Written when the composer was just 18, Mozart’s La finta giardiniera (The Pretend Garden-Girl) is an opera buffa to a libretto after Goldoni which premiered in Munich in 1775. Here in Zurich, the consistently excellent orchestral playing by the Musikkollegium Winterthur under conductor Carrie-Ann Matheson gave us the pop, heart and spunk of the young Mozart’s musical achievement, and soloists who were well-suited to their roles. Indeed, it was the music alone that saved the show. For the production’s unusual set design and “anything-goes” stage direction left this production with little to hang onto otherwise.

<i>La finta giardiniera</i> © Herwig Prammer
La finta giardiniera
© Herwig Prammer

The set was a huge segmented glasswork whose moveable panes covered the full height and width of the stage. The structure served as garden, noble house, and symbol of confusion, and had compelling presence as a work of art, but it was only moderately suited for use as a stage. The huge transparent panes wobbled every time they were moved. Set flush, they could also mirror the audience, as they did at the end of Act 1. Was that set designer Henrik Ahr’s way of intimating that we were as capable of the same deceits and crass actions? Or did it simply add another prism to the story?

Finta’s plot is as convoluted as any in opera. In the house of the Podestà, preparations for the marriage of his niece Arminda to Count Belfiore are underway. The opening promised a good deal of light-hearted humour, a celebration of happiness and the triumph of love. In actual fact, however, the opera revolves around traded places, disguised identities and misguided love. Several of the characters are paraded as other people, or something they are not. Everyone postures and reinvents himself to achieve amorous objectives, and even a wedding feast becomes farcical, ultimately breaking down into moments of disconsolate loneliness.

<i>La finta giardiniera</i> © Herwig Prammer
La finta giardiniera
© Herwig Prammer

In Tatjana Gürbaca's production, the singing was uneven, and some performances were dampened by all the trappings. As the Podestà, Kenneth Tarver’s authoritarian role was compromised by his odd costume: a wrinkled bedsheet fashioned into a Roman toga, coupled with a flat-topped bowler and a cigar. Tarver showed little variation in either stance or voice, setting something of a disconnect throughout.

Rosa Feola sang her Sandrina/Violante role compellingly, singing a chirpy and humorous “Wir Mädchen sind sehr übel dran” with solid presence. Her acting skills were also convincing, even if – as behoved the comedy – exaggerated. Myrtò Papatanasiu sang the petulant Arminda, her voice sometimes making up in stridency what it lacked in comfort. Compliments, though, for her mastering the logistics of a skirt that spread out to blanket half the stage and demanded a whole new costume etiquette.

Margarita Gritskova sang the trouser-role of the lovesick Ramiro with confidence and aplomb; smartly outfitted, however, in a pin-striped suit and a severely cropped Anna Wintour haircut that had her looking far more like a Chanel model than a man. Finally, Rebeca Olvera in her debut as the servant Serpetta, enjoyed a shining downstage moment in an innocent rendition of her sweet aria, “Wer die Welt geniessen will”. Adrian Timpau also gave us a credibly love-besotted Nardo, although in this, his role debut, the singer was hard put to mask frequent glances at the conductor.

<i>La finta giardiniera</i> © Herwig Prammer
La finta giardiniera
© Herwig Prammer

Pride withholding, the most outstanding of the vocal performances was by long-year ensemble member and Zurich’s “own” tenor, Mauro Peter. He not only sang Belfiore with solid assurance, but also showed willingness to indulge the production’s slapstick for all it was worth. Even though his character’s sweet boyishness made it hard to believe he had shot his love-pendant, Violante, in a fit of passion, Peter crafted a sympathetic sort of guy everybody likes. By Act 3, stripped to his underpants and vest, he seems to relish the great carpet of white foam descending from the ceiling and spreading out all over the stage. He had also swooned with erotic fervour when he smelled the inside of his lover’s shoe!

After all that foam, one had to be grateful that the singers could change into fresh garb before the finale. That said, the sheer catalogue of arms, legs, costumes and set entirely peppered and slathered with goopy white was over the top, and after some duration, it failed to be funny. Belfiore sang, “Now the confusion is complete, When, oh gods, will your cruelty end?”, a sentiment the libretto had cited many times before. Apologies to Mozart, but after three hours of this production’s ludicrous antics, one just couldn’t help wishing the same.

**111