Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sparkling La Finta Giardiniera

I've never really paid too much attention to La Finta Giardiniera by the 18 year old Mozart, in fact other than a fairly weakly-performed broadcast from Europe some years ago, have never before sat through the entire thing. All that changed the other night as I watched, in entirety for the first time, a DVD of the 1998 Drottningholm Festival performance I've been sitting on for a while now. What a surprise and joy it is to discover something previously only casually known, is actually a work of great depth and genius. I'd always dismissed this piece as a youngish-exercise by the young master, but
paying atention to the details, studying its characters revealed what a mature, sophisticated work this is. While the libretto is highly comical - sometimes hilariously over-the-moon, Mozart plunges into the depths of each character - allowing us to watch them develop into far more than their 18th century dramatic stereotypes: they become real flesh and blood human beings, their motivations and reasons for actions fully believable - even in a fantastically theatrical genre such as comedic opera.

The score is, I believe, one of Mozart's technically most challenging and, at least as played at Drottinghamm, offering great chunks of through-composed music that links one musical idea to another in unbroken chains in an almost Wagnerian style. The young Mozart was clearly a genius, but an untempered one. While he would go on to compose music known for its technical difficulties (think Queen of the Night, Kostanze, et al.) his
later style developed into a more nuanced approach, generally allowing his singers some much needed "breathing room" between difficult numbers. In "Giardineria," however, the teenage wunderkind created a sort of calling card - throwing his entire arsenal of creativity into a work which seemingly had little pre-existing model of such musical difficulty at the time. Mozart delivered the work to Munich on time for a mid December premiere, but the company was unprepared for the sophisticated and difficult score which
showed up and required an additional 3 weeks of rehearsals before finally premiering on January 13th!

The jewel that is the 400 seat Drottningholm Palace Theatre still employs the original 1766 stage machinery - fully intact - (thunder and wave machines, flying chairs, etc.) often used in its productions, the orchestra plays original instruments, wears wigs and dresses in the time period, allowing presentations of as close to a total recreation of 18th century opera as we're likely to see anywhere these days. Sadly, no flying chair is on display here, but with everything going on in this production, it's hardly missed!

Goran Jarvefelt creates a production that feels as if it traveled through time directly from Mozart to us. His use (as well as most of the productions I've seen from here) of the tiny Drottningholm stage is a textbook lesson in the creative use of limited space to its fullest
possibilities. He moves us swiftly through courtyards, bed chambers, workrooms, parlours, a wild forest, and a garden/glade. This is managed by allowing every singer to begin their bravura arias in the proper locale, then dropping the curtain as the character continues on the apron while the carpenters and stagehands quickly strike and reset the stage, sometimes partially visible through a small hole in the curtain! The characters, more often than now, acknowledge the audience, sometimes bow, or as in the case of the Count and Violante, wave an enthusiastic good-bye at the delighted crowd. The ends of Acts I and II find the entire company before the curtain, each bowing in character, adding immeasurably to the charm and sense of good fun.

Though its comedic aspects are never diminished, Mozart takes the darker moments of the characters - and creates scenes that plum the depths of despair and madness as powerfully as if they'd been lifted from a more tragic opera seria. The balancing act between dark and light here is at a level comparable to, say, Don Giovanni. Here, we can find Mozart's passion for taking something that starts out like an aria, then morphs into a duet, then a quartet, then an ensemble employing all 7 roles of the opera. That he achieves this with the skill of someone far greater in years and experience than he, only adds to the "genius" factor. It's remarkable, really.

Jarvefelt was blessed with a troupe of singing actors that are the epitome of each character they represent. While the voices of the generally very young cast are not always of the smoothest import, each inhabits his or her role, making the music sound germane to the complicated goings on.

Richard Croft nut that I am, I was pleased to see the then almost impossibly youthful tenor, garner the lions share of the applause (his bravura scene in Act II elicits the only chorus of bravos), but this, as all of Mozart's great works, is an ensemble piece, every character part of the puzzle and fully integrated into a brilliant whole. Croft looks silly in his foppish, spoiled young count wig and overdone make-up, later more natural, but always a little "girly" or "fey" - which he works to his advantage. Whether hopping from chair-to-chair with ridiculous speed, doing sommersaults, jumping atop tables or crawling under beds, he's lean and lithe and comes across fully inside the head of this young man. His scenes of madness begin comically, but then reach a level of pathos that, while not actually heartbreaking (this is a comedy!) are infinitely touching. He dispatches his difficult music with great elasticity, though sometimes his quick vibrato develops a rapid bleat some will find unattractive, but for me, suits this type of role beautifully.

Britt-Marie Aruhn as the title role - disguised as "the Pretend Gardener" offers sheer delight and, like Croft, goes from silliness to tragic character in seamless fashion. Her final duet with Croft's Count offers some of the most difficult timing changes and both pull it off with style, grace and charm to spare.

Ann Christine Biel as the wily, coldhearted, eye-on-the-prize, saucy servant Serpetta tries at every turn to steal the show, commenting asides to the audience. She pulls off this calculating character with such perfect comic timing and stage business, whether serving coffee, ironing or spying on the goings on, you'll find your eye focusing on her nearly every scene. I cannot imagine this great archetypal character being performed with more
aplomb or better comic timing than Ms. Biel offers here.

Annika Skoglund - at times bearing an uncanny resemblance to actress Julianna Margulies - is the heart-on-sleeve wearing Cavalier Ramiro, desperately pining away for the Count's flightly fiancee, Arminda. She looks "handsome" and sometimes is the most masculine acting character on stage! She has a warm, lovely sound that, with too much pressure, can get a bit of a shrillish edge, but that's not inappropriate given the character,
and those moments are minimal - and I almost feel guilty mentioning them here, so fine is the rest of her performance.

As the Count's intended, Eva Pilat, with pink streaks through her powdered wig, starts like a house on fire and never lets up. Meeting her fiance for the first time on their supposed wedding day, the spoilt, pampered princess makes no bones about who will be running the show and what punishments she will dole to her future husband should he ever fail to live up to her "standards." She makes clear she "uses the stick" (and we see her attempt to do so later), and threatens physical violence often. Pilat soars effortlessly through her music and, as nasty as she can be, still allows the audience to fall in love with her.

Petteri Salomaa's face is priceless. Though painted a bit too white, his mugging looks of surprise, that handsome wide mouth circling into an "O" straight out of silent movies, the man is a comic gem. A resemblance to Ashton Kutcher will not go unnoticed. Like the rest of the cast, he is a fiercely physical comic actor and the colors in his voice at times make it seem like two completely different singers are employed (and as he plays a
role "in disguise" this is a very good thing!).

The master of the house, Don Anchise - known as the "Podesta" tries to run this show - it is HIS house, after all, but all of his attempted machinations at controlling the chaos prove too much and the man who, at the beginning of this romp looked like a aging buffoon, comes to accept his fate - and that of all those he tried to cajole, control and convict, with enlightenment and panache. Stuart Kale, in his lemon-curd colored wig,
simply owns this role - one of the great comic roles every tenor getting beyond the years of romantic hero would be lucky to get. Kale sinks his teeth into each moment, playing it with the abandon and style.

Arnold Ostman conducts the Drottningholm forces in an exciting, rhythmically tour de force that propels the action, lingering only long enough to allow you to catch your breath. In fact, one advantage the viewer has over the live audience is the ability to hit "pause" or rewind a minute to catch something that flew by you visually or aurally. Nonetheless, I would have LOVED to have been part of the house when this was filmed, as it seems few people in the world were having more fun anywhere than were these folk.

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