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Santa Fe Opera, Part 3: An Enchanted Garden

Jesse Simon
jueves, 20 de agosto de 2015
Santa Fe, viernes, 7 de agosto de 2015. Santa Fe Opera. Mozart: La Finta Giardiniera. Tim Albery, director. Cast: Heidi Stober (Sandrina), Susanna Phillips (Arminda), Laura Tatulescu (Serpetta), Cecelia Hall (Ramiro), Joel Prieto (Count Belfiore), William Burden (Podestà), and Joshua Hopkins (Nardo). Orchestra of the Santa Fe Opera. Harry Bicket, conductor

Mozart, in a letter to his father, described La Finta Giardiniera as a success; yet success was not enough to prevent its rapid disappearance from the theatre. Although it was subsequently rewritten as a German-language Singspiel, and a revised Italian version enjoyed a brief posthumous revival in Prague, Mozart’s early comic gem would spend the better part of the next two centuries as an obscurity. Its fortunes have improved only slightly since the appearance of the first widely available LP recording in 1980; only in the last two decades has it started to appear more frequently, both on the stage and in the racks of music shops.

This season La Finta Giardiniera made its first appearance at the Santa Fe Opera, and the production – directed by Tim Albery, with inspired musical direction from Harry Bicket – was both a persuasive work of musical advocacy and a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre. Between Mr Albery’s thoughtful staging and a consistently excellent ensemble of singers, the evening’s performance put musical riches in the service of a lively, effervescent comedy.

Even in its day, the opera was subject to cuts, and it was not surprising to find that the three-and-a-half hours of music composed by Mozart had been reduced, by the removal of six numbers and their accompanying recitatives, to a more audience-friendly two hours and forty minutes; and while a handful of specialists may have lamented the absence of Count Belfiore’s ‘Da scirocco a tramontana’ – a catalogue of his ancestors dating back to the ancient emperors of Rome – or Sandrina’s lament early in the first act, the cuts had the effect of streamlining the drama and keeping the action focussed on the various pairs of lovers and their path to eventual happiness.

William Burden (Podesta), Joel Prieto (Count Belfiore), Laura Tatulescu (Serpetta), and Heidi Stober (Sandrina) in Mozart's ‘La Finta Giardiniera.’

Even before the music had started, one could not help but be impressed by the set, which blurred the distinction between interior and exterior space and would allow the action of Act I (and much of Act II) to unfold seamlessly between the dining room of the Podestà and the well-tended flower garden of Sandrina. However the set’s greatest achievement was its forced perspective, which culminated in a few artificial cedars framing a very real view over the hills and mesas just beyond the Santa Fe stage. The effect was of a continuous landscape in which artifice merged slowly with reality. On this evening, there was a storm over the distant mountains and, during the opening scene in which the characters began to lament their unhappiness, lightning flashed in the sky.

If the story itself was heavily informed by the conventions of late eighteenth-century comedy – of the seven characters, six ended up married in the final scene – Mr Albery’s light touch with the narrative complexities and his sense of the essential humanity beneath the various character types made for a comedy that was emotionally satisfying and often very funny. The fairly free English translation that appeared in the titles may have contributed to some of the laughter, but there were any number of scenes in which gesture and action were sufficient to provoke reactions from the audience.

Joshua Hopkins (Nardo) and Laura Tatulescu (Serpetta) in Mozart's  ‘La Finta Giardiniera.’

Mr Albery was indeed fortunate to have a cast of singers capable of physical performances that were both expressive and restrained. Even the ridiculous, often-flustered Podestà and his niece, the haughty Arminda, were able to establish their exaggerated personae while avoiding the usual trappings of broad comedy. The finale of the first act balanced the heightened emotions of the mismatched couples without succumbing to hysteria, and even the implausible climax of the second act – in which Sandrina and Belfiore lose their minds and believe themselves to be a variety of Greek deities – was played with a refreshing lack of irony. Yet even amidst the escalating insanity, there was room for scenes of genuine tenderness, perhaps most notably the third act duet in which the principal lovers try (and fail) to part ways.

