Friday, May 19, 2017

In the Garden of Love Triangles

Mozart’s La finta giardiniera (The Secret Gardener)
On Site Opera
West Side Community Garden
May 12, 2017

Love in the garden: On Site makes Mozart bucolic
Photo credit: Michelle V. Agins
On Site Opera’s stated mission of producing site-specific immersive operatic experiences is an exciting and ambitious one that in the past has led to some extremely clever and successful shows (but also some uneven ones). Their latest concept of staging the young Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera in an idyllic Upper West Side garden was beautifully executed and delivered a delightful evening of opera al fresco.

The West Side Community Garden (Click to enlarge)
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Actually, on our particular night “al fresco” felt more like “al gelo” as temperatures were on the very chilly end of the spectrum. We were fine with a blanket but felt for the poor singers in summery costumes and even more for the musicians who were desperately trying to keep themselves warm with gloves and hats. Seems like the cold affected the orchestra under the baton of Goeffrey McDonald, sounding at times a bit too disjointed for Mozart. Nevertheless, the lovely West Side Community Garden, a gem of a space tucked in between the brownstones and the high-rise housing projects of the West 80s, was in full spring bloom and provided the perfect backdrop for the opera at stake.

Ramiro find himself in a love triangle
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Artistic director Eric Einhorn and his production team made wonderful use of the space - using the central round lawn as the main stage surrounded by seats for the public and color-changing string lights, but also having singers perform between the public on the outer circles of the garden. The whole experience was intimate and the acoustics also worked surprisingly well, thanks perhaps to the high walls on either side of the space.

Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, performed here in a ninety-minute abbreviated version and in English as The Secret Gardener, presents a series of overlapping love triangles, quadrangles and other geometries that would be enough to fill three old-fashioned Hollywood screwball romantic comedies.

Count Belfiore is a real man’s man with a short-fused temper to match. After Belfiore lashed out at his fiancée Lady Violet in a fit of passion, she has taken refuge as a gardener on the grounds of the Podestà, here known as the mayor. In hiding under the assumed name of Sandrina and working as a gardener, our victim of domestic violence now finds herself the unwilling object of her new employer’s attentions. The plight of women has never been easy.

Belfiore seduces a rake
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
In the meantime, Sandrina’s manservant has taken a liking for Serpetta, another denizen of the garden, but Serpetta fosters nothing but distaste and disdain for him. The testosterone-addled Count Belfiore finds his way into the garden as well and falls impetuously in love with the mayor’s niece, Arminda. Seeing dollar signs, the mayor, who is pursuing Belfiore’s ex – unbeknownst to all involved – looks favorably on the match. The fresh-faced Ramiro, another satellite in the garden’s orbit, also has a crush on the fiery Arminda.

Will Serpetta give in to Nardo’s advances? Will the mayor get what he wants from Sandrina, his pert new gardener? Who will Arminda choose between the manly Count and the more effete young Ramiro? Or will Sandrina forgive the Count and return to the embraces she claims to miss and secretly can’t resist?

Confusion propels these bucolic lovers
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The first turning point in this vortex of frustrated loves comes when Nardo abandons all hope and says goodbye to Serpetta once and for all. Or rather, switching from English to Italian, he throws in the towel and, bidding her goodbye forever, says “Addio!” and then “Ciao!” That’s when everything clicks. As it turns out, Italian was the way to melt the ice around Serpetta’s heart all along. And Nardo aptly sings, “I-talian is the language of love.”  

"I-talian is the language of love"
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
This is where I must elaborate on the travesty of On Site’s decision to present the opera in English, especially since they even ended up adding an aria in which the romantic potential of the original language is so fundamental. While I generally cringe whenever an opera is performed in translation, I have to admit that overall this one was not as terrible as feared. Not only did it sound tolerable musically, so often opera in English loses its poetry, but it also made it immediately easy to follow for an audience composed of young and old alike who had gathered together in a casual environment on such a brisk, if not downright chilly, evening (with really no infrastructure for supertitles).

Also, in La finta giardiniera the libretto is definitely not of Da Ponte quality, so there is little about the essence of the original that was so precious that it was worth saving at all costs. The playfulness of this juvenile opera, which Mozart composed at the age of eighteen, came across with clarity and an economy of purpose. On Site’s decision to cut many of the flabby bits in the story, like the sequence in which Sandrina and Belfiore lose their minds and confuse themselves for Greek gods, served to speed the tensions along more pleasantly, with greater levity.

The Mayor fusses around, holds forth, bumbles some more
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Soprano Alisa Jordheim sang Serpetta, the stony hearted maiden, with all the vibrancy and spunk one would expect from a young Daphne-like woman dead set on playing hard to get. Attired on the Punky Brewster end of the spectrum, only with flower prints, she was as adorable as she was fiery. Her soprano sounded clean and clear in the night air. Baritone Jorell Williams, in the role of Nardo, intoned with warmth and humor throughout the evening but especially during his playful aria of seduction about I-talian being the language love. Tenor Jonathan Blalock as the bumbling Podestà, here translated as the mayor, sang in high, slightly nasal tenor and played his character up as a bit of a cad. His acting verged on mugging most of the time, though he does have something of a knack for caricature.

Arminda unleashes a kaleidoscope emotions
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Mezzo Kristin Gornstein’s Ramiro elevated pining over an unrequited love to an art form. She was compelling in the trouser role and poured out her poetical, youthful heart in an elegant and mellifluous mezzo-soprano. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone’s face light up with so much joy when Ramiro finally earns the love of the woman he desires. It was a spine-tingling moment of wish fulfillment. Soprano Maeve Höglund as Arminda the mayor’s niece was one heck of a bombshell of a strong-willed woman. She perhaps had the most dynamic moments of the evening. Often in a single aria she took us on a rollercoaster ride from flirtation to death threat, to fawning lover and ferocious maneater. She was a wild animal on the loose, that is, until she is tamed by a certain fresh-faced young suitor.

The secret gardener searches for solace
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Soprano Ashley Kerr sang the title role of Sandrina, the Secret Gardener herself. She really hit her stride by the end of the evening. Her final plea to her short fused lover registered clear and firm at the end of a brisk evening of singing. Tenor Spencer Viator delivered the abusive Count Belfiore with warmth and agility.

Beth Goldenberg’s costume designs were elegant and intelligent, embodying all the attention to detail we have come to expect from her work in other shows around New York City.

The scene is set for sylvan amore
Photo credit: On Site Opera
All in all, the evening was a successful experiment that attracted and charmed a diverse non-traditional public (including many families with young children). Still, I-talian is not only the language of love but also the language of opera...

– Lei & Lui

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