La finta giardiniera was composed by Mozart when he was only 18 years old, on a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini, based on a play by Goldoni, the main representative of the Italian Commedia dell’arte tradition. The intricate plot describes different approaches to love by the various characters, and it introduces many themes that the Austrian genius would develop later in the Da Ponte trilogy. Lovers in disguise test their beloved’s faith, confusion and madness reign supreme as passion is unleashed. Finally, jealousy and doubt are overcome in favour of understanding and community of intents.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Sandrina)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Finta could be considered as the precursor to Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro, as well as to the trials of Tamino and Pamina. Its plot is far removed from modern sensibilities: before the rise of the curtain, Count Belfiore stabs his lover, the Marquise Violante, and cowardly runs away, leaving her for dead. She survives and takes the disguise of a gardener to go search for him because she loves him anyway. He is not only a murderous coward, but also an insufferable, vacuous brat who follows any skirt in sight. In the meantime, the Podestà harasses the “fake gardener”, bullying her relentlessly; the servant Nardo (a good guy, for the most part) sings the merits of stalking and wearing down women with unwanted attentions, while Arminda, Belfiore’s new flame, threatens physical violence if betrayed. All these sub-plots are presented as laughing matters, and this is on top of the “standard” patriarchal view of women as empty vessels whose only validation can come from men… it is difficult to identify with anything or anybody.

From a musical point of view, almost all the features of Mozart’s style are already recognisable: the elegance, the ravishing beauty of simple melodies and unassuming chord progressions, the strength and originality of the recitativi accompagnati. La finta giardiniera’s emotional range, however, remains within pretty, fun entertainment, with some lengthiness in the second act. What is missing is the depth, the boldness, the courage to dig into the human soul which render his later music an intellectual monument.

Anett Fritsch (Arminda)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

La Scala presents this work for the first time in the main hall (after a run in the Piccola Scala in 1970), as part of its 18th-century opera project, which is based on an ensemble of musicians of the La Scala orchestra playing on original instruments, under the baton of Diego Fasolis, who drove the show with his customary exuberance and attention to dynamics; the orchestra’s performance was a delight.

Wake-Walker’s production, from Glyndebourne 2014, explores the evolution of the protagonists as they find their way to true love. At the beginning, all the characters are stereotypes rather than people, “masked types”, as in the Commedia dell’arte, with beautiful, elaborate costumes by Antony McDonald. Each have their signature movements, almost like puppets. Every character undresses as they sing their solo arias: they need to get out of their costumes to say something meaningful about themselves, and they feel ashamed afterwards. During the madness of the second-act finale, Belfiore and Violante tear the set down, destroying the fake world they’ve been living in, emerging from the wreckage in simple garments and declaring their love in a beautiful duet.

The cast was uniformly strong. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, in the title role, showed sheer beauty of timbre, suited to the melancholic effect of Violante; her high notes soaring, big and shiny. Bernard Richter cut a fine figure as the airheaded gallant, his voice was uniformly strong and commanding, with a greater presence than his character suggested. Arminda, Belfiore’s new fiancée, was a temperamental Anett Fritsch, very secure over the whole range. The role of Ramiro, Arminda’s rejected suitor, was written for a castrato and performed by Lucia Cirillo in a fantastic goth outfit, complete with black lipstick. Her acting and interpretation of the two furore arias was convincing; her voice was well supported with great coloratura. Perhaps, in a theatre as big as La Scala, her projection was not as strong as one might have hoped.

Mattia Olivieri (Nardo) and Giulia Semenzato (Serpetta)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Krešimir Špicer was Il Podestà, his tenor was more heroic and centred lower than Richter’s. His interpretation was enjoyable and stylish overall, with a few occasional rough edges. The low-class couple, Nardo and Serpetta, was interpreted by two talented singers. Giulia Semenzato’s soprano was high, bright and spotless. Her voice has a melancholic quality which, in my opinion, would make her well suited to more serious roles; however, her interpretation of the clever, cunning servant was quite enjoyable. The young baritone Mattia Olivieri was extremely committed and funny in his interpretation of the older servant in love with Serpetta; his voice was beautiful, and he showed mastery and promise; his career will be worth following.