Getting Who You Deserve

La Finta Giadiniera, a Mozart masterwork written at the age of 18, in a new production at the Theater an der Wien

The cast of La finta giardiniera (The False Garden Maid) in a six-performance run in November at Theater an der Wien | Photo: Wilfried Hösl

We know that Mozart was a genius, but it is good to be reminded of it once in awhile. He wrote La finta giardiniera (The false garden maid) shortly before his nineteenth birthday, at a time when his father realized it was about time his son started doing something serious. The cute child prodigy was already too big to be the fussed-over darling of countesses and queens.

It wasn’t Wolfgang’s first opera: by that time he was an old pro, having already written seven works for the theater. The first, written when only twelve, was another “finta”, La finta semplice, a three-act opera lasting two and half hours. Three other large works in his teens were commissions from the royal court in Milan. But Giardiniera was a turning point; there is a new unrestraint, it is an opera buffa whose comic figures are more than just funny.

The later Da Ponte buffa operas – Giovanni, Figaro, Cosi – have more complex characters, but Giardiniera nevertheless displays a depth of understanding of human emotions, flaws, foibles and desires, as well as some of the most basic differences (or similarities) between women and men. It contains skillfully dramatic music; its clear depictions of amorous tenderness, agitation and pathos, and also plain garden-variety musical witticisms are a delight.

Once again the Theater an der Wien has proven that it is a special house, with six performances of Giardiniera in November. And once again its team put together a remarkable performance that one won’t forget quickly.

Giardiniera is a complicated story of disguises, of jealousy and love and the madness they can cause, of desire and ambivalence. Of course there is a garden maid. But she is actually a countess, recently nearly killed by her jealous lover and now hiding out behind the topiary of the Podestà (mayor). The Podestà is enthralled by his new gardener, but he also employs a chambermaid who wants to maintain her status as the boss’s mistress. The chambermaid is desired by the manservant, the Podestà’s niece is desired by a cavalier, and the same niece is destined for the murderous lover.

It’s an odd number, so someone is going to get left out when all these relationships are sorted out.

The staging by David Alden added vaguely psychological dimensions to the commedia dell’arte figures, with all their subtleties and inconsistencies. Some of it was clever and worked quite well.

Nevertheless, there were some dangling props whose meaning was not immediately obvious: a putto carried around like a baby, a welding iron, a pair of pumpkins. And some set design (Paul Steinberg) was questionable, like a frieze of dancing naked women in the “Il Duce” scene of the second act, or the springing dolphins in the madness scene.

Best was the huge, cheery, sunny-day yellow wall as a backdrop for huge topiaries of menacing figures carrying daggers and rods. Here we understood what both Alden and Mozart were getting at: the different layers of our relationships, with love and hate so often so puzzlingly mixed.

Sophie Karthäuser was marvelous as the serious, sweet gardener, the Marchesa Violante alias Sandrina, a bundle of ambiguous passion, either to stay away from the man she loves or to get him back. But Topi Lehtipuu as her fickle lover and would-be murderer, Contino Belfiore, seemed a bit vapid and ready to say yes to any woman who showed up (who can really believe that the Marchesa is still in love with this guy?).

The feminist niece Arminda (brown leather from head to toe), who is supposed to be married off to Belfiore, is planning revenge on any future husband who lies or is unfaithful, although she is also worldly-wise enough to know that all men do both. Alexandrina Pendatchanska lacked a certain flexibility, and may be misplaced singing Mozart.

Her faithful yet slightly dim-witted young admirer, the Cavaliere Ramiro, was given a special precision and sparkle by Marie-Claude Chappuis, although her voice is perhaps too bright for a Hosenrolle.

Jeffery Francis as Don Anchise, the lusty Podestà always after the latest woman who has caught his eye, had a surprisingly lean voice despite his swagger. His smirk also got quite unbearable after awhile. The saucy and would-be sexy chambermaid Serpetta, sung by Sunhae Im, with her lace-up boots, cigarettes, and a habit of straddling chairs backwards, was a bit strident if fun to watch.

Nevertheless, the loyal if slightly silly manservant Nardo loves her, in a buffa role filled superbly by Michael Nagy. A country bumpkin who declares his love while carrying around piles of plates and getting tangled in extension cords, he had a big voice and was obviously the audience favorite.

René Jacobs proved that paying attention to every single note in a more than three-hour-long opera can provide a luster that is often lacking in baroque orchestras. The Freiburger Barockorchester was clear and clean. Especially the basso continuo group, including the surprising sound of a fortepiano, was wonderfully expressive. The emotional nuances of the recitatives were carefully underlined.

The giardiniera wanders around with a blood-stained wedding dress and her garden sheers: symbols of the wounds we carry with us in our love relationships and the (sometimes laughable) tools we use to fight back? This is definitely a tale about women who are trying to be resilient and men who aren’t quite sure how to be effective.

In the end, everyone gets the one they love (or deserve). Only the old padrone is left standing. He’ll still have to wait for some pretty spring chicken to show up. With his cigar, grin and Mussolini jodhpurs, I’m sure he’ll have no trouble finding her.

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