Written when the composer was just 12, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “La Finta Semplice” qualifies as a real rarity. After a performance the year following its composition, it dropped from the repertoire and was not staged again until modern times. That Musica Viva’s recent production at Hong Kong’s City Hall was a premiere seems beyond doubt, the only question being over how large a geographical area.
The opera dates from 1768 when Leopold Mozart and his son were spending the year in Vienna. When the Emperor suggested that young Wolfgang, already renowned throughout Europe as a musical prodigy, might write an opera, his first, for performance in Vienna, Leopold chose La finta semplice (which might be translated as “The Fake Ingénue”), a Goldoni comedy which had been set to music and performed in Venice only four years before. After some further work by Florentine librettist Marco Coltellini, the not-yet-teen composer produced an opera fully three acts long.
But all of Leopold’s plans fell through. It seems that certain members of Vienna’s musical establishment were unhappy about being possibly upstaged by a mere boy. Rumors were put about that the real composer was the father; the impresario found reasons to delay the production and the artists began to worry about their reputations. Leopold, alleging a conspiracy, pulled the plug and the pair returned to Salzburg, where the opera was finally performed the next year.
It must be acknowledged that La Finta Semplice is not a great opera, but it is an astonishingly good one for a 12-year-old. Mozart’s older rivals had reason to be concerned. The story of multiple love affairs, deception, intricate plots, clueless yet overbearing men, put-upon and clever women is the sort of rom-com produced by the dozens in 18th-century Europe. And yet one can hear Mozart finding his voice, one that will be heard again, more developed and mature, in such later works as Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.
Opera from Hong Kong’s leading companies now comes in two varieties: relatively large productions with, on the whole, international leads, and smaller productions cast entirely with local singers. One of the joys of these latter productions is the chance to hear fresh voices of young singers who might just be going places. Last night did not disappoint. In both voice and bearing, Vicky Wu sparkled as the maid Ninetta and Valentina Tao flirted and floated her way through the visiting Baroness Rosina’s high notes.
Opening night was anchored by the (only relatively) more veteran mezzo Samantha Chong as Giacinta, the somewhat self-effacing sister of the two off-the-wall brothers Cassandro and Polidoro, Collette Lam as Rosina as Phoebe Tam as the maid Ninetta. As is often the case, the women get the better music and the more interesting characters, but Henry Ngan imbued the officer (and Rosina’s brother) Fracasso with some personality and was a dab hand with a sword. The casts were rounded out with Denis Lau, and Bonnie Liu and Phoebe Tam sharing the roles of Fracasso and Giacinta respectively; Law Kwok Ho and Frankie Fung shared the role of the elder brother Cassandro with Frankie Liu and Samson Chow alternated as the younger Polidoro. Alex Kwok and Pan Lo shared the role of Simone, Fracasso’s soldier sidekick who woos Ninetta.
The opera was performed in the smaller of the two stages of Hong Kong City’s Hall, whose more intimate space suited the work. The simple staging, dominated by symmetrical planes parallel to stage, provided atmosphere without being intrusive.
Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books, contributed subtitles and program notes to this production.