Cher Public

Animal, vegetable

Everything in the garden.

A buddy once remarked that if a conservatory’s doing evening-length Mozart, it’s probably La finta giardinera, an early opus about fakery in a garden. (“Well, that, or I guess maybe like Amadeus or something…?”)

Makes sense. Whatever its flaws, Finta is indeed a wise rep choice for grad students eager to cut their teeth. Premiered in Munich in 1774, the three-act work seems to offer something for everyone: gorgeous lyrical chestnuts as well as flashes of commedia; an aria for each of the leading characters; swift scenic movement from ballads to ensemble finales to mad scenes to baroque court-related satire. No accident that the work has a history of propelling—as Christopher Corwin’s rightly noted—a good number of singers to stardom.

Starting last Wednesday and playing through the weekend at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard is putting its own stamp on the opera, with a generally well sung and visually inventive production that lacks only occasionally in spice.

The story, set largely in a garden, tracks an expansive network of liaisons. Disguises abound. The Marchioness Violante Onesti, still reeling from having been stabbed before the action begins by her bridegroom, the Count Belfiore, has fled with her servant Roberto to work as a gardener named Sandrina for the mayor of a small town.

The ensuing 2.5 hours comprise an extended round of romantic musical chairs. The mayor has his eye on Sandrina. Ramiro, a corny trouser-role cavalier, is in love with the mayor’s headstrong niece, Arminda. Cunning and saucy servants Serpetta and Roberto flirt among the posies, etc.

By the time Belfiore has arrived for a bonus heat of “will they or won’t they” with Sandrina/Violante, we’re all pretty stoked for the parties to settle down with their obvious analogs.

In the program notes, director Mary Birnbaum writes that she and set designer Grace Laubacher opted “to root our production in the relationship of facade to depth”—a choice reflective of the plot’s multiple layers of artifice and intrigue.

Their impulse manifests in several ways, but most ingeniously in the form of two-dimensional pop-up scenery that springs from the ground. Completing the 2D motif, the garden is loaded with droll sight gags—smoke, furniture, animals, even a wheelbarrow, all rendered in cardboard.

Period-appropriate costumes by Amanda Seymour (an associate designer for Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour!) deliver vibrant, splashy colors, rainbow-hued wigs, and cartoonish shapes that flounce nicely to Mozart’s score, here conducted at a breezy pace by maestro Joseph Colaneri with the Juilliard Orchestra.

I did find myself wondering why the visual tone of the opera needed to change so drastically between acts; the light and zany two-dimensionality of the first seemed considerably more Finta-appropriate than the romantic depths of longing evoked by the dark second act in a cave. On Wednesday, these inconsistencies had an odd effect on the opera’s overall pacing, with each subsequent act losing steam as the lighting dimmed.

The cast boasted a number of decorated youngsters, though intriguingly in this production, the standouts were all in secondary roles.

As Roberto, character baritone Jacob Scharfman showed expert command of the Mozartian open style, his “A forza di martelli” aria about hammers proving a particular highlight in the first act. Christine Taylor Price’s Serpetta was memorably comic and impish, and tenor Joshua Blue as the Podestà turned in a well-sung and campy characterization, mincing up his lovelorn mayor.

While all of the romantic leads sang with great polish, their presence onstage had a tendency to wilt. The role of Arminda, for instance, is a study in comic extremity, defiant and full of vinegar, and it should be show-stopping—how I wish Kathryn Henry had loaded the part with the kind of modern, way-way-way-too-far hamminess and edge it merits.

And if Mozart reserved some of the most moving music of his early career for Ramiro and Belfiore, mezzo Marie Engle and tenor Charles Sy seemed to recognize this truth but delivered little else beyond, offering dispassionate performances that may have stemmed from nerves, or lack of imagination, or both? Or, maybe, the tutelage of one Marlena Malas, who apparently coaches them both?

In the title role of the fake gardener the Marchioness, Serbian soprano Tamara Banjesevic sang with gleaming and radiant tone, and earned many of the evening’s shouts of approval from the audience. Where her top occasionally thinned in the flower patch (e.g. a few weak moments in “Geme la tortorella” that her teacher Edith Wiens could have easily fixed in rehearsal), she delivered the necessary fire later on, including a truly impassioned “Crudeli, fermate.”