The seven highly-charged physical performances were matched by singing of a calibre that was rarely less than exceptional. Indeed, the singers worked so well as an ensemble that it would be difficult to isolate a single performance that dominated the evening. Susanna Phillips, with her rich voice and animated presence, was a superb Arminda: when she first sailed onto the stage in her oversized hoop dress, one knew immediately that trouble would not be far behind. Her first aria, ‘Si promette facilemente’, in which she announces her intention to beat her future husband should he prove unfaithful, was a marvel of agile phrasing and exceptional dynamic control. Yet when it came time to punish Belfiore, in the second act aria ‘Vorrei punirti indegno’, her resolve was replaced with an hysterical indecision that was thrilling both to see and hear. In the course of the opera, Ms Phillips managed the difficult task of humanising Arminda to the point where the audience was genuinely happy to see her paired with the well-meaning Ramiro.

No less enjoyable was the Serpetta of Laura Tatulescu, whose aria ‘Chi vuol godere il mondo’ was a highlight of the second act. Ms Tatulescu’s voice – more delicate and lighter in tone than Ms Phillips, yet lacking nothing in warmth, articulate phrasing, and comedic timing – was ideally suited to the wise but cynical servant girl who, unlike her counterparts, had no intention of yielding to anything as frivolous as the affections of a man.

Heidi Stober (Sandrina) in Mozart's ‘La Finta Giardiniera.’

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Heidi Stober’s wonderful Sandrina provided the evening with its most unguardedly affecting moments. Even with two of her arias missing, she was still able to establish herself at the heart of the story; in a first act that was mostly played for laughs, Ms Stober’s beautifully wrought cavatina ‘Geme la tortorella’ came as an unexpected infusion of serious drama. Her elegant phrasing and warm tone – enhanced by a subtle vibrato in the most emphatic notes – contained an unmistakable longing that gave depth and shading to the surrounding comedy; and her dramatic instincts were well suited to the scenic transition of the second act, which found a desperate Sandrina stranded in the forest fearing for her life. Her extended duet with Belfiore in the opera’s final act was magnificent.

The character of Ramiro, much like Mozart’s later Don Ottavio, is given some pleasing melodies, but is so profoundly earnest and self-contained as to seem a touch dull next to the opera’s more vibrant personalities. While Cecelia Hall made no attempts to break the character out of type, she nonetheless delivered three exceptional arias on the nature of love – ‘Se l’auglellin se n’fugge’ in the first act was an especial delight – and summoned a convincing ardour for the less-than-receptive Arminda.

The gentlemen of the evening also fared well, with Joel Prieto offering an excellent account of the tortured Belfiore. His comedic skills were evident from the outset, in which a well-timed double-take on first seeing Arminda completely subverted the aria praising her beauty. Elsewhere, the inner conflict that arose from being trapped between his engagement to Arminda and his love for Sandrina culminated in an excellent solo scene in the second act – an accompanied recitative and the aria ‘Già divento freddo’ – and contributed to a heartfelt third-act duet with Ms Stober.

William Burden’s Podestà was a fine buffo performance: he spent most of the opera exasperated, flustered or confused by the events occurring around him. If the pacing of his first act aria ‘Dentro il mio petto io sento’ seemed a touch off, his third act ‘Mio padrone, io dir volevo’ achieved a great comic frustration. Finally, the character of Nardo – the unstoppable force to Serpetta’s immovable object – was given a sturdy, engaging performance by Joshua Hopkins. His attempts to woo Serpetta in a variety of languages (the delightful aria ‘Con un vezzo all’italiana’) was yet another highlight in a second act with no obvious flaws.

During the course of the week, the orchestra of the Santa Fe Opera had contended with the large orchestrations of Strauss and the high-drama of Verdi, but it was in the context of a Mozart-sized ensemble that they offered what was undoubtedly their finest performance. They remained energised and focussed throughout, contributing detailed flutes and oboes (and some thunderous timpani) to the Podestà’s self-reflexive early aria, and elsewhere providing a sound that was lithe, muscular and dramatically attentive. In Harry Bicket’s consistently animated musical direction one could hear both a genuine affection for the score and a refusal to treat it as a mere curiosity. Not only was he able to find the right pace and mood for each aria, but he also handled the two complex finales with generous poise and an unerring sense of forward movement.

La Finta Giardiniera may ultimately lack the cynicism and profundity of Mozart’s greatest comedies – the arrangement of happy couples is too conspicuously tidy to challenge the conventions of the form – but its light-hearted treatment of emotional turmoil is not so rooted in the traditions of the past as to render it inaccessible to the modern audience. Indeed when given a performance of such commitment and inspiration – and the new Santa Fe production was a success in every possible way – the opera is both a winning study of human emotions, and the perfect comedy for a summer evening.

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