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La finta giardiniera: The Background and the Story

by Francis Rizzo

The opera of another youthful composer, the 19-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, continues on its way to establishing itself in the repertory. La finta giardiniera has been discussed with frequency in these pages. Among the many organizations to produce this work was the Wolf Trap Opera in Vienna, Virginia. Their 1992 season program book contained a charming and most informative article and we are grateful to its author and to the Company for permitting us to reprint it here.

Some music lovers of the younger generation, spoiled perhaps by the banquet of delights the Amadean bicentennial has put before them, may need reminding just how meager and unvaried servings of Mozart operas used to be. Forty years ago, the menu seldom went beyond the Big Five: the standard German pieces, Flute and Abduction, flanking the da Ponte trilogy, albeit with Cosi still viewed as something of an acquired taste. But the LP revolution had already done much to broaden the operatic bill of fare in general, and Mozart was among the beneficiaries. Thus, starting somewhere in the '60s, two of his opera serias appeared with ever greater frequency on stage — the early Idomeneo and the late Clemenza di Tito — with the result that neither seems especially exotic any more. While renaming the active Mozart rep the Big Seven might strike some as premature, the Big Five Plus Two is a pretty fair description of how things stand today.

As we begin another century of marveling at Mozart's operatic output, will the canon be expanded yet again? Many would say yes, and whichever work they put up for the honor, one thing is sure — it will date from before 1781, since everything from Idomeneo onward has already been included. A much-mentioned candidate is La finta giardiniera (K. 196), first performed on January 13, 1775, two weeks before the composer's nineteenth birthday.

It was commissioned by the Elector of Bavaria as a comic novelty for that season's Munich Carnival. The text (long attributed to Ranieri de' Calzabigi, Gluck's great librettist, but now thought to be the work of the less exalted Giuseppe Petrosellini) had already been set by Pasquale Anfossi and brought out to much acclaim in Rome less than a year before. Mozart, who very likely knew Anfossi's version, accepted the proposed libretto straightaway, and began composing it in Salzburg during the closing months of 1774.

La finta giardiniera has a curious hodgepodge of a plot, combining aspects of sentimental comedy with other literary conventions: characters conceivably drawn from 18th-century English fiction (a brave and steadfast heroine à la Richardson) interacting with commedia dell'arte types barely evolved from their primitive beginnings (the foolishly amorous old man, the sharp-tongued chambermaid plotting to become the lady of the house), rustic and occasionally heartless humor juxtaposed to moments of the most delicate pathos, and the serial complexities of a plot which has everyone chasing madly after the wrong person right up to the final curtain, when, in a few scant lines of recitative, misunderstandings are blithely disposed of and proper pairings expeditiously arranged. This farrago of a tale is set against a background rich in pastoral imagery and allegorical allusion, a context which, though largely lost on audiences today, must surely have been real to Mozart, and through the music it drew out of him, it retains much of its affective power even now.

Stranger and certainly more vexing to modern audiences are the dark doings that set the plot in motion, move it on to climax, and ultimately provide its resolution: a young man's murderous assault on his mistress (an action that takes place before the opera begins), an abduction engineered to bring about a rival's death, and the madness that engulfs both hero and heroine throughout the last third of the opera. To those who think of 18th-century opera buffa as a world of knee-britches and powdered wigs, where a code of universal politesse keeps all aggression down and the only violence to be expected is the thrashing of a comic villain now and then, insanity and homicide seem distinctly out of place. But can we be sure which place, which time, the author had in mind? Why not a setting where brutality and violence coexist with chivalric love and other passionately held ideals? Or where madness is thought to be a purgative, an almost holy state in which the soul is cleansed of life's corruptions?

Before anyone protests that such matters are not the stuff of comedy — whether set in 1775, the quattrocento world of Orlando Furioso, or even today — it must be pointed out that Petrosellini (or whoever wrote La finta giardiniera) labeled it a dramma giocoso, a hybrid form which deliberately contrasted comic and serious (if not downright tragic) elements as a matter of artistic principle. It helps, then, to remember that Don Giovanni was not Mozart's first dramma giocoso after all, and if La finta giardiniera fails to show the same overall homogeneity and moment-to-moment "rightness" of tone he was able to impose on the jostling mix of buffo and tragic elements in the later masterpiece, the fault is not entirely his own. True, at eighteen, he was not yet the Mozart of the Vienna years; but even if Petrosellini had lived to be a hundred, he could never have become da Ponte's equal.

Reconstructed dart  target from Mozart house of mid-1770s

Indeed, given the inferiority of the text the boy composer obediently set, it is a cause for wonderment that the result is something so very rich and strange. Embedded in passages of conventional note-spinning and formulaic structure, bits and pieces of glory yet to come glint out at us; and everywhere are signs that the budding musical dramatist, despite occasional timidity and naiveté, is already wise beyond his years, seeing life itself as one long dramma giocoso, lacking only music to be endured and even possibly redeemed. Melodic shapes we recognize from later works—those little glimpses of Blonde, Susanna and Despina in Serpetta's music, for instance—do not constitute the opera's main fascination. (Most composers, even mediocre ones, have "fingerprints" uniquely theirs, detectable from one score to another.) What excites the Mozart scholar most about this opera is evidence, revealed most powerfully in the extended finales to the first and second acts, that even at the tender age he was when working on this score, Mozart had already begun reshaping conventional operatic forms to fit his own expressive ends.

