Forget Mozart—for now. Instead, be diverted with thoughts of Jerome Kern. Of Oscar Hammerstein II. Of their 1927 hit, Show Boat. Of Francesca Zambello's recent revival at the San Francisco Opera, where Nathan Gunn (hero of Santa Fe Opera's Cold Mountain) playing Gaylord Ravenal and Heidi Stober (heroine of SFO's just-opened La Finta Giardiniera) as Magnolia Hawks serenade each other to the swoony tune of "Only Make Believe."
Slow wind-up there. Now for a fast pitch. Try Englishing the title of Mozart's charming 1775 opera. No can do, except for one word. Finta. That would be "phony" or "pretended" or—wait for it—"make-believe." Last summer's production of La Finta at Glyndebourne, reportedly all about finto, drove the notion straight into the ground: phony sets, phony costumes, phony gestures. And was rewarded for that relentless, concept-driven approach with reviews that were, um, anything but phony.
Well, of course, opera is all about make-believe. Nothing onstage is real. Artifice rules, even when it pretends it doesn't. The greatness of composers, singers, actors, conductors and designers lies in their ability to trick us into thinking that their endeavor is, of all things, real—when we really ought to know better. Things get even more complicated when in La Finta, most of its seven characters can't themselves distinguish between their real and their make-believe identities.
To wit: Don Anchise, the elderly Podestà (or mayor), thinks himself an ardent lover of the titular garden-gal, the Marchesa Violante, who's make-believing as Sandrina, when in reality he's a fatuous fop. His vain, abusive niece, Arminda, thinks herself a catch worthy of a count but can't see beyond her own cold-blooded egotism. That count, Belfiore, equally egotistical as well as a shallow nonentity, harbors a secret, violent past as an attempted murderer of his ex-fiancée, Violante.
Nardo, a make-believe assistant gardener, is actually Roberto, the faithful servant of Violante/Sandrina. The only two characters lacking in finto are 1) Serpetta, the viper-tongued servant to the Podestà and Nardo's snappish beloved, and 2) Cavaliere Ramiro, the clear-seeing, feckless lover of Arminda.
What fools these mortals be, to steal a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play whose action curiously resembles the present love-struck follies. The fact that La Finta had been rarely performed until recently may be due in part to the unpleasantness of four of its seven characters. That, combined with a preposterous plot—though no more inane than many, many others of the period—presents serious obstacles to a successful production, even while taking the teenage Mozart's ever-more-mature music into account.
But fret not, dear reader. Miracles can happen. And did indeed happen last Saturday night with the opening of SFO's delectable, delightful, delovely presentation of La Finta. Forget about make-believe. This is the real Mozartean thing. Sure, you'll hear plenty so-called prefigurations of operas-yet-to-come. But just relish this production's freshness, its pacing, its curious fusion of opera seria and opera buffa with an emerging genre of "sentimental" opera, especially present in the suffering of its heroine and the pathos-filled, climactic mad scenes that resolve the action.
A ghostly hand hovers over the SFO's show as prepared and beautifully, bountifully led by chief conductor Harry Bicket. La Finta exists in two orchestrations. In that 1775 Munich premiere, Mozart presided over a pared-down band: strings, oboes, horns and (used once) trumpet and tympani. Its 1796 Prague revival added newly composed parts for flutes, clarinets, bassoons and doubled trumpets by an unknown re-orchestrator, clearly a keen observer of Mozart's larger, later opera orchestra.
Erik Smith, annotating a 1991 recording, called this "a remarkably fussy and heavy orchestration." Bicket and most listeners disagree. Herr Nameless' score abounds with oh-so-apt accompaniments, played with late-Mozart elegance by SFO's terrific orchestra. And the cast renews SFO's tradition of marvelously matched ensemble work. Here the whole far exceeds the sum of its parts, although these parts be wondrously taken.
Item: Heidi Stober's patiently suffering Violante, a study in sadness. Her heart-stricken lament, "Geme la tortorella," tears at our sensibilities.
Item: An Arminda, the bella bella Susanna Phillips, who electrifies in her high-flying, furious "Vorrei punirti indegno."
Item: As steadfast Ramiro, pure-voiced mezzo Cecelia Hall—noblesse personified in "Dolce d'amor compagna," one of Mozart's glorious, quasi-Handelian arias.
Item: The bewitching "Caro pupille belle," Belfiore's aria, graciously sung by light-voiced tenor charmer, Joel Prieto.
The bickering buffo servants, Laura Tatulescu (Serpetta) and Joshua Hopkins (Nardo), add fine voices to their seemingly sitcom portrayals. SFO veteran William Burden cheerfully swallows up the scenery as the Podestà.
A pleasant economy prevails in the production, starting with Bicket's discreetly trimmed score, with just over two and a half hours of music. Tim Albery's direction offers a loving, sympathetic take on the often-bewildering action, moves swiftly and is easy on the eye. That's helped no end by Hildegard Bechtler's handsome scenery, which gets cannily upset into wilderness mode late in the second act. Jon Morrell embellishes the scene with floriferous period costuming, and Thomas C Hase provides a lovely light.
As Count Belfiore and Violante awaken from their madness-trance and move toward the Happy End, the heroine exclaims, "Che incanto è questo?" (i.e., "What magic is this?"). For an answer, just listen up to that benevolent brujo, Mozart, and his SFO confederates. Enchantment's happening up at the Crosby Theatre. Carpe buffa!
La Finta Giardiniera
8:30 pm Wednesday, July 29;
8 pm Thursday, Aug. 13,
Friday, Aug. 7 & 21. $33-$300
Santa Fe Opera House
301 Opera Drive,