If Juilliard’s Finta isn’t always outstanding, it does offer the requisite strokes of excellence: an ensemble of budding soon-to-be-somebodies; a florid first act; and Mozart’s perennially inspired music, exuberantly played.

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito

  • Camille

    All I’d really like to know is this —

    Did you really really really really really F***_ING LURVE anything or anyone? That’s all.

  • Nelly della Vittoria

    It was a rather gorgeous night. Like you, I kind of regretted the loss of light, colour and cheer between Act 1 and 2 (Friend and I spent some time wondering foolishly whether the cave-entrance was supposed to be some meaningful shape: “Is it Cyprus? Is it Cythera?”). The Misummer-Night’s-Dream sort of the flight into the wilderness is meant to be full of dread and heartache, maybe, but the Hellenistic mad-scene might have been a good time to bring back the lights and the twinkly costumes.

    What hampered Belfiore and Ramiro was, among other things, that Mozart trick of passages in linked mordents, ascending and descending, which make the climactic figures of Dolce d’amor compagna (“In te quest’alma spera / Tutta riposa in te!”) and Il Contino’s second-act aria (“Sì son vivo, il cor mi brilla / vo’ godere, e giubilar!”). One just can’t giubilare, or riposare all one’s speranze in someone, in this music if one can’t bring off those figures and others like them with some ease and eloquence. No one went to pieces, or skipped any notes, but any florid music involving a non-soprano was managed with gingerly caution and a considerable foot-pressage of conductorly brakes. Though I do sympathise with the holding-back of the mezzo, readying herself for the repeated octave-drop in that aria.

    I mean, more than sympathise; I thought they were almost all very gifted, and dedicated. I thought Kathryn Henry’s Arminda was particularly excellent, as it happens, and that she trod the line between hilarious and cringe-making very well. Serpetta was a marvel, and she had all the words (even such as they are), and in general the three soprani sang most accurately among their colleagues.

    • “One just can’t giubilare, or riposare all one’s speranze in someone, in this music if one can’t bring off those figures and others like them with some ease and eloquence.”
      Words to live by.

      • Nelly della Vittoria

        Though maybe man cannot live by triplets alone.

    • Bill

      La Finta Giardiniera, written before Mozart was 20 years old, is not as difficult to sing as some of his other early operas and is a charming piece which I thought also was done at Julliard (viewed the first performance of 3) in an imaginative production, simple sets, delightful stage
      direction (perhaps a bit too cutesy in the first act) with all of the cast very able actors.

      The Julliard Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, played splendidly and Mary Birnbaum relayed the story
      succinctly and with elan and verve.

      Of the singers, perhaps, in my opinion, only two had voices which were truly appealing. Tamara Banjesevic, a Serbian soprano, seemed the most accomplished as Sandrina. She has already sung several roles in Mannheim including Susanna in Figaro and had a very good sense of Mozartian style. The other singer whose voice was generally quite attractive in the lyrical portions of his role was Charles Sy as Count Belfiore -- he sang fluidly but in the few portions of his arias which required great flexibility and a sweep into quite florid passages, he was not capable of getting all the notes out in rapid succession and his sweet tone lost its luster. In general, the other members of the cast were not, in my opinion, singing with voices which I would want to hear in other Mozart Operas and not really up to the standards (judging by voice alone) one has become accustomed to in the many other operas in which one has heard Julliard students perform. That is not to say practically all the cast was not fun to watch -- Marie Engle in particular as Ramiro was a joy to observe -- her facial expressions and movements were such that one could hardly keep ones eyes off of her even when she was not singing. I too noticed the ever darkening of the lighting in the staging and having seen this opera only once previously (at the Salzburg Festival in 1965) still found the frothy score, the quicksilver staging and the wise idea of Julliard to endorse a rare Mozart Opera which is
      not one of his masterpieces, a positive opportunity
      for NYC opera goers to endure an enchanting evening
      (at affordable prices to boot).

  • Kullervo

    Or, maybe, the tutelage of one Marlena Malas, who apparently coaches them both?