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La Finta Giardiniera
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 7:27 pm - La Finta Giardiniera
On September 30th I saw the City Opera production of Mozartís La Finta Giardiniera, the false garden-girl, playing to a half filled house who like me hadnít yet heard about one more City Opera directing fiasco.
If we buy our tickets in advance we get at least two of three production catastrophes like this one in which the director has declared war on the composer and his music, aiming as much as possible to humiliate and diminish the perished creators of the opera, shoving them into a place in the shadows where they belong.
Yet Iíve never heard of a director who mounted another opera to music by Mozart or anybody and put up a story of his own devising. I also never have seen anything like that level of license expect in farcical fiction in Mel Brooksí imaginary Springtime for Hitler. The City Opera outdid Mel Brooks. Springtime for Hitler never claimed it was an opera by Mozart. City Center administrators ought to look at The Producers; the point of putting on Springtime for Hitler was that the sponsors wanted to go broke. Last yearís decistere of this kind was the City Operaís Macbeth; this yearís bomb beyond this one so far is evidently the Metís Tristan und Isolde; its patrons have tried to take their money out of the production.
The Met usually doesnít do such terrible things to the dead; itís usually the City Opera with its very loose to non-existent artistic direction that sends its audience mumbling into the streets vowing never to see another opera there until it is reviewed.
Insiders Iíve talked to tell me that there is a vacuum of power in the City Opera administration and aesthetic leadership which is taken up by directors ad libitum. Iíve also heard the usual City Opera conductor, Garage Manahan is not known for his dissents from such people. James Levine he ainít. Certain stars like Lauren Flanagan may say, I have heard, that they want to do some opera; they have the clout to do it.
If Lauren Flanagan is involved, the looseness and vacuum works; she is a women of measure and judgment we well as a great talent although she got stuck in last years horrendous Macbeth. If the director is skilled and respectful of the opera it works to give the City Opera some audacious and delicious successes; if he is like Mark Lamos, the director of this lamentable production, it is lethal. Cowards die many times before their death; composers at the City Opera die many times as well after their death.
Mozart almost didnít make it through the overture. The porker citizen next to me was cackling over the Jay Leno jokes the director put up about therapy daring the rather serious opening instrumental introduction Mozart wrote to this opera. He was guffawing later over one liners about laboratory rats offered as commentary as Mozart ran one of his tenderized arias. This stalwart looked like a tourist from Dubuque.
Perhaps he want home and said to the folks on the porch:ĒYou know, that Mozart is a card. Hey, opera is like watching Leave It to Beaver live.Ē
This amiable and adipose fellow was one of a kind in the thin house. Most of the regulars I know walked out talking about overhang but this production. One of them discoursed at length about the Kirov this summer. Perhaps Lamos was sitting in the wings wondering whether he could give have a silent chorus give Prozack to loons like Nabucco, Boris Godunov, Macbeth, Phelipe Secondo, Wozzeck and Suor Angelica.
Clearly all of these protagonists were clinically depressed. Some others had a depilating disorder of grandiosity. Moses, claiming to talk to God was a lunatic. He should have been locked up by a silent chorus whether the opera was by Rossini or Schoenberg. Everybody in Khovanshchina should have been put in the slammer for their own good. Lucia was definitely in needed of a shot of therapeutic cocaine, celery tonic or maybe a gaggle of shock treatments. Perhaps a silent chorus of orderlies and a loony bin setting might be apropos for most operas and then move into the street to look for other patients.
The singers were pushed hard as a ruthless jockey whips a dromedary in a horse race by George Manahan to take everything at a gallop; in spite of him all the singers were superb. Matthew Chellis was suitably earnest, officious and blustering in a low key as the Podesta with his telling unobtrusive style of singing. Sandra Piques-Eddy as the Cavilier Ramiro, the castrate part sang beautifully and archly.
Julianne Borg was perky and saucy with a sweet style in her arias as Serpetta. The two leads in the opera, Lisa Saffer as Violante and Brian Anderson as Contino Belfiore were not only wonderful in voice but singing actors who looked very good as young lovers. They were delightful to look at as well as to hear.
La Finta Giardiniera is an opera halfway between buffa and seria style attempting to take stock buffa characters t and situations to exploder passions in an opera seria manner. Itís a technique we are more familiar with in Don Giovanni; this earlier opera of the 18 year old Mozart has some o the signatures of that masterpiece. Like Don Giovanni it has fast upward chromatic runs in unison or at the octave in the strings, brilliant and terrifying, hauntingly tender melodies that donít stay beyond six chords but crumple over a weak third to the minor key, then regroup enthusiasm as the harmony ascends to the major third, a fluid and grave declamatory style a times that has a mercurial an asymmetry beyond the decorousness of any aria.
