Opernhaus Zürich, 2006
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Tobias Moretti, Rudolf Schasching, Eva Mei, Christoph Strehl, Isabel Rey, Liliana Nikiteanu, Julia Kleiter, Gabriel Bermùdez
Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
Written when Mozart was just 18 years old, La Finta Giardiniera is undoubtedly one of the composer's lesser works. It's very conventional in its arrangements, the development of the story and the tone owing much to the Neopolitan opera buffa style popularised by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The plot is one of unhappy lovers unable to be with the one they love, some with hidden identities that are just waiting to be revealed and, for the most part, the expression of this situation requires little more than a series of arias - one person on the stage at a time - relating the woes of their misfortunes in love, with developments confined to the spoken dialogue sections and revelations in the ensemble Act finales.
For the most part. With Mozart, as with Pergolesi, however, there's a great deal of interest in the common people and a conflict exists between the serving classes and their masters where the roles are often somewhat reversed. Appearances are often deceptive, as the hidden identities suggest, as do the gender confusion over the cross-dressing and the filling of male roles by female singers and castrati that are typical of these kind of comedies. Who really rules the roost and who wears the trousers? "Let's assume a dignified manner", Arminda advises on the necessity of keeping up appearances here at one point in La Finta Giardiniera, but in reality each of the characters' emotional lives and questions of their identity are in turmoil.
What further distinguishes and exaults Mozart's (and indeed Pergolesi's) treatment of this fairly standard Metastasian situation more than just the realisation of the comic potential within the work, is the playfulness and the originality of the manner in which he brings order to all the confusion. It's far from Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, or indeed Così Fan Tutte (but then it doesn't have a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte either), but even in this early work by the composer, the arrangements in La Finta Giardiniera are light and clever, sparkling with wit and invention in a way that belies what could otherwise be a heavy-handed melodrama filed with unlikely contrivances.
Most famously, there's the Podestà Don Anchise's Act I aria 'Dentro il mio petto io sento', where he marshals the sounds of the orchestra to describe his feelings for his gardener Sandrina (the Marchioness Violante in disguise and hiding from her lover Count Belfiore, who stabbed her in a fit of rage and believes her dead). Nardo (in reality, Violante's servant Roberto), also attempts to woo the Podestà's servant Serpetta by adopting the Italian, French and English manner, which is playful and charming but also related to these questions of identity, and happiness cannot be found while one's true self is kept hidden. There's a lightness and vibrancy to the work then, a consistency and appropriateness of tone, and that's brought out wonderfully by the La Scintilla orchestra of the Zurich Opera House under Nicholas Harnoncourt.
The singing too is good all around, the cast well-suited to the roles in physical appearance as well as in the tone of voices. None of them are particularly exceptional, singing either with too little feeling for the characters or too much. Eva Mei sings Sandrina beautifully, but seems elsewhere and not really engaged with the others around her, while at the other end of the scale, Rudolf Schasching's Podestà's personality is a little over-emphasised to the detriment of the singing. Christoph Strehl and Isabel Rey have rather a better handle on their characters and are delightful, as is the comic contribution and interaction between Julia Kleiter's Serpetta and Gabriel Bermùdez's Nardo.
Unfortunately, it's rather let down by the staging. Tobias Moretti's direction never really manages to bring any real life to the admittedly limited opportunities for drama to be found within the arrangements. With a few pot-plants and twigs scattered around, the clean white designs of the stage scarcely resemble a garden since the all-purpose structure has to make do for the interiors of the Podestà's home as well. There are a few off-stage amusements and some back and forth interaction between the stage and the orchestra pit that help keep it interesting, and one of two clips of security camera footage that extend the scope to show outside events, but nothing ever comes together thematically or with a consistency of tone.
Still, this is an enjoyable account of a neglected early Mozart work. It only existed in revised German Singspiel form until the original Italian version was rediscovered in the 1970s and recorded for the first time by Harnoncourt, so there are not too many staged versions available. (An open-air production at Aix-en-Provence in 2012 takes advantage of its outdoor location and fares rather better with a cast of fresh young singers in the roles). The Blu-ray release from Arthaus Musik is a reissue of the previous TDK release, retaining the original menus and specifications, only with new packaging. There's some minor flicker in the encoding of the image, but the sound is fine on the PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mixes. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, German, French and Spanish.