Musica Viva’s “La finta giardiniera” at Hong Kong’s City Hall

Vicki Wu as Serpetta and Rianne Lau as Sandrina (Violante) (Photo: Titan Lam) Vicki Wu as Serpetta and Rianne Lau as Sandrina (Violante) (Photo: Titan Lam)

Given the opera’s relative rarity, Musica Viva’s recent production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La finta giardiniera must surely have been a premiere of some sort.

Mozart’s eighth opera, commissioned by Maximilian III for the Munich Carnival in 1775 when Mozart was just 18, was rarely performed until the last quarter of the 20th century—for the simple reason that the score had been lost, and all that remained was a version Mozart had turned into a German singspiel in 1780 called Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe. It was only in the 1970s that the original score was rediscovered, revealing the work’s true opera buffa origins.

Mozart is best known today for his comedies, but La finta giardiniera was Mozart’s only opera buffa composed between La finta semplice of 1768 (produced by Musica Viva in 2021) and the well-known Le nozze di Figaro of 1786. The German version was picked up by traveling companies, making it the first of Mozart’s stage works to become widely-known. With all of its comings and goings, lovers in disguise and intricate plotting, it can be seen as something of a precursor to the later Così fan tutte and, especially, Figaro.

The title is somewhat untranslatable. Giardiniera means female gardener, but here has the sense of “garden girl”. Finta might be translated as “fake” or “phony”, but it comes from fingere, a softer “to pretend” or “feign”: “The pretend garden-girl” is about the best we can do.

Ariel Wong as Sandrina and Sammy Chien as Roberto (photo: Titan Lam)
Ariel Wong as Sandrina and Sammy Chien as Roberto (photo: Titan Lam)
Ariel Wong as Arminda
Ariel Wong as Arminda (photo: Titan Lam)

Belfiore and Violante, both nobles, had been lovers, but had had a violent row, in which Belfiore stabs Violante and leaves her for dead, a scene played out in the overture. When we next meet Violante, she and her servant Roberto are working for the Podestà, or town mayor, disguised as “Sandrina” and “Nardo”. Worse, Belfiore is now engaged to the Podestà’s nasty niece Arminda, while the Podestà has been making it clear he wants Violante to tend to more than just his garden. Meanwhile, Arminda’s ex-, Cavalier Ramiro, has shown up to press his suit. Arminda finds out about Belfiore’s previous fling and jealously threatens kidnapping and violence should she uncover her rival. Nardo, for his part, is in love with the maid Serpetta who has, on the other hand, her eyes on the Podestà.

To top it off, when Belfiore and Arminda discover Violante’s true identity, in what one critic has called “one of the silliest scenes of all eighteenth-century comic opera (which is saying something)”, both go mad and believe themselves to be Greek gods. But Violante, ever generous to a fault, forgives Belfiore and everyone returns to their senses and the arms of their original beloveds.

The libretto is not one of Mozart’s best, but an 18-year-old composer in the 18th century probably had little say in the matter. But the seeds of Mozart’s musical genius are evident from the first notes of the overture.

Terry Lee as Don Ramiro and Dennis Lau as the Podestà
Terry Lee as Don Ramiro and Dennis Lau as the Podestà (photo: Titan Lam)

This production featured a number of sizeable cuts bringing the opera to a more manageable (and perhaps more intelligible) two hours without sacrificing (and possibly improving) the dramatic coherence. It also featured a new score for chamber ensemble from Marco Iannelli.

Vicki Wu as Serpetta (photo: Titan Lam)
Vicki Wu as Serpetta (photo: Titan Lam)

Among the singers, soprano Vicki Wu stood out as a perky, opinionated and feisty Serpetta while Terry Lee sang the counter-tenor part of Ramiro with gusto. Tenors Felix Suen (who alternated with Freddie Tsang) and Dennis Lau, as Belfiore and the Podestà respectively, and veteran baritone Sammy Chien as Roberto (Nardo) brought out the comic aspects of their characters: this wasn’t commedia dell’arte per se, but had much the same, albeit updated, feel. The other soprano roles don’t give as much room for comedic interpretation, but Rianne Lau as Violante (Sandrina) and Ariel Wong as Arminda gave similarly character-driven performances.

Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books. He wrote the programme notes for this production from which the above was adapted.