I suspect it is a bad sign when comic opera starts to remind you of your country’s political life. I went with some friends last night to the Santa Fe Opera to hear Mozart’s early La Finta Giardiniera (“The phony Garden Girl”). No, I had never heard, or even heard of it, either. It was written early in 1775, when Mozart was 18. There being no video games or internet to distract him, he dashed it off in a couple of weeks. There is some dispute about who wrote the libretto, which is good news for the true author, since it is pretty silly. The opera was first performed where Mozart wrote it, in Munich, in 1775, and he later rewrote it for a German version (Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe), which was the only complete score known until the Italian version was discovered in the 1970s.
The pretend gardener of the title is, naturally, a noblewoman in real life, the Marchioness Violante Onesti. She is disguised as a lowly gardener at the estate of the town’s mayor, Don Anchise, toiling in obscurity after her excitable lover, the Count Belifore, stabbed her in a jealous rage. There is a lot of jealous rage in this opera, and many cross currents of passion and mistaken identity. Don Anchise is in love with the pretend gardener, who, wouldn’t you know it, loathes him. His niece, Arminda, meanwhile, is engaged to the knife-wielding Count, who of course discovers his lost and perforated love in the cabbage patch. “When Belfiore confesses his lingering love for Violante,” one reads in a précis, “Arminda jealously conspires to abduct the other woman. When Violante is found, she and Belfiore lose their minds and believe themselves to be Greek gods.”
It was at this point that I began to see shades of Washington, D.C., wafting over the stage. The opera opens with everyone declaring what a splendid day it is: “Che lieto giorno.” They say that, but they know it isn’t true. A sassy servant has her cap set for the mayor, who pines for the gardener, who discovers she still loves the Count, who also loves her, while the mayor’s temperamental niece rants and raves before finding solace with the Cavalier Ramiro, sung by a castrato in the original but since Bruce Jenner wasn’t available last night, the part was sung by a female mezzo in drag. (I wonder if the current transsexual craze will bring back the castrati?)
By the end of the opera everyone has paired off—the two real servants with one another, as decorum insisted, the niece and the Cavalier, and the Count and the Marchioness—except the mayor. He, alas, is left out in the cold to accept his fate and await another beautiful girl gardener. Good luck with that.
Well, it was an agreeable way to beguile an hour (three, actually). The staging was only mediocre, I’d say, but the acting was by and large appropriately buffa. The mayor’s sassy servant (Laura Tatulescu) and the mayor’s niece (Susanna Phillips) were especially droll, as was the mayor himself (William Burden). The air is thin in Santa Fe (elevation 7,199 feet) and, while the singers had acclimated, the orchestra wanted a bit of puff, I thought.
I have been to 5 or 6 performances at the Sante Fe Opera. It is always an agreeable experience. The setting is breathtaking there in the New Mexican desert, and the roofed but open-air theater, though architecturally severe, is engagingly dramatic. In recent years, however, I have tended to get the uncomfortable sensation that I am watching some sort of allegory. Last night, Mozart’s opera buffa reminded me of the bumbling absurdities of our masters in Washington, pretending to be what they aren’t, casting about in the dark in jealous rages, deluded into thinking they’re pagan gods of some description. It’s a good thing I didn’t go on Monday: Salome was on offer that night, and I shudder to think what parallels Strauss’s gory entertainment would have suggested.