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10 July 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

La Finta Giardiniera is one piece of juvenilia opera houses should grow out of

Alexandra Coghlan finds Glyndebourne's glossy and irreverant reworking of Mozart's teenage opera ultimately lacking.

By Alexandra Coghlan

It seemed like such a neat concept: Glyndebourne’s terrifyingly young music director Robin Ticciati conducting Mozart’s teenage opera La Finta Giardiniera (directed by the almost-equally-young Frederic Wake-Walker). These precocious artists were supposed to connect to some energy, some spark in the work others had missed, transforming it from shrug to sensation.

Unfortunately, though there really are neglected gems in Mozart’s early catalogue, this just isn’t one of them. The result is not nearly as original or charming as it believes itself to be.

The problems with La Finta Giardiniera might start with Mozart, but in this new production they end with Wake-Walker. Faced with a gossamer-thin score (pretty but ultimately forgettable) and a plot that starts with an unexplained stabbing and spirals out of control from there, he tries far too hard to compensate. 

First there are the stylised movements of his characters – puppets in a gilded 18th-century theatre fashioned exquisitely by designer Antony McDonald. Wake-Walker takes stock theatrical gestures of the period and manipulates them to extremes, leaving us with a convulsing, twitching cast of broken marionettes. It’s all very striking, but if you hollow out your human cast and replace their emotions with empty gestures, you really have to fill the dramatic void with something else – concept, spectacle, humour. By neglecting to do so, Wake-Walker gives his character nothing to play for, and his audience still less to care about.

Which is a shame, because there are some nice ideas here. Reimagining the lovelorn Ramiro (Rachel Frenkel) as an emo Goth, all The Crow-esque styling and violent urges, works beautifully, and – although far from new – Wake-Walker’s big  Act II gesture is also visually striking. Playing on the opera’s central notions of secrecy and illusion, he sets his maddened lovers to destroying the lovely set, relishing the collapse of every rococo door-mirror and the tearing down of every papered wall. Sanity and civilisation itself are brought into question in the gleeful anarchy that follows, and there’s an especially pleasing friction to such scenes being played out before the orderly Glyndebourne audience, all in their black-tie finery.

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Musically things are rather better. Although Ticciati keeps thing slow and measured in the pit, never quite matching Wake-Walker’s growing crescendo of onstage action, he draws some fine singing from a young cast. Christiane Karg, returning after a stand-out performance last year in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, proves once again just how exciting a singer she is, carving long and elegant phrases from Mozart’s music and lending it the gravity and dignity it never quite attains. Her darker-hued soprano is set here against Joelle Harvey’s pert Serpetta – poised and knowing, and never more than skin-deep. It’s a masterly comic performance.

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With such dominant female voices (also including the radiant and cruelly-costumed Nicole Heaston as Arminda) the men struggled to assert themselves in the dramatic mix. Though he sang sweetly and without strain, Joel Prieto’s Belfiore lacked any of the erratic energy to explain the opening stabbing of his beloved, nor did he offer much by way on enticement for her return. Gyula Orendt as the simple Nardo however was all good-humoured comedy, though sung from the wings on opening night by the excellent Gavan Ring – a necessary ill that actually added greatly to the Brechtian alienation of the whole.

It was a risky choice to stage La Finta Giardiniera, and while Glyndebourne will have charmed some with their glossy and irreverent reworking I’m afraid that I’m just not among them. This is one piece of juvenilia I’ll be happy to opera houses to grow out of. Pretty and ultimately forgettable – unfortunately it sums up more than just the music.