Had Mozart discovered his voice as a composer of operas by the time he was 18? When he was 19, he composed the Piano Concerto no. 8 in C major and the Haffner Serenade, both unquestionably works of maturity. La finta giardiniera, however, suffers from a score that wanders and a plot that gets lost. It may be the last act of a genius-in-training, a kind of worthy building-block on a composer’s trajectory of brilliance. Like Go Set a Watchman, the recently released novel by Harper Lee which was the  antecendant to To Kill a Mockingbird, we have La finta giardiniera, the big sister of  The Magic Flute. Is one better than the other or just different?

During a Santa Fe Opera season that includes Rigoletto and Salome, having some Mozart acts as a palate-cleanser, a comedy with clean, lively music, an opportunity to bring out the clean and lively voices. Heidi Stober is Sandrina, the gardener-in-disguise, and while the part calls for her to be a kind-of PTSD sufferer (wouldn’t you be a little freaked-out if your lover stabbed you and left you to die?) the  vocal part has gravitas, warmth and feeling. Stober makes her Sandrina more than a victim – she’s heroically feminine.  Her melodies also mark her as one of Mozart’s ladies of the crystalline high notes. Sandrina is inexplicably still holding a candle for the man who almost killed her, but as the feminine musical core of the piece, she is more than a sprightly voice.

There are a lot of characters who spend a lot of time either pretending to be someone they aren’t, falling in love with the wrong person, or going mad. Some of the characters do all three. Musically, all this zig-zagging of lovers and liars calls for explanatory arias, and a few climactic group scenes. This may be one of Mozart’s novice errors – too many arias, and too much explanation. The former are called for dramatically, but characters are allowed to extrapolate on feelings-of-the-moment for a lot longer than it should take. If Ramiro, a knight played by Cecelia Hall, a smokey-voiced mezzo, had a more important part, perhaps the repeated opportunities for her to express herself vocally would be justified, but her character is a plot device without much emotional heft. After a while, the music isn’t enough to hold all of these misaligned relationships up. While things tie-up neatly in the end, the getting there gets tedious and confusing.

Joel Prieto, as Count Belfiore appears to be a younger singer, with a  lighter tenor voice, and although his matinee-idol looks may affect the hearts of the two sopranos (Susanna Phillips was excellent as the vain, hoop-skirted Arminda), his reed-thin physique tends to defeat his attempts to embody the romantic lead.

William Burden as the Podestá, costumed in a pink satin coat and tight breeches, does a great job as the comic center of masculine energies in the piece. If Mozart’s women in La finta are more frustrated and tragic, his men are heart-on-the-sleeve romantic sorts. Burden plays the mayor as a fop, and the Podestá’s love for a woman who clearly isn’t into him causes him to be the odd man out at the end. Nardo, a servant in disguise, sung by Joshua Hopkins, offered heft and baritone darkness to his part, a nice counter to all the lightness flitting around him.

Conductor Harry Bicket kept things energetic throughout. Director Tim Albery created a first act of such precisely honed comedy that it could have been on television – in English. Act II, a mess of lost characters, mistaken identities, and lies in search of a love, looks confusingly abstract in an inelegant forest indicated by a few branches stuck into the furniture. Hildegard Bechtler’s scenic designs were brilliantly classical and askew at the same time in the first act. The sliver of sunset over fake poplars, and the planting of real flowers in real soil made things earthly, while the music pouring out was unmistakably Mozart: celestial.