From Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots written when a mere bursch of 11 in Salzburg to Die Zauberflöte 24 years later in Vienna, Mozart was especially fond of German Singspiel. Defined by Grove as “a genre of opera characterized by spoken dialogue alternating with ensembles and arias generally of a comic or romantic nature”, Singspiel clearly appealed to Mozart’s acute sense of humour, which from the evidence of his letters at least, was often scatological.  

Rubén Olivares Jofré (Belfiore) © Jochen Klenk
Rubén Olivares Jofré (Belfiore)
© Jochen Klenk

Mozart even changed an early work La finta giardiniera from a dramma giocoso in Italian to a Singspiel in German five years after it premiered in Munich during the 1775 Carnival season. Re-titled Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe (aka Die verstellte Gärtnerin) with several musical modifications, it was this Singspiel version which was given a charming and cheeky interpretation at the exquisite 370-seat Baden-Baden Stadttheater as part of the 2018 Osterfestspiele.

Dramaturg Martin Mutschler and Director Christian Carsten contributed some additional witty dialogue to Johann Stierle’s original German libretto which enhanced the semi-farcical frivolity, and so typical of Mozart, many sub-textual insights. There was even humour in the surtitles. During the galloping ensemble at the end of Act One, “Verwirrung!” in German and “Confusion!” in English suddenly switched to Chinese characters. Befuddlement indeed.

Sebastian Hannak’s minimalist set design gave plenty of opportunity for clever characterizations and the dense foliage in Act Two made the confusion of who is importuning whom plausible. The aboreal mistaken identity anticipates Act Four of Le nozze di Figaro without the Count’s profound epiphany in “Contessa perdono”. Infidelity in Die Gärtnerin also presages Così fan tutte but with three capricious couples instead of two.

Victoria Kunze (Sandrina) and Julie Erhart (Arminda) © Jochen Klenk
Victoria Kunze (Sandrina) and Julie Erhart (Arminda)
© Jochen Klenk

Using René Jacobs’ revision of the 1796 Prague partitura, Simon Rössler led the young musicians of the Karajan-Akademie der Berliner Philharmoniker with precision and panache. On cue to the Podestà’s lines “das liebliche Ertönen der Flöte und Oboe” and “von Pauken und Trompeten”,  Zofia Neugebaur’s flute, Doğa Saçilik’s oboe, Vincent Vogel’s timpani and Samuel Walter’s trumpet responded with perky interjections. 

The real strength of the performance was the consistently excellent singing and comic acting from the ensemble of young artists. From the opening group soft-shoe shuffle in “Welches vergnügen, welch frohe Tage” with lots of head and crotch scratching, it was clear that fun was firmly on the menuMartin Peters was slightly bland as Violante’s loyal servant Roberto/Nardo besotted with the intransigent Serpetta, but sang well enough. “Der Hammer zwingt das Eisen” had a Donner-ish klang.

Oliver Jacobs sang a resonant Podestà. His exasperation with the constantly changing affections within his family, servants and himself was of Molière quality. Nadine Kettler was a real scene-stealer as the Podestà’s feisty servant Serpetta. She also gave a great impression of a lawn mower as she tried to interrupt her employer’s flirtation with his comely gardener Sandrina, aka Gräfin Violante Onesti. The character is not dissimilar to Despina in Così fan tutte and the mock trial of Count Belfiore with legal gowns and wigs was very funny indeed. Serpetta’s uncontrollable guffaws when Sandrina claims to be a countess were infectious. In “Sobald sie mich sehen” Serpetta was an embryonic Donna Elvira. 

Members of the cast © Jochen Klenk
Members of the cast
© Jochen Klenk

Stripped to his briefs and singlet for most of the last act, Chilean tenor Rubén Olivares Jofré was a sympathetic Count Belfiore although his boyish demeanour made it unlikely that he would have stabbed Violante in a fit of passion. The tricky diction with comic references to “Scipio, Marc Aurel und Marc Agrippa” in “Hier vom Osten bis zum Westen” was crisply delivered with an agreeable tenore di grazia timbre. The long “Schon erstarren meine Glieder” scena was sung with Tamino-like intensity. The unlikely aristocratic gardener Sandrina/Violante was delightfully acted and impressively sung by young German soprano Victoria Kunze. “Wir Mädchen sind sehr übel dran” was cheeky and chirpy and “Ach haltet, Barbaren” foreshadowed Fiordiligi. Looking like a cross between Lisa Peluso in Saturday Night Fever and Olive Oyl, Julie Erhart was a fabulous diva as the Podestà’s matrimonially ambitious and petulantly pushy niece Arminda. Her tantrums were worthy of Musetta and her begrudging final acceptance of Ramiro clearly open to revision. “Wenn die Männer sich verlieben” was Donna Anna in the making. The role of Arminda’s rejected suitor Ramiro has the most “operatic” music of the score and sporting a comic false paunch and slapstick moustache, young mezzo Clara-Sophie Bertram scored a major triumph. “Scheu ist das freie Vöglein” displayed even semiquaver roulades and a warm, plumy timbre whilst “Wenn ich auch von dir verlassen” with agitated syncopated orchestral accompaniment was the vocal highlight of the performance. 

This was an ensemble event of the highest caliber. Mozart lovers in the vicinity of Baden-Württemberg should make an effort to catch this pétillant production.