La finta giardiniera: Weeding needed

Mozart’s early opera La finta giardiniera is a problem work.  Whether its wild mixture of silly and serious is confusing or just confused is a matter for debate, but it’s surely a challenging piece to stage.  David Alden’s new Theater an der Wien production takes it very seriously indeed, probably far more seriously than Mozart ever did.  The result is grim, unfunny, and ugly to boot.  After three and a half hours watching his emotionally damaged zombies sing rage aria after rage aria, I wanted to sing one too.  I still think this opera can be a delight, and found this production hugely disappointing.

Luckily this was partly redeemed by high quality musicianship.  Despite variable voices, René Jacobs conducted a rhythmically incisive performance full of dramatic spontaneity, and the Freiburger Barockorchester is so good they almost made the evening worth it just by themselves.

Mozart, La finta giardiniera.  Theater an der Wien, 12/11/10.  New production premiere by David Alden, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Doey Lüthi, lights by Wolfgang Goebbel, choreography by Beate Vollack.  Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by René Jacobs with Sophie Karthäuser (Sandrina/Violante), Topi Lehtipuu (Il Contino Belfiore), Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Arminda), Michael Nagy (Nardo/Roberto), Jeffrey Francis (Il Podestà), Sunhae Im (Serpetta), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Cavaliere Ramiro)

The central event in David Alden’s staging happens before the opera starts: Il Contino Belfiore’s attempted (he thinks successful) murder of his lover Violante.  Her disguise as the gardening girl Sandrina is explained by Alden as the result of extreme trauma, and, wandering around in a bloody wedding dress with a vacant stare and a large pair of gardening shears, she does look like she’s been through hell.  All the other characters, similarly unlucky in love, are going through the same anguish in varying degrees.

By putting all the characters in liminal emotional states, I think Alden wanted to try to explain their strange actions and the many coincidences of the convoluted plot. The problem is that this plot that we see onstage is basically a buffo farce.  The trauma Alden has put front and center doesn’t hang over the music or libretto in any perceptible way, and the gloom feels totally wrong.  And while he does differentiate slightly between the seria characters and the buffo ones (as Mozart’s music does), for example by putting the seria characters on a staircase to indicate their higher social status, for the most part they are strangely uniform wrecks, and all so wrapped up in their own psychoses they rarely interact with each other.  Love, flirtation, and seduction are shoved aside in favor of jealousy and rage.

The sets are minimal: various neon-colored backdrops, some sliding walls, a few chairs, and more ascending and descending light fixtures than seem necessary.  It is not an attractive production.  The setting is nominally Italy in the 1930’s, but this means nothing more than the general sense of the costumes.  Why?  According to the note, Alden sees the Podestà Don Anchise as a mini-Mussolini, wishing to control everyone and failing.  I did not see this in the staging, though, the Podestà is a comic old man supporting role and he didn’t seem any more complicated or important here than usual.  Also, he was not comic, and that was a problem.  Arminda seems to be an aviatrix (???).  That’s all I got.  (I also must refer you to James Jorden’s excellent essay on time-traveling productions, if you have not already read it.  This is a dire example of the Carmen type, only without the realism.  The Mussolini thing seems the be the sole reason for this setting, and if I hadn’t read about that in the program it would have totally gone over my head.)

The garden is never more than suggested, though Sandrina relives her attempted murder Edward Scissorhands-style (after Cardillac, I am convinced that this film is the only metatext you need for opera in Vienna this fall) by cutting a murderous topiary.  In the garden, things are kept more or less under control, in the forest of the Act 2 finale, the characters involuntarily lose their inhibitions, I think?  (For Arminda, this involves a superhero costume.  There aren’t any pictures.)  Nice nature metaphor, but the problem is that this doesn’t really work with the plot, which is pure running around in the dark and bumping into people silliness.

The most surprising thing was how Alden’s fantasy for absurd comedy seems to have deserted him.  He knows how to engagingly stage an aria, there’s always something to watch, but other than some obvious physical comedy the invention is minimal, and it seems like overlaid schtick.  By giving into stylized blocking in the Act 1 finale, he confuses the plot where he could have done a lot to clarify the character relationships, and the Act 2 finale turns strangely static.   In both, the plot developments fly by without dramatization.  Indeed, Alden’s concept of a dream landscape seems to preclude the advancement of events in most forms.

In short, I think Alden took this piece far too seriously.  It’s very long, more cuts might have helped, and by reading it so deeply he extinguished the farcical fun that is the libretto’s main asset, leaving us with a confusing, dour psychodrama. 

But while this score isn’t quite top-drawer, B-grade Mozart is better than A-grade almost anyone else.  The Freiburger Barockorchester is wonder.  They have a lovely reedy sound, perfect for the acrobatics of this music, and play a precision and refinement to rival any non-historical practice group.  To hear this music played with so much rhythmic life, transparency, and tonal color is worth any pumpkin-mangling going on onstage.  René Jacobs elaborated the wind parts a bit, as is his wont, and the arias in particular sounded busier than usual.  I don’t know this opera well enough to be specific, at times I found it fussy but mostly it was a wash.  I also don’t know the opera well enough to say whether Jacobs’s tempos were conventional or not, but with the exception of some plodding in the Act 2 finale they felt well-judged if on the fleet side, and he is a master of long-range dramatic pacing.

He also is a master of conducting singers.  The cast sang with a dramatic spontaneity and commitment that still felt perfectly musical, an amazing balance for Mozart.  In the title role Sophie Karthäuser has a lyric sound that is just the right size for the role and sang with style and confidence, though her tone can turn wiry and sharp at the top.  Topi Lehtipuu as Belfiore has a clear and really beautiful, though small, voice, but sounded strained at higher volumes.  His Contino was vaguely hipster-esque and subject to most of the production’s acrobatics, which didn’t bother his singing at all.

The unexpected highlight was Michael Nagy as Nardo, Sandrina’s servant, with a flexible, silky baritone voice and more comic élan than the production knew what to do with (granted, that isn’t a considerable quantity).  He will be Wolfram at Bayreuth next summer and definitely is one to watch.  Jeffrey Francis sounded thin and character-tenor-esque as the Podestà, and failed to be funny in this buffo part, but I wouldn’t blame him for this.  I’m not sure if Arminda is the best use of Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s skills, she has the right temperament but seems overqualified in most other departments with some showy interpolations.  Sunhae Im as the cigar-smoking soubrette Serpetta was a bright spot, and was amusing and sounded sweet, though her low range did not always project.  Marie-Claude Chappuis drifted in and out as Ramiro, excellent in lyric sections but lacking the power for the more emphatic seria music this character gets.

Massive booing for Alden and the production team at the end, cheers for everyone else.  I think this can be a great evening at the opera when produced right, though it’s always going to be a kind of weird one.  I came to know it through this absolutely adorable Salzburg Festival production, which takes place in a Home Depot-like garden store and is like a double dose of happy pills.  It does not take anything seriously at all.  I highly recommend it.

If you want to hear this performance, it is being broadcast on November 13 (AKA today) at 19:30 on Ö1.

Bows by Bad Photography is Us (production team in the first row, cast and conductor in the second):

Photos copyright Theater an der Wien/Wilfried Hösl.  Bows photo by me.

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