La finta giardiniera

Jacqueline Piccolino and Theo Lebow. Photo by Kristen Loken

Hmm. Let's see if I can remember it all: attempted rape; attempted homicide; two lovers receive electro-shock therapy; a quintuple homicide; mistaken identities galore; an orgy in a wood including a woman dressed as a raccoon; constant cigarette smoking; attempted suicide by hari-kari; singing zombies. All that and a happy ending, too. Who said opera is dull stuff?

I'm not sure Mozart envisioned these kinds of things unfolding onstage when he composed La finta giardiniera at the age of eighteen, but he surely did the set the stage when he decided to create an opera about a woman who can't get over a man who stabbed her in the chest and then left her for dead. Glenn Close, I mean Sandrina, then stalks, sorry, she then masquerades as a gardener to keep tabs on the fine fellow- a poobah named Clount Belfiore, whose sights are now set on society gal Arminda, who has promised she would give it up to Ramiro but is now reneging on that deal because she's rather be with Scott Peterson, I mean Belfiore. Meanwhile, Sandrina has to fend off her lecherous boss the mayor, who in turn is desired by his nursemaid, who in turn is longed for by Sandrina's manservant, who expresses his desire in three languages.

Wait. Sandrina has a manservant? Yes, of course she does, because our battered-woman-heroine, now pretending to be a garden girl, is actually a noblewoman named Violante. Of course she is, right? I mean a woman without means who was stabbed and left for dead would probably just become Moll Flanders or something in real-life and that would make for a boring opera, unless it's La Traviata or Lulu, neither of which are about any such thing but you can imagine such an incident as a plausible back story for either.

So yeah- the story's a total mess and the bizarre choices made by Director by Nicholas Muni certainly don't help, but I can empathize with his plight because honestly I don't know what anyone could do with La finta to make it coherent. I suppose going for an incomprehensible, Amero-trash kind of production makes sense in that light, and that's pretty much what was delivered. How else can you explain why  half the cast pointlessly smokes cigarettes during the production?

This would have been an almost thankless outing as a showcase for the Merola Opera Program's singers if not for Mozart's music, which even at this early stage showed traces of the brilliance which would show up later in Cosi and Don Giovanni.

Jacqueline Piccolino was outstanding as Arminda, making her impact felt immediately and sustaining it through the long night. It took Jennifer Cherest awhile to overcome the odd arc of the title character, but she gave a wonderful performance in the final act, especially in the odd duet with Theo Lebow's Belfiore. Lebow also managed to overcome the weirdness of his character, managing to turn the attempted murderer into a sympathetic lover. Sara Mesko was so convincing in the trouser of Ramiro I thought we may have been hearing a countertenor at first, which is especially odd since she's a mezzo. Rose Sawvel's Serpetto was a delightful, spunky, well-sung spitfire. Casey Candebat handled his assignment as the stock buffoon with aplomb, as did Gordon Bitner as Nardo, the most thankless role in the opera. The singers combined effectively in the ensembles and all managed to transcend the oddities of Muni's production and Mozart's muddle of a libretto to deliver solid performances.

Gary Thor Wedow conducted and though the acoustics of the Cowell Theatre can be a challenge, like some of the chatty audience members on this particular night, the music sounded appropriately paced. The Cowell's chorus of seagulls managed to be held at bay until the final act, when their presence suddenly made a significant impact to the spectacle of watching an electrocution.