La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini). The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti. Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees. The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore. Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero. The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper. The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore. Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement. Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate. The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante. Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well. Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante. Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms. Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.
Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot? As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music. In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60′s flower children era). Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production. Primary colors abound.
The opening fight between Belfiore (John Mark Ainsley from Zaide) and Violante (Alexandra Reinprecht) is performed as a ballet in the opera’s overture (and done true to period—traditionalists, do not get your hopes up). Dorrie and set designer Bernd Lepel replace the garden estate with a busy, 21st century superstore. A black leather clad Ramiro (mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose) looks like an extra fromRoad Warrior (1981), while the two leads are still adorned in powdered wigs, making for whimsical contrast. Veronique Gens’s Arminda could give Cruella de Ville competition and she delights in tormenting her poor Ramiro (Donose supplies meaty angst). Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors (1986) shows up ( I kid you not), chomps down on both Belfiore and Violante, thus generating their “madness’—which takes place in a spider’s den with an arachnid that’s about as animated as Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955). But, it’s all in good fun, even if a good thirty minutes of music has been excised, and if conductor Ivor Bolton and his orchestra don’t seem to have as much fun as Dorrie and company.
Dorrie wonderfully succeeds in elevating what could have been a lackluster event into a spirited Halloween-like Mozartean treat.