Review by: Robert Levine
Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 7
This somewhat comic opera was composed for Munich in 1775, when Mozart was 18. Before the opera opens, Count Belfiore and his fiancée, Marchese Violante, have had a terrible fight during which he stabs her and leaves her for dead. She is Sandrina, the “fake gardener” of the title, working with her servant, who is called Nardo, living on the estate of the Podesta (sort of a mayor), whose niece Arminda has caught the eye of the Count, much to the Podesta’s glee. Serpetta is a servant; Ramiro is a depressed poet. When the Count and “fake gardener” recognize each other, they both go insane–obviously the “giocosa” part of the opera’s appellation as a “drama giocosa”, since insanity must have been a hoot in 18th-century Europe. Eventually, the couple is re-united, but I can’t figure out why and I don’t care.
There are many felicities in the score: Mozart often changes the attitude or tempos of arias near their close to show us how flimsy our characters’ resolve/sanity is; flutes wittily accompany an aria of the contented-but-mercurial Count; the finales to the first two acts, each almost a quarter-hour long, feature piled-up situations and tempo changes that point to Le nozze di Figaro. But the recitatives are endless, and at more than three hours (this recording is three hours and 19 minutes, and a couple of arias were cut), it overstays its welcome almost rudely, Mozart or not.
This set is taken from live performances at Brussels’ Monnaie in 1989; coincidentally, I was at one of them. The director opted for silence on stage every so often while characters got comfortable, read a book, or looked for one another. On a recording it merely sounds as if there’s something wrong with the CD player until you realize that there’s stage fidgeting going on. Whatever it is, it isn’t welcome, and neither is the slow delivery of the recitative, which on stage implied a certain carefulness the characters had in approaching one another. Applause breaks out occasionally as well, and it’s hard to tell why at those particular moments.
On the other hand, there’s real drama in the arias and confrontations, moreso than in Leopold Hager’s set on Philips. Joanna Kozlowska’s Countess/Fake Gardener Sandrina is light but clearly sincere and potent; her voice is pretty. Lani Poulson, as the poet Ramiro (a trouser role), starts out poorly but is marvelous by the third act in an almost-suicide aria. Malvina Major, without an impressive sound per se, is a fine Armindo. Ugo Benelli’s tenor has dried out (he was a good Rossini specialist in the ’70s) but he paints the Podesta’s arrogance well and his diction is impeccable. The cast’s other tenor, Marek Torzewski, sings the Count’s music with great emphasis: the long, complicated duet he and Sandrina have near the opera’s close is a dramatic highpoint. Russell Smythe and Elzbieta Szmytka, the servant couple, are good. Sylvain Cambreling leads the excellent, reduced orchestra with attention to details, and the pacing of the arias seems just right. Do you need a recording of this opera? I guess so–it is close-to-mature Mozart–and this set is a real bargain, just as good as Hager’s. There’s no libretto and nothing about the cast (why not?), but we do get a fine synopsis and analysis of each aria.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: this one
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART - La finta giardiniera