La Finta Giardiniera

RENÉ JACOBS, 2011
Sophie Karthäuser (Sandrina), Alexandrina Pendatschanska (Arminda), Sunhae Im (Serpetta), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Ramiro), Jeremy Ovenden (Belfiore), Nicolas Rivenq (Podestà), Michael Nagy (Nardo), Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs

In an extensive text in the booklet of his studio recording, René Jacobs explains why he decided to use a score revised by an anonymous editor for performances in Prague in 1796. This edition basically involves the more consistent use of woodwind and French horn, often in newly composed independent lines, mostly with the purpose of enriching texture. Jacobs reopened, however, most of the cuts in that version, following Mozart’s original plans. Although La Finta Giardiniera is a work with many inventive touches, it also has many less-than-inspired passages and the richer orchestra accounts for much of the appeal of this “Prague edition”, which matches the conductor’s fancy for “helping up” composers with his own ideas. As in the other titles in Jacobs’s Mozart series, the orchestra has an abrasive sound and phrasing is sometimes heavily accented and lacking spontaneity. In any case, one cannot help yielding to this eventful and colorful account of this difficult score. Even if one would find individual performances of superior beauty and charm in other recordings, the ensemble here is unusually coherent and theatrical. Sophie Karthäuser’s high notes are less crystalline and her coloratura is less awe-inspiring than Eva Mei’s, Edita Gruberová’s or Helen Donath’s, but other than this her performance is compelling and pleasant. Alexandrina Pendatschanska is ideally cast as Arminda, the strong colors in her voice used for impressive effects. Sunhae Im works hard for laughs and sings nimbly if entirely without sexiness. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s mezzo is too feminine for the breeches role of Ramiro, but her singing is disarmingly stylish and lovely. If Jeremy Ovenden is reliable and characterful, his nasal tenor takes some time to get used to.  Nicolas Rivenq is the discography’s only baritone Podestà, but one can see this only in his almost pop approach to high notes, since his low register is here very recessed. That said, it is such an intelligent and funny performance – one easy on the ear too – that one cannot help enjoying it. Last but not least, Michael Nagy is an ebullient and warm-toned Nardo.

IVOR BOLTON, 2006
Alexandra Reinprecht (Sandrina), Véronique Gens (Arminda), Adriana Kucerová (Serpetta), Ruxandra Donose (Ramiro), John Mark Ainsley (Belfiore), John Graham-Hall (Podestà), Markus Werba (Nardo), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Ivor Bolton

Doris Dörrie’s production from the Salzburg 2006 Anniversary Festival is a controversial entry in the discography. It is indisputable that a great deal of the director’s creative ideas have more to do with “making-it-funny-for-the-audience” than with the work’s inner structure: the ballet staging Violante and Belfiore’s fight during the overture does not go with the music, setting the opera in a kind of House and Gardening store does not go with the plot, the fact that Sandrina and Nardo are dressed in XVIIIth century costumes does not go with sense (they are supposed to run undercover…) – BUT if you overlook all that (and there is really a lot to overlook, especially dancing flowers) most of what you see is indeed funny and makes good profit of the cast’s acting skills. Moreover, the show does not look ugly at all. Ivor Bolton is a reliable conductor and knows how to keep interest going. His orchestra is less colorful and his approach is less vital than Harnoncourt’s, but the necessary elements are here, if you are ready to accept the generous amount of cutting made in the score (far more adventurous than in the other videos). Véronique Gens is a spirited and chic Arminda in her velvety toned soprano . Adriana Kucerová is an animated and bell-toned  Serpetta. Alexandra Reinprecht’s grainy soprano is not patrician enough, but she sings reliably in the prima donna role. Ruxandra Donose is not entirely at ease as Ramiro, even if her smoky mezzo is appealing enough and the attitude is proper for a male role. John Mark Ainsley is a brilliant piece of casting for Belfiore. I was tempted to say probably the best in the discography, but the truth is that almost all the difficult arias have been cut in this edition (and there is always Werner Hollweg in the German version). John Graham-Hall’s tenor is far from mellow, but all that is used to his advantage to create a comically self-important Podestà – and he is far more adventurous with decoration than his rivals. Markus Werba is a strong straightforward Nardo.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 2006
Eva Mei (Sandrina), Isabel Rey (Arminda), Julia Kleiter (Serpetta), Liliana Nikiteanu (Ramiro), Cristoph Strehl (Belfiore), Rudolf Schasching (Podestà), Gabriel Bermudez (Nardo), Orchestra “La Scintilla” der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt second visit to La Finta Giardiniera, on a video from Zurich, is imaginatively staged by Tobias Moretti. The story has been brought to the modern days with disputable success, but costumes and settings are elegant and the stage direction is first-rate. Live in the theatre, the conductor shows more flexibility here than in Vienna, but this also means that some of the studio polish is lost, especially when some singers indulge in theatrical effects that disturb Mozartian lines, notably Rudolf Schasching, whose singing-style belongs rather to operetta than to Classical opera. By the way, the fact that many lines in recitatives are spoken instead of being sung makes very little sense, especially if one bears in mind that there is only one Italian in the cast. In the role of Sandrina, Eva Mei offers a lovely and stylish performance. As Arminda, Isabel Rey employs the kind of energetic singing that does not fit exactly her voice. The result is loss of tonal quality, which she compensates with her comedy skills – she certainly has seen her Almodóvar movies… Julia Kleiter goes for the sexy soubrette approach as if her life depended on that, but her voice is really too noble for this kind of role. Liliana Nikiteanu (here deprived of her beautiful act II aria) is a creamy-toned Ramiro, one of the best. As much as his Arminda, Cristoph Strehl’s acting skills interfere somehow with his phrasing. The results are unfortunately incompatible with legato. Gabriel Bermúdez is an incisive and forceful Nardo.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1991
Edita Gruberová (Sandrina), Charlotte Margiono (Arminda), Dawn Upshaw (Serpetta), Monica Bacelli (Ramiro), Uwe Heilmann (Belfiore), Thomas Moser (Podestà), Anton Scharinger (Nardo), Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is the conductor who took La Finta Giardinera to the world of historically informed performances. Here everything sparkles and the conductor’s customary concern with details fits a score in which the composer tried to impress through his attention to details. In the prima donna role, Edita Gruberová cannot help outshining all other Sandrinas. Even in the less inspired passages of the score, this superb Mozartian magnifies whichever point of interest hidden in the score . Dawn Upshaw’s Italian has a distinct American accent, but that does not prevent her from adding zest to music and text. Next to these imaginative sopranos, Charlotte Margiono sounds a bit tentative as Arminda – her tone too smoky, her characterization somewhat pallid. It is still is a stylish performance that does not spoil the fun at all. The same cannot be said of Monica Bacelli. Ramiro gets some of the most charming arias in the score, but one barely notices that here. Uwe Heilmann’s boyish tenor is a bit too noble for Belfiore and playing the cad is a bit outside his scope. Also, the low tessitura challenges him sometimes. The tone is alright pleasant and he deals beautifully with his divisions. Thomas Moser was Leopold Hager’s Belfiore (see below) and here appears as the Podes,. He misses the verbal crispness of idiomatic Italian, but compensates that with thoroughly sung account of his arias, relishing the extra power of his tenor for effects. If Anton Scharinger is a solid Nardo, he fails to produce the right impression of an Italian buffo.

