After finding less-than-stellar receptions of many of his later operas in Vienna, Mozart found the audiences of Prague to be far more welcoming. He is believed to have said, "Meine Prager verstehen mich" - my Praguers understand me. Eight Mozart operas enjoyed fame in Prague, most of which are familiar to listeners today: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Idomeneo, Der Schauspieldirektor, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, and the present La finta giardiniera. The publishers in Prague are largely responsible for the dissemination of Mozart's operas to the rest of Europe, helping to cement Mozart's name as an opera composer for posterity. Of these operas, Der Schauspieldirektor and La finta giardiniera are the only ones which have not become part of the standard repertoire. This is unfortunate, as La finta giardiniera is a stellar example of the transition of a child prodigy into a mature composer.
La finta giardiniera has perhaps the most troubled history of any Mozart opera. The 18-year-old Mozart wrote it for performances in Munich. He and his father wrote home to their family in Salzburg that the opera had been a success, but in reality it had been "hissed" and received only a few performance, at least one of which was drastically shortened. In 1779, Mozart had the libretto translated from Italian to German, cut the recitatives, and performed it as a Singspiel, Die vestellte Gärtnerin. The Italian version, subsequently, went lost until its rediscovery in the mid 20th century. However, a few years after Mozart's death in 1791, a few versions of La finta giardiniera were floating around Prague, versions which expanded Mozart's scant early orchestra to proportions more familiar to Mozart's later operas. Rene Jacobs has chosen to record the version dubbed the Namest edition of circa 1796-97.
A word about the version Rene Jacobs has chosen. If re-orchestrations of beloved works make you queasy for so perversely distracting the listener from the original composer's intentions (e.g. Mozart's arrangements of Händel's oratorios or Mendelssohn's arrangements of Bach's passions), such concerns are very much not present here. Various scholars since the early 20th century have remarked on the quality and sensitivity that the heretofore anonymous arranger of the Namest edition "touched up" the youthful Mozart score. At least one scholar suggested that the Namest edition originated from a version in Mozart's own hand (more details are available in the liner notes). Those familiar with the original will find the 18-year-old Mozart used a rather thin orchestra-common for Munich in the mid-1770s but rather dull compared to the character of Mozart's later operas. However, even though the Namest arranger added clarinets, flutes, trumpets and timpani to match the forces of Mozart's mature works, he did so with such sensitivity to Mozart's compositional style that he was undoubtedly a connoisseur of the late composer's music, adding tasteful and skillful Mozartian counterpoint here and there. We have here an arrangement of La finta giardiniera that is not distracting, but within the character of late Mozart. It adds a new meaning to the above quote attributed to the late composer.
Among the changes implemented were substantial interweaving of woodwinds throughout (it adds clarinets, bassoons, flutes, trumpets, timpani. The original relies mostly on bare strings supplemented by oboes), expansion of the viola section, and shortening of the lengthy instrumental introductions for several arias (an outmoded Baroque practice which Mozart's almost completely eschewed in his mature operas because it detracted too much from the forward thrust of drama). What we are left with is a La finta giardiniera as we would expect a mature Mozart to have written. One is tempted to think this is what Mozart might have done with La finta giardiniera/Die verstellte Gärtnerin had he revisited it in his later years (indeed, Mozart was no stranger to revising his own operas; he translated the present opera, rewrote chunks of Don Giovanni and Idomeneo, and intended another major rewrite of Idomeneo which never came to fruition). The three finales here are especially striking, as they have been orchestrated to sound akin to the finales Mozart wrote for the famous Da Ponte operas: Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi. Even in the original version, you can very much hear in the Act I and II finales Mozart's attempts at complex, extended ensembles without recitatives-forshadowing the great Act II finale of Figaro. The Namest arranger has brought Le finta giardiniera even closer to Figaro's sound world.
Turning now to the merits of the recording itself, Rene Jacobs has surprised us again. This La finta giardiniera is not a set that is merely for the Mozart completist; rather it is delightfully listenable thanks to forward thrust of action (due in part to the Namest arranger, due in part to Rene Jacobs's conducting and his soloists). It is a recording that can easily stand next to Jacobs's readings of Cosi fan Tutte and Le nozze di Figaro. Finally-a recording of Mozart early opera buffa that shines next to the Da Ponte trilogy. We have here cases of mistaken identity (Roberto/Nardo, Violante/Sandrina), handled with the same sensitivity as in the later operas (Susanna/Rosina, Giovanni/Leporello, Guglielmo/Tizio, Ferrando/Sempronio). The composer of the Namest edition surely understood how Mozart achieved the emotional sweep in his later years.
Freiburg Barockorchester plays with sparkling vigor under Jacobs as always. From the opening timpani strikes in the Overture, you find yourself hooked to this early Mozart piece. In the buffo "mad scene" in the Act II Finale, we see our two protagonists lose their minds, assuming the personalities out of a Graeco-Roman pastoral opera, as the orchestra comments; the oboes mimic bagpipes or chaumes, the basses and cellos mimic the drones of a musette, while the strings play pizzicato like Orpheus's lyre. A signature in Jacobs's recordings is the prevalence of improvisation in the basso continuo. Especially touching and noteworthy is the fortepiano's quote of Mozart's very late "Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K617a," played as an introduction to the opening secco recitative of Act III. (Written very close to Mozart' death, Jacobs's employs it here as a beautifully eery, yet subtle nod to the composer in this reading of a posthumous version of what is perhaps his greatest childhood work. It admittedly has no connection with La finta giardiniera, but it adds a profound touch.)
"Da scirocco a tramontana" foreshadows the arias of Rossini. Here Jeremy Ovenden shines as the Count Belfiore. Here, the Count brags about his Roman ancestry-he purports to be a descendant of the Roman emperors and consuls. He strikes a perfect balance with the enlarged orchestra which plays with bombast, both to augment and poke fun at the Count's pretentiousness. It is one of the highlights of the record and easily allows Ovenden to be the record's star.
The baritone Nicolas Rivenq sings yet another one of the record's highlights, "Dentro il mio petto io sento." The orchestra explodes toward the end of the aria to bring it to a bombastic close, an effect one would expect from Cosi fan Tutte. I have been surprised to see Rivenq, a baritone, beginning to take on roles more commonly taken by tenors (the High Priest in Idomeneo, for example). The warmer color of his voice is a nice touch to the older Don Anchise here, and his voice does sound completely at home in this upper range.
We also have the delightful soprano spinto, Sunhae Im, and a personal favorite, Alexandrina Pendatchanska who gives us a deep and fiery reading of Arminda along the likes of Elettra or Donna Elvira.
La finta giardiniera is a rather difficult opera to cast. Called an opera buffa, it is more of an drama giocoso, like Don Giovanni, combining dramatic and comic elements in one. However, the rest of the cast is comfortable and in-character. Jacobs has said that he finds it important when in the studio, that his singers be able to act using only the voice. His present recording is a fine example of this.
The bottom line is this: This is a stellar recording of a skillful posthumous edition (only five years after Mozart's death) by someone who knew Mozart's music so well that the edition sounds authentic. Together with Jacobs's conducting and his winning cast, this is a highly recommended recording.