It throbs with passing tones and apoggiaturas on the beat, then resolved off it. Like Mozart later operas it makes implead political comments about class; as much as Handelís operas are often about honor. The third in the scale seems almost as sort of weak dissonance as Mozart movers back and forth between major and minor. Harsh and strident diminished broken chords give his texture a ghastly tonal fluidity.
La Finta Giardiniera is chamber opera for a small house like Handelís operas; it has no duets and outside of contrapuntally complex sextet sung at the opening and closing of the opera there is no real chorus. Mozart kept that closing sextet idea for Don Giovanni. Such an open aims at lyric focus, not large monumental effects as does the theatre music of Gluck and Ram; it looks back to a more intimate definition of opera if Mozart gives us a compel sextet and a few other signs of well crafted intellectual spectacle that are caviar.
With hindsight we can see where this harmonic expansion and latitude of inquiry into passion is all going. Thamos King of Egypt, his last theatre work, is already making the chromatic and spectacular gestures of grand opera.
It has beyond its musical felicities some rare elements in this mix of two polar styles of the time. Its leading man, the banally named Contini Belfiore has almost stabbed his equally oddly named betrothed Violante to death. After nearly killing her he asks for forgiveness and is preparing for nuptials with her at the end of the opera.
His passing moment of murderous rage is alluded to often but never discussed. It certainly is paralleled with the middle class Armindaís capacity for ire and mayhem, a woman he almost marries. He has lost his own measure he needs to attain the love of the highest nature.
The hapless Belfiore, moving away from such a prior contretemps finds himself in almost marrying the large and formidable, Arminda, played beautifully and sung gorgeously by Brenda Harris, rather at home with one who seems herself very prone to violence. Sheís a sort of precursor of Elvira in Don Giovanni and the Queen of the Night in Der Zauberflote. The notion of passion tethered by measure and wisdom, the primal nature of Belfiore and his subsequent pilgrimage, is echoed in epic Masonic terms in Der Zauberflote. In this opera no master of starry arcana sings O mensch but the implication of growth through error is there.
Mozartís operas through La Clemenza da Tito are an inquiry into the morals and measures needed to embrace the passions ethically. In its very emotional music Mozartís operas look forward to the foci of Verdi, Wagner and Alban Berg. One might say all these composers made attempts to make sense of the larger world of the passions. Zauberflote is much more directly about such measure and learning. These people arenít crazy; they are fools bumping against civilities and morals in a culture much more ritualized than our own.
Unless we can take these stock characters seriously enough to resonance with their passions, yet detached enough from the comedy to be amused by their follies. We arenít going to get this or nearly any other Mozart opera. Itís a hard form, neither grave nor trivial, both tragedy and comedy which requires a subtlety of spirit to mount properly. Its not impossible to do, just challenging.
Thee nefarious Mark Lamos, the director of this production, decided he could make Mozartís opera into a cruel and shallow farce about people in an insane asylum. He certainly didnít lack aggressiveness in his execution. He put in a two minute silent melodrama dear to these sorts of directors about therapy before the overture, usually the start of an opera. For two initial minutes, hoping to hear Mozart, we were in the hands of Mark Lamos and his Woody Allen-like obsession with therapy, 20th century style. He then tried to distract the audience from the overture continually with more jokes about therapy and insanity on the space above the stage supposedly reserved for translation. Helas, even the translation itself when we got to it was, shall we say, on the loose and free side, even occasional ungrammatical; its maker, Cori Elison, needs to take both Italian 101 and a course in English grammar, with emphasis on the difference between who and whom and if and whether. This semi-literate yet pretentious melange from the one of our rather stale urban New York faith systems also offered bits of 20th century cultist psychological jargon supposedly in the libretto that Mozart, mirabile dictu, had luckily never heard of and one day some of us will ever hear of either.
The set of an insane asylum was a long way from what appears in the original to have been a mayorís palace although some would argue that in New York residence in City Hall and Bellevue is interchangeable. All thorough evening the cunning Lamos upstaged Mozartís tender and languorous music with farcical bits of cars and extrusive stage business.
I canít prove it but since the City Opera is known for giving its directors absolute artistic control, not its conductors, in the sense that it is power found on the street because nobody wants it, I would auger that Lamos told the Manahan to hurry up the music so it wouldnít get in Lamosí way in his ambitions to run his Woody Allen routines and sell it as Mozartís very serious and even tragic passionate utterance.
