La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne, East Sussex, UK – review

A walk round Glyndebourne’s beautifully kept gardens takes on extra meaning at this opera. La finta giardiniera is a noblewoman disguised as a gardener. Lost in a rocky wilderness, she and her estranged lover go mad and think they are Greek gods (don’t ask), only to rediscover their love and sanity once they are back in the garden where they started.

Despite a commitment to Mozart set down by its founding fathers, Glyndebourne has never staged any of the early operas before. It is easy to see why: La finta giardiniera, written when Mozart was 18, is a riotous mess of an opera that even high-quality singing and a plausible attempt at a production cannot turn into a cogent evening’s entertainment.

The director, Frederic Wake-Walker, has taken a pruning knife to the score. Cut and reordered, the opera is certainly shorter, but no less crazily incomprehensible than before. This production sets it in a derelict Rococo folly, which looks handsome (though the lady gardener does not have so much as a pot of geraniums to her name) and the action plays out like some 18th-century, absurdist Pirandello comedy, maybe Seven Characters in Search of their Sanity. Wake-Walker pursues his theme of people looking for their real selves with energy – they smash down the set, keep stripping off their clothes, and (signs of desperation) jerk, twitch and dance in time to the music. But it is hard to care about any of them. How far away Mozart’s great, mature operas seem.

The music, played with unflagging vitality by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under music director Robin Ticciati, gives us a teenager’s restless outpourings, shot through with flashes of genius. One of these is Sandrina’s wistful aria with muted strings, sung with a finely chiselled, classical elegance by Christiane Karg. Joel Prieto is her tender Count Belfiore; Nicole Heaston fires up Arminda’s music with élan; and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s fussy Don Anchise deserves a bonus for singing his first aria with his trousers round his ankles. Rachel Frenkel’s lively Ramiro, Joélle Harvey’s bright Serpetta and Gyula Orendt’s Nardo (arias sung impressively by Gavan Ring at this performance) complete a well-chosen young Mozart cast. Everybody works hard, but once the opera has trapped them in its unfathomable garden maze, there is no way out.

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