Of Treacherous Men and Strong Women

Mozart finta giardiniera-1
From my garden with love. © Charles Thibo

Is there any Italian opera libretto without a complicated plot? A straightforward love story, a cloak-and-dagger story, a simple lost bride drama – is that asking too much? Apparently. I love Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “La finta giardiniera” (The Disguised Gardener, KV 196), but when I had a look at the libretto – oh boy! Intertwined romantic liaisons, disguises, wedding plans – I always find life at Italian courts rather confusing. Anyway, the less known opera that Mozart wrote in 1774 for the carnival in Munich is a worthwhile experience. The music is just lovely and foreshadows both Mozart’s dramatic genius and his late operas “Le nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”.

“La finta giardiniera” was first performed on 13 January 1775, just two weeks before Mozart’s 19th birthday. He had by then already composed no less than seven operas. The libretto is from the pen of Giuseppe Petrosellini, and Mozart casts his opera as a drama giocosa, a joyous drama, reflected by the different voices. It’s title refers to the main character, Marchioness Violante Onesti, believed dead and living disguised as a gardener under the name of Sandrina in the house of Don Anchise. Sandrina hopes to meet here Count Belfiore, her former lover who tried to kill her in a dispute. This is the starting point of a twisted plot, where everybody is lying about his identity, his love and his intentions until the situation risks to turn into complete madness and is resolved in – a happy end, of course!

Now let’s have a look at the music as such, here are my favourite parts. In Act I, the aria sung by Don Anchise “In my breast I hear a sweet sound…” is not only a beautiful piece of music, but also a clever pedagogical trick. Don Anchise describes the different instruments that make up the “sweet voice” while the orchestra steps back and hands over to the respective instruments. Don Anchise’s colourful performance perfectly illustrates his passion for Sandrina/Marchioness Violante Onesti, but the emphasized drama in his voice lets the audience understand that this romance may end as quickly as it has started. Already before Serpetta, Don Anchise’s maid and earlier love, has pointed out how treacherous men are, while a little later Roberto, the marchioness’ servant working along with her under the assumed name of Nardo, complaints that men go mad when they near a woman.

The aria of Arminda, the bride Don Anchise has promised to Count Belfiore, follows the same spirit. She warns her future husband that promises of loyalty are quickly made and rarely kept. She shows the audience here a strong woman, perfectly aware of the traps of marriage and the shortcomings of many men – a tough message in an 18th century opera buffa*. Count Belfiore’s helpless reply and Don Anchise’s bewilderment anticipate the reaction of the audience, but both react in a predictable way. Women are to be adored… and tamed! Serpetta also has a warning for Nardo, who is in love with her, but not loved by her: I have many suitors, and you, men, you are more desperately looking for a bride than we are looking for a husband. This proud statement is followed by a lovely cavatina* of Sandrina complaining about her life without joy and love, directly contradicting Serpetta, who however has left the stage by then.

At the beginning of Act II Armina again opposes Count Belfiore since by now she knows that he is in love with Sandrina. In an amazingly energetic aria she reproaches him to turn away from her “I want to punish you…”, at the same time, she shows her broken heart. In a later scene Mozart mocks the Italian, French and English art of courtship when Nardo tries to woo Serpetta in a way that is both hilarious and exquisite. In the fifth scene Count Belfiore recognizes the marchioness in Sandrina and avows his true love in a moving aria – to the great dismay of Don Anchise, an unforseen witness of the scene. The marchioness shows her strong character when Don Anchise, stupefied by the deceit on all sides, tries to seduce her and is being pushed back. He looses all his flamboyance being reduced to a supplicant.

Don Anchise becomes even more irritated when he learns that the count might have murdered the marchioness. His recitativo and the following aria demonstrate his frustration as well as his desire to cut through the lies and to remain in control of all things happening in his house. At this point I am just as confused as Don Anchise, which doesn’t quite matter since Mozart’s music is of a quality that I simply want it to go on wherever the plot is heading.

What I truly appreciate however is the timelessness of then opera’s subject: the confusion in human relationships and the discrimination of women in the hands of men. Today just as in the 18th century, this is a source of great suffering, of betrayal and obfuscation. The lack of trust and truthfulness, the absence of loyalty and self-control have pushed several of Mozart’s characters in a tight spot treatening them to go mad. At some point Sandrina doubts about her own identity, the count is unsure if the confusion is a nightmare or reality, especially when Sandrina reveals herself as Violante Onesti to all and protects Belfiore from Don Anchise’s accusations. In scene nb. 12 the count voices his desperation and his remorse in a solitary, dark aria I find very impressive. Finally let me draw your attention to Serpetta’s aria at the end of the act. “Those who want to enjoy the world leave it as it is”, she sings. The bitter truth: Change (that is getting rid of stereotypes and sexist prejudices) is painful and usually not welcome. More rights for women? Oh come on, why should men leave their comfort zone?

A maddening frenzy of all characters acting like on dope concludes act II, and if you think the hide-and-seek game will stop now in Act III and the characters will return to common sense, you are to be deceived, at least at the beginning. Sandrina, Nardo and Count Belfiore still try to keep their love fantasies alive, and we definitely move into the realm of comedy when Don Anchise dresses down Serpetta “for always talking about love”. The whole opera is about that madness called love! One scene to look out for: Don Ramiro’s desperate, hateful aria directed against Arminda, his former love. The following duet between Sandrina and Count Belfiore presents the contrast: a moment of loving desperation on both sides. A timid approach, a timid repulsion, you can feel that there’s still some love left and we may hope together with the unfortunate couple. I will leave it at that. The happy end is drawing nearer, and I won’t spoil the pleasure of a first viewing.

I greatly enjoyed the DVD recording of a performance by Concert d’Astrée, led by Emmanuelle Haïm, starring Carlo Allemano (Don Anchise), Erin Morley (Sandrina/Marquess Onesti), Enea Scala (Count Belfiore), Marie-Adeline Henry (Arminda), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Ramiro), Maria Savastano (Serpetta) and Nikolay Borchev (Nardo). There’s also a lovely CD recorded by the Concentus Musicus under Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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