Otherwise itís hard to explain why the normally reliable if never brilliant George Manahan conducted the score as fast as he did. Sometimes it was too hasty to allow his instrumentalists to make clean entrances. Did George have to make a train? Isnít there a late night albeit slow Harem Line local to Westchester? What would James Levine said had he been here tonight? If he was, Iím glad I wasnít listening.
Of course Mozart canít come up from the grave like the Stone Guest to take revenge on Lamos and Manahan. We donít even know where his grave is. The arch-enemy of his opera, one by the way from its premiere always has had bad luck, the irrepressible vaudevillian Lamos had his poor singers carol while prone on the floor, hunched in bathtubs, underneath sheets, even with their back to the audience, all to show what a virtuoso he was about such craft.
One aria was for no reason at all caroled on a swing. He threw in gratuitously a wordless and silent chorus of loony bin orderlies along with dancers with grotesque Venetian carnival masks. He made one character, originally sung by a castrato, into a Lesbian, dropping most of her clothes since Lamos calls her ďsexually challengedĒ. In this revisionist history we have Mozart running something like a butch bar. Mark, baby, enough already!
I have to say in half a century of going to the opera Iíve never seen such a despicable production as this one. God knows Iíve taken in some atrocious fiascos, par bleu, including the City opera Macbeth last year. It wasnít in a league with this impudent Moe, Curley and Larry massacre of Mozart. This one had contempt for the composer, the audience that had come there to see a Mozart opera, not an scurvy unwritten Mark Lamos play about a loony bin; it was a coarse tar and feathering of the already blighted reputation as an authentic mounter of opera of the City Opera itself. If there is life after death Mark Lamos has a rendezvous with some people he should be anxious not to be in a darer alley in Pernicious.
Iím not against intriguing ideas for productions the composer never thought of. If weíre creators ourselves in theatre weíve all had the experience of a director, singer or actor that makes our writing better than it is. I think Weiland Wagnerís austere sets much more magical that Richard Wagnerís own more realistic ones. Sometimes non-creative middlemen who can be directors, editors, critics, or friends of craters can bring riches to a production that the creator didnít think of. Inspiration asks of its acolytes a dole of lack of judgment that cane be lethal to its faithful and itself.
Some of these checks to another kind of giddy if less expensive passion have become famous, from Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator to Diaghelev, in literature, Maxwell Perkins. These gaudy soldiers all worked in the series of the creator and his work; they didnít make war or doody on it like Lamos. When one mounts or sees a production like this one everybody losers. At some point in such a show the director wants to present an opera he cannot and did not write and eat cannot.
He is stuck with the music of a perished lout. He has to live with the scurvy public that is more interested in Mozart than himself. There can never be any artistic coherence to the spectacle because neither the creator nor the director can finally knock each other out.
As Leopardi says, It is the consolation of the dead and saints that they do not mourn either their mortality or their torments; it is the resident vice of some fools among the living that in their own public destruction they do not know that they have lost anything. As a consequence it is one more reason why from a distance one canít distinguish between the virtuous and the corrupt. If God hopes to judge us, heaven canít be all that far away.
If one treated the performance as a concert version of La Finta Giardiniera, ignored the unseemly and uncouth Three Stooges style of direction on the stage, if once as well slowed down in oneís mind the hustling sprint of the orchestra, one heard about two and a quarter hours of very delicious and mostly soberly passionate to sublime mucic in an opera s good as the Abduction From the Seraglio and Cosa Fan Tutte. Then why havenít we heard this opera? The answer is intriguing; until the 1970s when the first act was found in Moravia, part of it was lost. For two hundred years we had only, guess what, an adulterated singspeil version that didnít represent this opera either.
Could one say any caveats about La Finta Giardiniera? Well, it may be one of the greatest operas of the 18th century, in fact maybe of any century; it isnít quite as good as four of five other Mozart operas; it would be famous and played all the time if it had been written by anybody else. This has also happened to several Verdi operas. They would have made the career of anyone but Verdi; since they are by Verdi they lamentably are almost never heard.
One can complain I suppose that the wind writing lacks the clarinet, not yet generally part of the orchestra in 1777 although Stamitz in Mannheim was using them; the use of oboes flutes and bassoons is not a felicitously fluid and archly chromatic as in the later operas. Most of Mozartís singular passionate emotional language one might compare to champagne in its aery and inebriate quality was in place by 1777 but not all.
In later Mozart one hears the wind instruments add a richness as well through very complex contrapuntal writing that adorns the sounds of his orchestra at once with a paradoxical and tensely mix of magical transparency and implied density. His insinuating chromatic winds cut through anything.
