Monday, 10 November 2014

La Finta Giardiniera‎

"People's reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul"- Edward Lewis, Pretty Woman
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
As someone who purports to love theatre in all its wondrous forms, I am slightly shamefaced to admit that I have never seen a live opera.  I have watched a number of them curled up on the sofa with a mug of tea courtesy of Sky Arts, but I have never experienced the wonder of being sat in a theatre and letting the music just wash over me.  
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Therefore when Glyndebourne offered me the chance to come and see one of their touring shows at the Marlowe theatre, I jumped at the opportunity. 
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Glyndebourne tours their Summer Festival shows, which meant that over a three day period, they were presenting three individual operas: La Traviata, The Turning of the Screw and La Finta Giardiniera‎.  As it happened, I was off work on annual leave the week that they were visiting Canterbury (it was performance week for House of Bernada Alba), so I was on stage every evening at the Gulbenkian Theatre which ruled out all evening operas for me unfortunately.  Luckily there was a matinee performance of La Finta Giardiniera‎.  It finished at 5.30pm, I needed to be at the theatre to get ready at 6.30pm – it was fate.
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
My Mum was also free, so I did what any good daughter would do, and offered her one of the two tickets that Glyndebourne had so kindly gifted me.  I also invited her to take me out to lunch at Deeson’s first (OK, I did offer to pay, but apparently that violates a few laws of nature in her book and I wasn't going to argue).
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
The weekend beforehand, I was at my parents’ house for mum's birthday, and my sister presented me with a chart.  It's was the love plot of La Finta Giardiniera (complete with keys that I still don't fully understand).  To say it was complicated was an understatement.  Armed only with this knowledge of what the opera was about, I was a little wary that I wouldn't fully understand what on earth was happening.
I needn't have worried.  Not only was the Italian Baroque Opera, directed by Freddie Wake Walker supertitled and the characters so fully developed it was easy to follow what was happening, but we were also treated to an introduction about what to expect.  
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
The plot is fairly simplistic and filled with stock characters.  Violante / Sandrina, the titular Garden Girl, is stabbed by her lover, Belfiore for reasons still not quite clear to me at the start of the opera.  She heals and decides to adopt a disguise as the Garden Girl (Sandrina), presumably to avoid her quite frankly violent lover.  Belfiore meanwhile goes and gets himself engaged to Arminda, the snobbish niece in fantastic dresses of the Mayor (Don Anchise (Il Podest√†).  Serpetta is the Mayor’s maid and has a serious crush on him, whilst Nardo, Sandrina’s fellow servant, is desperately in love with Serpetta, whilst she scorns him.  Arminda has an ex-lover hanging around her, trying to win her back (Ramiro) whilst, just to ensure that everything is neat and tidy, Don Anchise is also trying to win the love of Sandrina.  
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014

The opera explores the twists and turns of the convoluted love lives of the seven characters and becomes especially interesting when Sandrina and Belfiore meet again, prior to their descent into madness.  They recognise each other, much to Sandrina's dismay, forcing her to maintain her pretense.  Themes of madness, the natural environment competing with the rigid formality of the Rococo interior, spurned love and class boundaries all run throughout the opera, which was composed by Mozart when he was 19 years old.  
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
La Finta translates as the False, or The Pretend Garden Girl, and pretense is a running theme of the production.  Not only are we watching actors, pretending to be characters, but we are also theatre of the disguise, a common theme in French Baroque drama of the time (Violante, the Marchionesse is in disguise as Sandrina, the Garden Girl).  We are also watching characters who are unsure what they are feeling, pretend to feel emotions, trying them out for size until they find one that fits.  To compensate for this, gestures are oversized and grand, with each character having a signature stance that they adopt at regular points throughout the opera (my favourite was Serpetta, her stance reminded me of Truly Scrumptious' doll pose in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  She was also wearing what I am sure were Irregular Choice shoes - a brand I love, which could also have biased me somewhat...).
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
As the characters become more at home in their emotions, recognising their true selves and their true feelings, everything else becomes stripped down.  They remove the layers of their extravagant costumes, wearing only their simple underclothes and bare feet.  Masks of heavy makeup are gradually removed from their faces, revealing the true individual underneath.  What is even more impressive is what happens to the set, which literally disintegrated before our eyes.  I admit, when the first door fell off its hinges, my immediate reaction was “wow, even professional companies sometimes experience mishaps”.  Then Sandrina jumped through one of the flats, leaving tattered remains behind her.  Shortly afterwards another flat crashed to the floor with a tremendous thump, demonstrating the precision of the staging as it missed Belfiore's head by inches, then two more flats rose into the air.  After that the cast just went to town, ripping the set to pieces around them until only the fireplace was left standing.  It was around then that I realised that this wasn’t just a series of mishaps, Comedy of Errors style.  Replica’s of the furniture from Act 1 were revealed to be made of paper as the chairs were torn apart, and one of the legs (a masking curtain) was ripped down.  Good lord that looked like fun!
Photo Credit:  Sam Stephenson, 2014
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Photo Credit:  Sam Stephenson, 2014
When I had first spoken to my mother about the opera, she has been cautious, having never been to see an opera before, and just as we were going in she had said she would ‘keep an open mind’.  At the interval she was smiling, by the end she had the biggest grin on her face.  She was also slightly bemused at how on earth they were going to reset everything in time for the next performance.
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
There are some reviewers out there who haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about this work, claiming that due to the fact it is one of Mozart’s earliest opera’s, it doesn’t have the elegance or finesse of what he was later capable of.  I’m no expert, and I am certainly not an opera snob, so from a pure theatre lover’s perspective, they don’t know what they are talking about.  
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
This was a joy to watch.  The actors were fantastic in their characterisation and stamina, the concept was clever and the music was achingly beautiful.  
Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Glyndebourne, thank you for having me.  It was a privilege.

*This was a sponsored post.  Glyndebourne provided me with two complimentary tickets to their matinee performance of La Finta Giardiniera‎at The Marlowe Theatre, however this has in no way affected my appreciation of the production.  I also would just like to say that they are a joy to work with, and my particular thanks goes to Vicky from Glyndebourne who I have been in correspondence with.

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