|Christine Taylor Price, Marie Engle, Joshua Blue, Tamara Banješević, and Jacob Scharfman (photo by Hiroyuki Ito)|
Mozart was just shy of 19 years of age when he composed La finta giardiniera which premiered in Munich in 1775. In spite of a trivial libretto (insecurely attributed to Calzabigi), one can readily appreciate Mozart's exuberant melodic invention and skills at orchestration. The opera achieved but 3 performances and fell out of the repertory until a copy of the score was rediscovered in the 1970's.
That we have seen the opera three times in two years gives some indication of the many glories of the score and the challenging roles it provides for seven singers. The seven we heard last night at Juilliard Opera seemed to enjoy their performances as much as we in the audience did. What vocal glories!
We love to see romantic foibles onstage--the mismatches, the betrayals, the fights, the reconciliations. We have no need for modern sets or costumes to recognize our own passions and obsessions. The blind child shoots those darts and we are helpless.
The Marchioness Violante Onesti (splendid soprano Tamara Banješević) had been stabbed by her jealous lover Conte Belfiore (terrific tenor Charles Sy) on their wedding day. Left for dead, she recovered, took the name of Sandrina, disguised herself as a gardener, and sought refuge by gaining employment at the estate of the Podesta Don Anchise (tremendous tenor Joshua Blue) who has fallen in love with her.
The Podesta's housekeeper Serpetta, portrayed by the gifted soprano Christine Taylor Price, would like to marry her boss and fights off the courtship of the gardener Nardo, Violante's servant Roberto in disguise--a role delightfully inhabited by Baritone Jacob Scharfman.
Meanwhile, the Podesta's bossy-pants niece Arminda (glorious voiced soprano Kathryn Henry) arrives at the estate to be joined in matrimony with none other than Belfiore. If we could overlook his tendency to commit violence on his brides, we might even feel a tinge of pity for the ambivalent count. He thinks he recognizes Violante in disguise but she denies her identity.
In the role of Cavalier Ramiro, Arminda's rejected suitor, we heard the marvelously convincing mezzo-soprano Marie Engle in travesti.
To make this crazy mixed up story clear, we had the talented young director Mary Birnbaum who has a very special way of getting her cast to work as an ensemble and to interact in believable ways, no matter how preposterous the story.
The first act moved along at a lively clip but there was a scene at the end of the second act that baffled us and our companion. It is the scene in which Belfiore goes mad and Violante gets kidnapped by Arminda (or was it vice versa?). When Tim Albery directed this opera at Santa Fe Opera, it didn't make much sense either and when Eric Einhorn directed it for On Site Opera, he omitted the scene entirely which was probably the best choice!
Both Ms. Henry and Ms. Prize dazzled us with their coloratura but the aria we remember best belonged to Ms. Engle who managed the extensive fioritura while conveying masculinity at the same time in "Va pure ad altri in braccio". Not only does everyone get an aria but there are interesting ensembles that foreshadow Mozart's later works.
Another memorable moment was Nardo's courting of Serpetta in several languages; Mr. Scharfman was irresistible in the role. Mr. Blue pompously strutted around the stage but also conveyed the manner of a kind man. Ms. Henry did a great job creating a real bitch of a character. We loved the moment when she arrived with a horse and her servant Giuseppe (bass William Guanbo Su).
The Juilliard Orchestra performed in their usual exemplary fashion under the baton of Joseph Colaneri who brought subtle understanding to the various and changeable moods of the work. The continuo comprised Michael Biel on the harpsichord and Clara Abel on the cello.
Much favorable comment could be devoted to Amanda Seymour's luscious period costumes and even more to scenic designer Grace Laubacher's witty sets. After a clever prologue in which Joan Hofmeyr and Olivia McMillan portrayed two gossipy housemaids relating the backstory in English (another one of Mary Birnbaum's clever inventions), servants carried in trompe l'oeil set pieces. Even the horse was two dimensional but reared convincingly.
Lighting Designer Anshuman Bhatia spared no effort in changing the mood; one scene takes place in near darkness and the ensuing confusion reminded us of the final act of Nozze di Figaro.
Once again, Juilliard Opera has given us a memorable evening in which superlative production values provide a setting for the splendid singers--the jewels of Juilliard.
(c) meche kroop