La finta giardiniera
René Jacobs, cond; Sophie Karthäuser (
); Jeremy Ovenden (
); Alex Penda (
); Marie-Claude Chappuis (
); Nicola Rivenq (
); Sunhae Im (
); Michael Nagy (
); Freiburger Barockorchester
HARMONIA MUNDI 902126.28 (3 CDS: 185:17)
In 1972, Philips issued for the “first time complete—first time in stereo,” its soon-celebrated recording of
La finta giardiniera
conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and featuring a strong cast including Helen Donath, Ileana Cotrubas, Herman Prey, and Tatiano Troyanos. That three-LP set presents the opera, which was premiered in Munich on January 13, 1775, when Mozart was still 18. Originally in Italian, it was soon translated: A German translation was found on the autograph in Leopold’s hand, with Mozart’s revisions to accommodate the linguistic differences. The autograph of act I has since disappeared, though a manuscript with German only survives. The German version is transformed into a singspiel. The problem for an Italian version seems to be the restoration of the recitatives in the first act.
Not a raging success in Mozart’s time, it was revived in 1797 in Dresden in an arrangement that Schmidt-Isserstedt was proud to avoid. This arrangement survives as the so-called Namest score. The notes to the older recording scorn that version: “There is also a manuscript in Dresden of an adaptation of the opera to another German translation, with several cuts and changes and a remarkably fussy and heavy orchestration including double wind almost throughout.” It’s this
La finta giardiniera
with certain cuts restored that, amusingly enough, René Jacobs has recorded. Jacobs has of course a cheerier take on the rearrangement. He says of the arranger that he “sought to adapt the
score for a ‘modern’ Mozart orchestra, and he did so in exactly the same way as Mozart’s own Handel arrangements: by adding wind parts, filling out the string parts, and abbreviating certain numbers.” One man’s fussiness, it turns out, is another’s increased elegance. Jacobs is playful about it: He even introduces the third act with some Mozart piano music.
Anyone who goes from the Schmidt-Isserstedt or comparable recordings to the Jacobs, which also comes with a full libretto and, indeed, with a 300 page booklet, will immediately hear the effects of an expanded orchestra in a richly recorded overture whose sonority is similar to that of the late symphonies. Let the listener decide: I find both “arrangements” delightful in different ways. The new recording is as convincing as drama as is possible. Jacobs’s cast is consistently excellent, not merely tonally, but as actors. (I’d single out Sunhae Im’s Serpetta.) Jacobs conducts without the mannerisms that mar his recordings of Mozart symphonies. The pacing is lively, some of Mozart’s melodies are luscious, and the septet that ends the second act is sufficiently accomplished to make the finale of the third act seem pedestrian. The orchestral playing is as fine as the singing.
On the other hand, a reading of the plot is enough to give one a headache. Everyone is secretly in love with a (mostly) inappropriate or unresponsive other. Two, the pretended gardener, Violante/Sandrina, and the Count Belfiore, go mad at the end of the second act: I like to think it’s because they couldn’t remember who they were in love with. Yet how amusing Mozart makes some of these stock characters, including the impossible hero, Count Belfiore, who arrives in a splendid garden where he meets for the first time his betrothed, the shrewish, arrogant, and demanding, almost witchlike, Arminda, who says that he should have been there before her, and who declares herself stubborn and capricious. She proves it, demanding instant obeisances and constant narcissistic attentions from the servants. (No one who abuses servants, or wishes to, fares well in Mozart.) Even her uncle, the Podestà (Mayor) who is the elder in the opera, recognizes that she is impossible. He is relieved when the fiancé arrives and is so foolish as to approve of his arranged choice. Belfiore enters with what is obviously a memorized speech about his hitherto unseen’s fiancé’s beauty, grace, and splendor. He is even more entranced with himself. After Arminda threatens him in the likely case of infidelity, he sings of his own good looks and then, as his future uncle-in-law mocks him, claims to be a fierce soldier, and related to half the emperors of Rome, including Marcus Aurelius, Cato, and Caracalla. Young though he was when he wrote
La finta giardiniera
, Mozart was already a wit, good-humoredly unmasking three or four kinds of vanity in a single scene.
But it seems that Belfiore was once in love with Violante, whom he stabbed in a jealous fury, a fury that is hard to reconcile with his foppery present self. Violante is (of course) disguised as the gardener Sandrina and, although Belfiore believes Violante dead, he finds Sandrina obsessively interesting. His fiancé hears his compliments to Sandrina and sings an aria worthy of the Queen of the Night in its concentrated fury. Quailing in front of her—Belfiore is consistently cowardly—he claims when she is gone to have handled that situation pretty well.
This is only one plot and one source of humor. A servant named Serpetta is in love with the Podestà, but is pursued by the elderly Nardo, whom she urges to court her in the Italian fashion. He proposes in three languages. The vocal “acting” in these scenes in the Jacobs recording is wonderfully funny and nuanced. In a comical scene, the Count isolates Sandrina and sings a gorgeous aria about her eyes, in the midst of which she withdraws and is replaced by the Podestà. Only Belfiore would have been so taken with his own musical conceits that he didn’t notice when his beloved left him. He ends up depositing a kiss on the Podestà’s hairy hand. I would also say that only Mozart had enough gorgeous melodies in his head to allow one to be subverted in this way. Implausibly the whole gang all ends up in the woods at night, most thinking that the person he is with is his beloved. Only Belfiore and Sandrina go mad.
My favorite character is the worldly wise servant Serpetta, who immediately sums up the narcissistic Arminda, who has a crush on the Podestà that she realizes is impossible, and who humorously rejects the attentions of the older servant Nardo until she begins to see his good points. More than do the deeply romantic heroines, Sandrina in this opera or the Countess in
Le nozze de Figaro
, Serpetta and her kind seem to me to represent the spirit of good-humored, humane compromise that is Mozart’s. That kind of compromise also underlies the decisions that Jacobs made in this recording. The results are charming.