ARNOLD ÖSTMAN, 1988
Britt-Marie Aruhn (Sandrina), Eva Pilat (Arminda), Anna Christina Biel (Serpetta), Annika Skoglund (Ramiro), Richard Croft (Belfiore), Stuart Kales (Podestà), Petteri Salomaa (Nardo), Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra, Arnold Östman

For a while, Arnold Östman was the only  Finta Giardiniera in video. As usual in that venue, the staging tries to reproduce the style of the XVIIIth century and does that beautifully, but this opera needs a better cast and stronger orchestral sound. It is true that Anna Christina Biel (Serpetta) is not beyond reproach, but her voice and herself are very pretty. Richard Croft is an excellent Belfiore and Stuart Kales is a reliable Podestà, but it is Petteri Salomaa who steals the show with his firm-toned baritone and comic talent.

LEOPOLD HAGER, 1980
Julia Conwell (Sandrina), Lilian Sukis (Arminda), Jutta-Renate Ihloff (Serpetta), Brigitte Fassbaender (Ramiro), Thomas Moser (Belfiore), Ezio di Cesare (Podestà), Barry McDaniel (Nardo), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager

Leopold Hager had the honour of recording the complete original Italian version of La Finta Giardiniera for the first time. His performance has too well-behaved an atmosphere, but his tempi tend to be flowing and spontaneous. Only the mood shifting in the finali is an art that eludes this conductor completely. The cast is a curious mix of the acceptable and the excellent. For example, Brigitte Fassbaender offers the definitive performance of the role of Ramiro and no other tenor makes so much of the Podestà’s music as the spirited firm-toned Ezio di Cesare. Barry McDaniel’s performance in the role of Nardo is an example of subtle and stylish buffo singing. Even in his Mozartian days, Thomas Moser’s voice had a hint of instability. However, this resourceful singer employs a wide range of tone coloring and raises to the challenge of Da Scirocco a Tramontana as no other tenor in this discography. Lilian Sukis is a decent Arminda, but both Julia Conwell and Jutta Renate-Ihloff are edgy in tone and kitsch in approach.

HANS SCHMIDT-ISSERSTEDT, 1972
Helen Donath (Sandrina), Jessye Norman (Arminda), Ileana Cotrubas (Serpetta), Tatiana Troyanos (Ramiro), Werner Hollweg (Belfiore), Gerhard Unger (Podestà), Hermann Prey (Nardo), Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, Schmidt-Isserstedt

La Finta Giardinera has first been taken to studios in German in the shape of a Singspiel (which it never was). Before the complete score in Italian was found, there were only the set numbers in German. Some dialogue was provided and and the charming title Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe has been been concocted. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s conducting belongs to the era of slow and gracious Mozart performance practices but at least the orchestral sound is not too heavy and serious. For once in the discography, a chorus has been hired too. Although it is rarely used in the opera, its appearance solves the schyzophrenic situation of having soloists saying how they are happy when singing together and how they are miserable only two minutes afterwards when singing alone in the middle section of the introduction. Truth be said, the reason why this recording still retains its interest is the all-star cast here gathered. Helen Donath may be on the soubrettish side in the prima donna role, but her crystalline soprano is always a pleasure to the ears. In the mezzo carattere role, Jessye Norman brings her natural vocal glamor and plenty of spirit. Although the standards are very high, I guess everyone will agree that it is Ileana Cotrubas who steals the show in the soubrette role – a thoroughly delightful performance. Tatiana Troyanos is also lovely in the castrato part, which sits a bit low in her range, though. Werner Hollweg is in splendid shape as Belfiore (probably his best recorded performance), while Gerhard Unger offers an echt Spieltenor version of the part of the Podestà. Last but definitely not least, Hermann Prey is an irresistible Nardo.