Needless to say, the aristocrats who crowded into the Prannergasse Redoutensaal for the premiere of La finta giardiniera cannot have known that they were witnessing Mozart's emergence as a musical dramatist of genius. For all that, they found the work enchanting, and joined the Elector and his family in cheering the young maestro at every opportunity. Because of an illness in the cast, the second performance had to be curtailed, but the last one was as warmly received as the first had been.

Amazingly, more than two centuries were to pass before La finta giardiniera was heard again as Mozart set it down on paper. To be sure, the opera was revived, and not infrequently, during his lifetime, and it seems to have held the stage as late as 1797. But all such performances relied on one of two German editions Mozart had himself approved; and these were not merely translations of the text, but Singspiel adaptations in which the recitatives had been replaced by spoken dialogue. Since the words for one such version were written into the autograph score (by Mozart's father, more than likely), scholars have suggested that the young composer paid as much attention to them as the Italian ones in shaping his vocal lines, and there is no lack of internal evidence to support this notion. Still, few scholars would seriously argue that Mozart wanted his first successful try at opera buffa to come down to us as a rather wordy German play fitted out with twenty songs and a handful of ensembles. But that was precisely La finta giardiniera's peculiar fate until a dozen years ago.

It seems that at some time in its early travels along the operatic circuit, the manuscript of Act I was mislaid, probably by a copyist at one of the smaller German theatres. thus, even though the full Italian text was available in libretto form and could be fitted back into the vocal lines of the Singspiel version of the score, all the first-act recitatives were lost, irretrievably, it seemed. From that point until very recently, anyone wanting to put on La finta giardiniera had two choices: to do it as a Singspiel (i.e., with dialogue, spoken in German or otherwise); or to interleave the "retro-Italianized" numbers of Mozart's first act with Anfossi's setting of the missing recitatives. That so many impresarios were willing to adopt either of these solutions (usually the first one) is a fair measure of the opera's intrinsic worth, whether on its own terms, as an entertainment, or as an opportunity to hear the start of Mozart's ascent from opera-buffa apprenticeship to the supernal mastery he achieved a decade later in Figaro and its companion pieces. Unfortunately, however, the Singspiel format made it nearly impossible for all but musicologists to trace the connective links in actual performance, and then only in a fitful, fragmentary way: Mozart's ultimate transfiguration of opera buffa involved recitative quite as much as the musical numbers, and a comparative process that leaves them out tells only half the story.

It was the chance discovery of the missing act in a Moravian library in 1978 that restored La finta giardiniera to its full and original form. A 1980 concert performance in Salzburg led by Leopold Hager (recorded at the time, recently reissued on CD) was the first of many chances we have had over the past decade to evaluate the opera as Mozart imagined it and wrote it down.

Stage performances abounded all through Europe, and more were soon scheduled in this country as well. [Productions using the New Mozart Edition have taken place in Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, Indiana, Minnesota, just to name a few state venues.]

Having so far referred to the opera by its Italian title only, we should probably explain why no English rendering was included in this article. The simple fact is that, after two centuries of trying, no one yet has turned the false [female] gardener — for that, literally is what the title means — into an English tag that is both gracefully worded and quickly grasped. Adjective and noun elude translation when joined as they are here. "False" in this context denotes imposture, not infidelity, and the usual choices (fake, counterfeit, make-believe) are awkward. Worse still, relief that "gardeneress" cannot be found in any dictionary fades in having to make do with such allowable but unappealing constructs as "garden-maid" and "garden-girl." ("Garden-persons" need not apply, of course.) [Ed. Note: Richard Pearlman's English Singspiel adaptation escapes the dilemma by being entitled "Lunatics and Lovers"; Richard Strawn's translation of the recit version concedes by accepting the Italian title.]

While German, like Italian, has a feminine form of gardener (Gärtnerin), the usual German title for the opera, Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, is not a direct translation of the Italian, but an allusion to a woman who is — or, more pointedly, becomes — a gardener "out of love." But a moment's reflection shows that the simple "out of' must sprawl into something more like "because of' or "for the sake of' if the meaning is to be unequivocably clear.

Because neither the Italian original nor the German elaboration carries over into idiomatic English, director Colin Graham and translator Edmund Tracey took a wholly fresh approach in adapting the Singspiel for the English Music Theatre Company in 1976. Alas for their valiant and resourceful try, the title finally produced-"Sandrina's Secret" — sounded like a child's picture book to some, and to others (with different reading habits) like a naughty Victorian novella. Perhaps, as has been the case with a goodly number of operas, from Mozart's own Cosi to Puccini's La boheme, La finta giardiniera will eventually be admitted to the international repertory with the name its creators gave it in the first place.

Francis Rizzo is Artistic Consultant to the Wolf Trap Foundation for The Performing Arts.

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