the staging by emphasising how these characters are closest to the commedia dell’arte tradition. Nardo’s gestures and facial expressions are exaggerated and stylised, while at the start of Act II the pair are left hunched or hanging like dolls in Coppélia. This is, of course, also intended to be ironic because Serpetta can be seen as a forerunner to Despina or Susanna, capable of outwitting her superiors, while Nardo’s stock expressions are clearly all knowing.
In a similar way the staging, by initially seeming to offer nothing more than a traditional eighteenth century setting, ultimately proves multi-faceted. The set presents the Hall of Mirrors in Schloss Nymphenburg’s Amalienburg pavilion, which lies on the outskirts of Munich where the opera premiered. Even at the start, however, we see that one window is broken and others are smeared with grease and dirt. With the front of the stage revealing splintered floorboards that bring the room to an abrupt halt, we feel a sense of unease that the society we witness is on the verge of collapse, even before the finale to Act I when Sandrina nearly falls over the edge.
In Act II everything moves to another level again. There is a watershed moment in the plot when Sandrina is suddenly thrust from the Podestà’s estate to a bare mountain, and another when she and the Count enter their fantasy world. The individual transitions do not seem so bold in this production because there is no large, obvious scene change, but we are invited to witness the accumulative effect of these separate developments. The ‘mountain’ is the Hall of Mirrors only now left in a colder, more desolate state (Sandrina shelters in the fireplace), and over the course of Act II the set is increasingly torn to shreds until the entire room disintegrates to reveal woodland and the virtues of nature.
In truth, although the impact is strong and the visual elements entertaining, something is slightly lost in the process. When it was written, La finta giardiniera stood as virtually unique within opera buffa in moving the audience into such starkly different realms, and so it is slightly disappointing not to feel disconcerted by being positively jerked from one area to another. On the other hand, the approach does create coherence of purpose in revealing exactly how the corrupting influences of society are overcome by nature and true love.
The main difference between the festival and touring productions lies not in the staging but the cast. All seven members are new, and it is the unique nature of each performance that gives the end product a very different feel. Although no-one is weak, two principals stand out in particular. The first is Rosa Feola who as Sandrina has a voice of immense smoothness and beauty. There is an almost wispy, spiritual quality to her soprano and yet it is possessed of the utmost clarity. The second is Mattia Olivieri whose rich, broad baritone voice is a joy to hear. In the role of Nardo he also proves the strongest actor and mover of the evening, and it may be significant that only he ever crosses over the threshold at the front of the stage to leave the scenario entirely.
As Arminda, Eleonore Marguerre’s soprano hits us with both its impact and sweetness of tone, and though she oozes presence as soon as she enters, her performance benefits from being not quite as histrionic as some. In particular, it means that there is something still left to discover about her assuming nature as she sings ‘Si promette facilmente’. Enea Scala is possessed of a broad romantic tenor instrument. He plays the Count largely as a ‘dashing fop’ and yet his eyes suggest that behind the white make-up there is a person capable of immense brutality. It is paradoxical, therefore, that when this is removed we actually see a rather more vulnerable character.
Hanna Hipp brings a metallic, yet refined, vibrato to her impressive performance as Ramiro, while Eliana Pretorian is a good Serpetta. Timothy Robinson as the Podestà proves excellent at bringing out the opera’s hierarchies by presenting a man who in his own world rules the roost, and yet who suddenly assumes a subservient role as soon as the Count appears. He proves a fine comic actor, although this may just be to the detriment of imbuing his entertaining performance of ‘Dentro il mio petto’ with sufficient beauteous tone. The orchestra also differs from the festival production where Robin Ticciati conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Here, Christopher Moulds keeps a firm hand on the tiller and extracts playing of immense warmth and balance from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra.
Three Glyndebourne on Tour productions (La finta giardiniera, La traviata and The Turn of the Screw) appear in Woking between 28 October and 1 November. After this they will continue to tour to various venues across the United Kingdom and Ireland until 10 December. For full details of venues and dates visit the Glyndebourne website.