Yet one hears everything else in his subsequent musical language unique to him including the sublime and breathless sixths in the strings backed by discreet flutes. There is the amusing use of French horns in close harmony if unlike the music of the later Mozart they stand out rather extrusively. I didnít hear any trumpets. This was of course the very decade in which horns, trumpets, and even bassoons were made easier to play with valves and other radical improvements so one didnít have to fake chromatics and some notes with the lip.
The sentimental critique of class in Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro isnít quite in place in Mozartís late adolescent mind yet either; the opera forms he had inherited praised class and natural inequality soberly as a vertical theatre to take up disciplines of morals rater than make cruel fun of passion.
Yet the class metaphors are developed in La Finta Giardiniera in a very detailed way. Violante had disguised herself as a common gardener under the aegis of the middle class Podesta, the town mayor; she had been injured by the passions of the Contino Belfiore and could metaphorically no longer by herself spiritually. Mozart uses the momentary loss of measure of Belfiore prior to his main action very cleverly to extend his inquiry into how other passion must be ruled by charity, reason and measure.
We need to stretch ourselves out of our culture to understand what this every different anatomy of human psychology is about. It chivalric Platonism sees human action and thought as ritual or a dance in which the received pattern of steps need to be graceful and elegant. It isnít about will acting in a vacuum without memory as it is for some therapized urbane epicures in New York in 2003.
We shouldnít be narrow and pretend it is otherwise. Italian culture is a vast mausoleum of recall and dry celebration; it isnít about invention. Thatís why it has stock characters and offers sardonic paradigms.
Nobody in this story is insane or even neurotic in the Freudian sense; these characters are all resonant banalities in an immortal pavanne struggling with hungers that brook codes of honor, civility and even interest. Itís a kind of sober inquiry that Freud took up attempting to apply the discoveries of Symbolism to thought, attempting to analyze action that eclipses interest; even in Freund it is an inner adventure into the mysterious irrational element in us, not madness or farce.
I am assuming that such directors as the City Opera hires havenít got any personal animus against Mozart, Verdi and the other composers that are the essential reason why opera in New York has an audience. Itís clear many of them are megalomaniacs; directors often have that quality.
Itís not even a defect; itís a neutral element of character that is probably proper in a director, less so in a lover, politician or beggar. It also to the interest of any director in this day of painting the old as new when the past is less than a garbage dump to us all to try to have the clout and glamour of apparent genius of a god who can make Creation from the suburban landfill of waste and void.
It is an axiom among these directions that once one has died, oneís career is over. Yet itís not always true in Art. Sometimes one does better in the Arts dead than alive. An audience that goes to any opera anywhere isnít stupid. They know that Mozart didnít write an opera about an insane asylum, have lines about therapy in the libretti; they are smell the odor of snake oil and guess they being hustled. They wonít come back. The word must have been out about La Finta Giardiniera. Opera lovers who will travel thousands of miles to see something they never have savored were absent at this production.
For our age a case has to be made for viewing passions as a theatre of responsible inquiry as it might have been equally hard to assert during the cruel theatre of the late Roman empire. Most follies of the past disguised themselves as beautiful or otherwise armed with a more subtly seductive attractiveness; ours marl claim they are self evident and ordinary as a stale performance by a flea circus.
We have been putting out in our time led by Howard Stern, Jay Leno, the mimicries of many sitcoms some cruel and cold comedy that treats its characters like louts, fools, criminals and arrant dunces. Itís a faith system abut an enigma as much as chivalry and honor ever were. At some level times and their presumptions clash in covert holy wars if we keep the spectacles of the past alive at all.
I remember a young man criticizing the nonagenarian Casals in the 50s, that scientific era in which music was thought of in conservatories and in the Stockhausen circle as a species of physics, because Casals swooped into notes in the Brahmsí F Major Sonata. Casals replied civilly: ĒBrahms asked me to play it that way.Ē Yet we have trouble listened to Joachimís recordings and even those of Chrysler because they and their peers did a lot of swooping; we are sure they were doddering crones unsure of their intonation and were discreetly cheating.
Iíve heard similar cleavages of different ages listening to a Puccini opera in New Mexico played utterly without rubato by American conservatory graduates who were sure that Puccini was really trying to be like Stravinsky or Stockhausen; the poor guy didnít know how to do it.
Iíve never seen an opera including The Rakeís Progress, Oedipus Rex or Le Rossignol that didnít stand or fall on the ability of the composer to engage his audience in intense over the top emotions of its characters. Operas on the detached and farcical side like Cosi Fan Tutte, Maskarade or Arlecchino eventually have to get heavily serious and ferociously emotional in some way after a while or the audience walks. Even rage, cruelly and torture palls. It may be a defects of the human spirit.
