Oh, what a tangled web we leave and there is nothing more tangled than the storyline of La Finta Giardiniera. Long ago, I gave up trying to understand the point of it all. I am bewildered by the claims of my fellow reviewers that somehow K 196 belongs to the august company of Figaro and Cosi. Its dramaturgy is insipid and the characterisation is weaker still. This is a parade of marionettes and it is only the genius of the 19 year old Mozart that saves the day. Come his maturity, he would not have gone near this wretched libretto with a barge-pole. The only way to approach it with any relish is as a succession of concert arias.
To my ears, this is a B-grade performance. Not one of the singers is particularly memorable. The most stellar name here is Gruberova but she was forty five at the time and the strain in her voice is evident in the Cavatina in Act 1. Come the coloratura of the Act 2 Finale, she is more resplendent. Moreover, the Slovakian is a better singer than actress and her characterisation of Sandrina is less than vivid: she sings the role rather than embodying it. Upshaw is coquettish enough as Serpetta. Heilmann acquits himself well as Count Belfiore. The other singers - Moser, Scharinger & Bacelli - are a shade anonymous but competent all the same.
The performance derives more energy than charm from Harnoncourt and perhaps that is what is required to give temporary life to this artifice (he pushes the recitatives along nicely and with flare). The usual explosive accents are in play. Even so, the conductor seems to be enjoying himself (he has returned repeatedly to this work) and the Concentus Musicus Wien share his conviction. The recording itself is well balanced and detailed.
Where is better anchorage? This is not easily answered. The best sung K 196 is the Norman / Cotrubas version in the Complete Mozart Edition but it comes in German; it was so tailored not by Mozart and consequently one misses the interplay with the lyricism of the original language (Die Gartnerin Aus Liebe / Mozart Edition 34). The Italian version of K 196 in the Complete Mozart Edition is one of the weaker instalments of the series (Mozart - La finta giardiniera / Conwell · di Cesare · T. Moser · Sukis · Fassbaender · Ihloff · McDaniel · Orch Mozarteum Salzburg · L. Hager). I thoroughly enjoy the kinetic M22 with Gens and Ainsley in cracking form. IMO, that is currently the best bet (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La finta giardiniera).