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La finta giardiniera

by Mark Lamos

Readers of MadAminA! will have read much over the years about the 19-year-old Mozart's opera La finta giardiniera, but this entertainment is still an unexpected "find" to most audiences. In 1996 and 1997 many opera fans have been introduced for the first time to what the Syracuse Herald-American called "a whimsical, delightful opera, " following the run of performances by the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY, a production shared with the Washington Opera that presented 13 performances in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater in January/February 1997. La finta giardiniera has been edited for the New Mozart Edition by Rudolph Angermueller and Dietrich Berke and published by Bärenreiter The following note on the opera appeared in the Glimmerglass program book and we are grateful for permission to reprint it here.

Totem in a Garden by Walter F. Boelke

The ideology of gardening was particularly suited to the 18th century. The relationship between God and nature, between divine and natural laws, preoccupied Enlightenment thinkers, as did the relationship between nature and man and, most specifically, the natural and the artificial. Diderot saw nature as "a woman who likes to put on fancy dress, parts of whose various disguises are allowed to slip now and then."

The gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries cleverly blurred the distinction between nature and artifice, sense and sensibility. Formal gardens, with their carefully aligned plantings, symmetrical walks, and designer hedges, gave way onto vast wooded landscapes, park lands teeming with deer or sheep. These were the first theme parks. Gardens were interactive, especially since Renaissance designers like Inigo Jones [1573-1652] blended the theatrical and the botanical. (It's likely that Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream received its premiere in a moonlit garden. Perhaps the first Helenas and Hermias mistook marble fauns for Demetrium and Lysander in the Duke of Southampton's parks.) Often the great garden architects created a sense of theatre through a carefully prepared sequence of events and discoveries, as spectators were led from one part of the landscape to another. Dotted with marmoreal sibyls, satyrs, and goddesses, the great gardens of Europe forced the visitor to contemplate the union of myth and nature — as well as the myths of human nature — with a cool, witty humanism.

Nature was used as a palette, and man-made landscapes at once contemplated and commented on nature and the idea of Eden, the first garden, and fallen Man. The ruminative and the amatory shared equal time. Tête-á-têtes and trysts could be contrived within theatrical garden mazes and leafy walks past faux pagodas and cottages. The 18th-century garden gave scope to outdoor love-making. Nature-as-Garden became Life-as-Theatre.

Nature, and the nature — and science — of love, the loving heart, the amatory experience, etc., were other primal concerns of the 18th-century thinkers. Could feelings of love, the philosophers wondered, be scientifically, empirically understood? We of the 20th century may yawn a bit at the plethora of 18th-century operas, novels, and poems that seem rather to belabor the minutia of love to the point of total, annihilating, post-Freudian boredom. But in the 18th century, love was as much of a mystery as illness and death (metaphors, in fact, used often in the service of love's effects) — a consuming passion avidly studied.

The young Mozart's setting of an old libretto, La finta giardiniera is like a leisurely stroll through a magnificent 18th-century garden. The world is initially sunny, but quite quickly we are made to see the hidden reality, the malignant sadness or desperate yearning each of the characters feels. This youthful work foreshadows the great later operas like Don Giovanni (another dramma giocoso) and, more specifically, Così fan tutte, with its frustrated lovers caught by their butterfly wings under a philosopher's studious and condemnatory microscope.

The work's very title — The Pretend Garden Girl — makes clear that the opera is about deception. A woman is in hiding. Her jealous lover, in a fit of rage, has tried to murder her. In terror, she changes her identity and, accompanied by her servant Nardo, pretends to be a gardener on a large estate owned by a Podesta, or mayor. He is in love with her. From the start,she is panicked and fearful. She spends almost the entire opera in that state until she, and the man who tried to kill her, go mad. The dual mad scenes are fascinating and challenging. Do Sandrina and Belfiore pretend to be crazy so as to avoid the reality presented to each of them by the presence of the other? Or, more likely, do their minds really snap? Youthful as it is, the opera is filled with subtleties and tremblingly fervent humanity. Everyone in it is on the edge.

Some of the characters might seem "stock" to us now. Mozart, however, endows their plights with music that, while sometimes immature, is rarely less than understanding and often intensely emotional, comic, or pathetic as the dramatic situation demands.

This garden looks pretty, but within its foliage lurk the adders of desire, hopelessness, despair and anger. Comedy and tragedy intermingle like sunlight and rain — a not unusual state of affairs for 18th-century plays and operas. (Twentieth-century artists mistakenly claim this as their discovery and prerogative.) The garden is also a symbol of Eden and the lost state of Man, whose sin with Woman began the whole amatory rigmarole in the first place. This opera's garden is also a magical place in which lurks the spirit of an 18th-century teenager, afflicted, as all teens are, by longings and urges and desires. Mozart the just-about-to-be man, blending the traumatic declamatory nobility of his beloved opera seria formalism with the racy wit of the buffo comedy, manages something rich and strange and surprising and infinitely reassuring.

Mark Lamos is artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company and recipient of a 1989 Tony Award for Outstanding Achievement in Regional Theatre. His directorial work includes a broad scope of plays (from the classics to the most contemporary) and operas.

From the Press:

"...it was a musical feast." — The Times (London)

"...well worth seeing ... the opera is an 18th-century farce with a strange mix of comic and tragic elements." - The Daily Gazette (Schenectady)

"La finta giardiniera has an enchanting score, rich in dramatic arias that display a variety of complex emotions, many beautiful and soaring melodies, and a few fine ensembles." — The Ithaca Times

"In the past few seasons, Glimmerglass Opera has shown that it is possible, after all, to break away from the meat-and-potatoes repertory and still fill the theatre with eager audiences. A case in point is La finta giardiniera, an early Mozart work that is rarely performed anywhere. 'Finta' is an opera covered with Mozart's genius. It is simply incredible that at age 18 he had such an understanding of the battle of the sexes and could create a work of such wondrous musical architecture." -- Herald-American (Syracuse)

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