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September 12, 2005

La finta giardiniera

Listening to Mozart's La finta giardiniera on Saturday afternoon, I was wondering what actually - musically - distinguishes it from the composer's mature operas. Palpable as the overall difference was, I couldn't come up with anything that wasn't simply quantitative. The later operas are bolder, quicker to make their points. The orchestrations (thanks to Mozart's discovery of the clarinet) are richer, less likely to plant a tune among the violins. The modulations are more subtle and expert. The later Mozart is older and wiser. The later operas ought to be better.

Then it occurred to me that a listener who didn't care for Mozart (PPOQ, for example) might not discern any difference at all. This thought stopped me in my tracks.

Written for Munich in 1775, when Mozart was nineteen, La finta giardiniera utilizes a libretto that had enjoyed a great success at Rome the year before. Isn't that curious, that eighteenth-century habit of having new composers write the music for old librettos? It's as though Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics were reset first by Stephen Sondheim and then by Mel Brooks. Mozart's version had three performances, and then dropped out of sight for over a century. (As a German singspiel, Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, it had a sort of afterlife.) The plot is stylish but silly, and I won't detain you with it here. The arias are unfailingly lovely, but as a series of carefully articulated moods, the opera makes an overall impression that's more reminiscent of Handel operas that Mozart never would have heard than it is of the great works to come. The recitatives are already interesting, but they're not yet arresting,almost instantly memorable, as they will become in ten years. At the end, however, there is a wonderful scene that anticipates the duets, whether between the sisters or between Ferrando and Fiordiligi, of Così fan tutte. It's a lovely reward for having listened to three pretty but unspectacular acts. 

In the end, the problem with La finta giardiniera is that Mozart wrote it. Were it the work of any contemporary, it would be immensely interesting. Miraculous, even. But because it's obviously Mozart's work and yet not at all sublime, we're disappointed. It's perverse, but understandable. But it's no reason not to give the opera an airing once every couple of years.

The Teldec/Das Alte Werk recording in my library is still available, but pricey. Unfortunately, the Philips recordings have been allowed to lapse. 

Posted by pourover at September 12, 2005 03:55 PM

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