- Opera buffa in 3 acts
- Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Libretto: Raniero de’ Calzabigi, revised by Marco Coltellini
- First performed: Redoutensaal, Munich, 13 January 1775
Let’s talk about Mozart idolatry.
Mozart, we are told, is the greatest genius who ever lived, so far beyond anything on the human level that no parallel can be drawn. (These are actual quotes.)
This is, of course, drivel. Mozart was a good – a very good, even; sometimes extraordinary – composer. BUT (a) some of his music is not terribly good; and (b) many of his contemporaries were just as good (even better at certain things*) – if only they were played. Haydn and Gluck, of course; Salieri (FAR from mediocre, as we’ll discover over the next few months); arguably Sacchini, Cherubini, Méhul.
(*: Mozart is praised for his characterisation and insight into the human condition – but does anyone praise him for drama? Tension? Suspense? Power and forcefulness? You say Don Giovanni and the Commendatore; I point to Gluck’s Alceste, which Mozart blithely plagiarized.)
But the Salzburg wunderkind is sacrosanct. Mozart’s greatness is a ‘fact’. Blessed art thou among composers, Amadeus. The public are brainwashed with Mozart as soon as they’re born. (Sometimes before; doctors now recommend playing Mozart to unborn babies in the womb to keep them happy and stimulate their brains.) His birthplace Salzburg has a nice line in tourist tat, even though the composer hated the town. Mozartkugeln? Balls!
Mozart, in fact, is an industry, if not a cult. The gears turn endlessly to convince us of his unique wonderfulness. Funny that musical criticism was dominated by German speakers – and that the ‘great’ composers are largely German or Austrian (with a sprinkling of French and Slavs).
I listened to five operas this weekend: Gluck and Piccinni’s takes on Iphigénie en Tauride; Salieri’s Scuola de’ gelosi and Europa riconosciuta; and Mozart’s Finta giardiniera.
The mediocre opera? Mozart’s.
La finta is seldom performed. There are reasons why. It’s long; it’s idiotic; and it’s boring.
The ‘fake gardeneress’ is really the Marchese Violante, who fled and adopted the disguise after her lover, the Contino Belfiore, stabbed her – several times – in a fit of jealousy. But she still loves him. The Contino is accused of the crime just as he’s about to marry someone else; Violante comes out of being ‘dead’ long enough to save him, then goes back to pretending she’s just a gardener who resembles Violante. Both then go insane. Since this is opera buffa, they’re cured. She forgives him, they marry, and presumably live happily ever after … even though he’s tried to kill her at least once.
This, in fact, is Mozart’s Two Gentlemen of Verona.
That plot description overlooks the convoluted (“‘Convoluted?’ echoed Dalziel. ‘It’s —ing contortuplicated!’”) plot. I can’t do any better than the Spectator (in an article called “I am pleased to have seen La finta giardiniera – and even happier that I shall never see it again”):
Don Anchise, mayor of Lagonero, is in love with the Marchioness Violante Onesti, who is disguised as Sandrina, the gardener of the title, who in turn is in love with Count Belfiore, who was in love with Violante but is now in love with Arminda, who was formerly in love with Cavaliere Ramiro, and who he formerly loved, while Serpetta, Anchise’s servant, and in love with him, is the object of the unrequited passion of Roberto, who pretends to be her servant under the name of Nardo. Is that clear?
Even the Mozart enthusiasts can’t muster much affection for this farrago. “The basic error of this opera … is that Mozart composed it at all,” Einstein writes.
The music, one would normally say, is the saving grace of this mess. Unfortunately, Mozart was 18. The score, then, is three and a half hours of unmemorable exit arias and secco recitative.
There’s the occasional moment of delight: the quintet and chorus that opens the first act; the Podestà’s bravura aria where he’s terrified by kettledrums and trumpets, bassoons and double basses; and a lively stretta to the first act.
The second act finale, on the other hand, is awful. The first section is glacial; then Belfiore and Violante – utterly bonkers – pretend to be shepherdesses, Orfeo and Euridice, and Hercules and Medusa. I sat there Medusified, one hand cupped over my eye, my face fixed in a horrible rictus as if I’d just been shot with curare.
I watched a DVD of the Drottningholm production; by the end of the second act: ‘God knows whether I’ll finish the last act. Do I want to put myself through another 45 minutes?’ I finished it; an ordeal in masochism, if nothing else. The things I suffer for you, O reader! I heard the first act of Jacobs’ recording; I was damned if I’d listen to the next two hours.
La finta? È finita.
Life is too short to listen to (bad) Mozart. Go listen to Salieri instead.