Verdi was and still is the greatest opera composer in history because he started out with over the top passionate aesthetic presumptions. Wagner and Mozart are two of the three greatest opera artificers because they had the same ferocious and sensational intents. We would be crazy ourselves even if we were tone deaf and hate opera to be detached from inquiries into our odd partiality for intimacy, almost ritualistically described in 18th century Italian cultural language.
La Finta Giardiniera like Don Giovanni operantes if it works at all on our own perplexities about connections with lovers whose hungers as well as our own seem to us at least in retrospect either litigious or somewhat trivial.
We have all thought like the characters though not like Don Giovanni that we are fools if hardly crazy for having such tastes. Most of us if we are honest have some season in our lives when we could be our own doppelganger Leperello, and say with comical awe, ma en Spagna, mille e tre. Perhaps fatigue or reason sets in with us more quickly than the famous Sevillian.
Rather curiously we donít think of Don Giovanni as young though the Italian ďGiovanniĒ has that dry implication. We can't imagine anyone sleeping with as many women as he did and being other than an mad octogenarian on viagara who is very weary with good reason.
Don Giovanni like Contino Belfiore is tragic and heroic obtuse he is at once brave enough to honor his character and passions yet blind to the lack of measure he has brought to an essentially superficial and caraways life. His nobility is tarnished by his lack of charity long before he is physically destroyed by the Stone Guest.
La Finta Giardiniera hasnít got that focus anymore than Cosi Fan Tutte; its view is less crystallized. Yet the clad issue in it, how nobility can be tainted and destroyed by violence and lack of measure, ene an absence of charity, is the same concern of Don Giovanni from a different angle. Since Mort worked the same themes with different at least three different librettists it is likely that the are very personal concerns for him. Since we donít have a notion of nobility, a respect for memory or a sense of either sin or our place in a divine ritual, his science and even his language is perforce sometimes a little strange to us.
The genius of Mozart is not to make sermons out of such anchoress into amorous philosophy directly but to offer us the experience of the tenderness and paradisiacal emotions of love, fleshing out the discourse with action like life, not a dour weekend commentary. La Finta Giardiniera contains music describing the sense of the heavenly character of carnal bliss in lovers I never heard in any other Mozart opera.
Of the big three Mozart seems to have developed his peculiar mixture of buffa and seria from formal considerations that resonated in him in very innovative ways. Buffa wasnít going to do take up passionate utterance; it was too detached. Seria was insensitive to the comical and effervescent possibilities in opera; its formal gravity was narrow.
There as also something dreadfully dismal about offering unrelieved anguish as entertainment. One sees the same solutions Mozart had to these issues subsequently in Fidelio, Benvenuto Cellini and Beatrice and Benedict. Beethoven and Berlrioz could look to Mozart for these received theatrical ideas. Mozart had to invent this tragi-comic form ex nihilo.
Thereís nothing wrong with the City Operaís loose artistic general direction as long as whomever they pick as thee director with autocratic control of a specific opera is in sync with the aims of the composer. As we all know there is no authentic version of any opera; even for the composer running everything itís a matter of means and possible modes of execution.
We donít even hear symphonies in their original orchestration much; it isnít lethal to us. One almost never hears pre-18th century music in just intonation. Why should we ask instrumentalists to play trumpets without valves? Weíve even brought up the A about half a tone.
An editor in the service of a composer can sometimes intuit what a perished genius would have done if he had had better means to do it. A director can take up what Monteverdi or Handel would have done in scenic design if he had had scrim. Our Monteverdi operas are all executed from ďeditionsĒ based on merely a vocal and base line.
Brahms went to Joachim with all his violin music because Brahms didnít know what Joachim knew about the violin. Yet this license has its inherent excesses. What is at issue here is not narrow authenticity but honoring the composerís intent.
Two weeks ago at the same City Opera I saw an ďadaptedĒ or ďtrimmedí version of Alcina which was spectacularly effective as a spokesman for Handel though the set didnít have any of the magical special effects Handel had expected and the set was abstract; the director though living in our cruel and chilly time understood that Handel was out after serious and passionate expiration of intimacy as much as Mozart and gave Handel every chance to show his massive talent at executing his intent.
In almost any opera one sees the one with artistic contort, at the Met often the conductor, has to stop out of our frigid and emotionally flat age to make the spectacle persuasive. We canít mount farces about insects in an opera house. We as well can't attribute our sickness and vices to the past; it is hard enough that we endure them in the present.
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