Friday, August 03, 2012
La Finta Giardiniera
The Merola summer training program presented their second production at the Cowell Theater on Thursday night, an obscure Italian comic opera written by Mozart at age 18 called La Finta Gardiniera, and it was an astonishing, surprising treat. This was partly because of the music, some of which is as good as anything Mozart ever wrote, and partly because its cast of seven young singers not only sounded good but acted their stock roles of servants, courtiers, and nobility with unusual grace and intelligence. (Pictured above are Rose Sawvel as the cynical, savvy servant Serpetta, Gordon Bintner as the servant Nardo, Jennifer Cherest as the titular "Phony Gardener" Sandrina, Theo Lebow as the violent, tormented Count Belfiore, and Casey Candebat as the horny, old pompous Mayor. Pictured below is Sarah Mesko in the Drag King role of Don Ramiro.)
As Charles Shere writes at The Eastside View, "No lover of Mozart can afford to ignore La finta giardiniera, an opera at the exact emergence of the Romantic music drama from its Baroque and classical sources." The opera sounds and feels like a warm-up for both Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, though the libretto with all its unrequited, mismatched lovers looks back to Handel's time.
What makes this a strangely queasy comedy is that the plot starts with the tenor hero stabbing the soprano heroine in an irrational jealous rage and leaving her for dead. She subsequently tracks him down while he's wooing the mayor's niece (sung and acted brilliantly by Jacqueline Piccolino). This is all before the opening curtain goes up.
The first act proceeds along like an early Italian opera buffa, but is leavened with an exquisitely sad aria for the wronged heroine. The second act goes a bit crazy in a dark forest, where everyone ends up kissing the wrong person, and then our hero and heroine go mad. Jennifer Cherest was wonderful in the title role, playing a very strong victim with subtlety. Theo Lebow as Count Belfiore (above, in the unfortunate blonde wig) took one of the most unlikable potential roles imaginable and created a completely sympathetic character. There are a series of duets over the last thirty minutes of the show between the two, after they have lost their minds in the dark forest and think they are Medusa and Perseus respectively. After sanity resumes, the duet continues as a tentative reuniting. It was genuinely moving.
The conductor was Gary Thor Wedow (above left) who also conducted Don Giovanni for Merola some years ago. I like his Mozart, and though the orchestra sounded a bit ragged from a lack of rehearsal, it was a good ragged, lively and musical and interesting. Because there is no real orchestra pit at the Cowell Theatre, we were almost sitting in the harpsichord continuo players' laps. Apprentice Coach Francesco Fraboni had the honors for the first act of the opera, and Artem Grishaev took over for the second half. Grishaev was good, but Fraboni was fabulous. The director, Nicholas Muni (above, second from left) and costume designer Ulises Alcala, did a nice job creating a turn-of-the-19th/20th century steampunk look for the show which was whimsical while staying simple.
The bass-baritones Seth Mease Carico and Hadleigh Adams above were non-singing supernumerary servants throughout the show who were so distractingly handsome that one wondered why the various female characters weren't sighing over them instead of their supposed love objects.
If you can, check out the second matinee performance on Saturday the 4th at 2:00 PM. The chance to hear obscure Mozart done well, in a decent production with good young singers in a small theater, is a rare treat.