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La Finta Giardiniera
Karthäuser, Penda, Chappuis, Im; Ovenden, Rivenq, Nagy; Freiburger Barockorchester, Jacobs. Text and translation. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902126.28 (3)
In 2003, René Jacobs recorded Le Nozze di Figaro with a soon-to-be-famous cast and the virtuoso period-instrument band Concerto Köln. Many listeners (this one included) took delight in the fresh approach to ornamentation, the rethought tempos and the inventive accompaniments in recitative. Success led to an entire Mozart series, in which peculiarities mounted. The project devolved into a version of Die Zauberflöte that was almost a parody of a Jacobs recording, though some people swore they could actually hear bits of Die Zauberflöte in it. This new recording of La Finta Giardiniera, again with an excellent cast, marks a happy return to top form for Jacobs. The opera itself is a scarcely believable achievement for an eighteen-year-old composer, but it is more than that. Indeed, the impression made by this recording is that the only eighteenth-century operas surpassing it are the ones Mozart would write later.
Jacobs still betrays vestiges of his "look-at-me" approach to tempos. He relentlessly toggles back and forth between two speeds in Arminda's "Si promette," an invented approach that has some justification in the text of the aria but detracts from the effect of the next aria, which Mozart actually wrote this way. Serpetta's aria "Appena mi vedon" has entirely the wrong sort of expression when taken as fast as Jacobs takes it, and there are a few other misfires. But Jacobs more often translates his ever-deepening knowledge of Mozart's complete output into persuasive interpretations. In Sandrina's Act II aria "Una voce sento al core," Jacobs achieves an ideal demonstration of the sort of natural tempo relationships musicologists have been advocating for decades. The sextet at the end of Act II, in which Mozart already hits on much of the character of the Act II sextet to come in Don Giovanni (if without quite the variety of vocal expression), is expertly handled. Some listeners will tire of the Wheel of Fortune treatment of recitatives. The fortepiano sometimes twiddles along at length. More often it is played (by Sebastian Wienand) with great moment-to-moment sensitivity. Occasionally, for no discernible reason, a harpsichord is subbed in. The continuo cellist offers elaborate filler, sometimes in triple stops or with pizzicato, in a way that some people are starting to enjoy, but the bassoon arpeggios in recitative are not likely to win many fans. To be fair, there is a lot of recitative in this opera (twelve pages at one point), and something needs to be done. Jacobs also has done some reassigning of lines, even in arias, and added more spoken interjections into arias than the composer wrote.
Sandrina, the titular Pretend Gardener, is given what amounts to a survey of all the styles of singing from this era in the last twenty minutes of Act II. Sophie Karthäuser exceeds every requirement, and she also sweetly coos one of those turtledove simile arias that were ubiquitous in the period. Jeremy Ovenden is an elegant Count Belfiore. He is handed the greatest share of Jacobs's interventions, having been assigned the aria "Da Scirocco a Tramontana" by Jacobs, with justification. Jacobs then nearly mows him over in it. Ovenden is especially good in the final duet of Act III, and in his piano singing. But he also triumphs in "Già divento freddo," a scene with a sophisticated accompanied recitative and a finale of difficult triplets that prefigure another Mozartean Count. The role of Ramiro, originally for soprano castrato, is sung by Marie-Claude Chappuis. Ramiro's aria "Dolce d'amor compagna" combines blithe vocal showmanship with real feeling in a way that is not quite like anything else Mozart ever wrote. Alex Penda's Arminda gets a very substantial, mature aria in G minor; her voice is a little thick on top, occasionally obscuring pitch. The lower-voiced men, Nicolas Rivenq and Michael Nagy, have less to do but make much of it. Sunhae Im does a good Cecilia Bartoli impression as the seen-it-all servant girl Serpetta, a dead ringer for Despina.
The Freiburger Barockorchester features deliciously woody flutes, natural horns (which cleverly portray hammers and chisels at one point) and crisp timpani with real pitch. The players manage to keep up with Jacobs's wildest tempos, if just barely, and they are masters of intonation in the highly chromatic passages of the C-minor aria "Va pure ad altri," an anticipation of Mozart's piano concerto in the same key. The libretto has a surprising amount of sarcasm, with Jacobs sometimes adding more of it at moments such as the oboes' commenting on the mythological Sirens. The libretto itself is horribly misogynistic, but Mozart's music humanizes everyone. A Jacobs recording must be taken on balance, for he is as likely to be attuned to Mozart's expression as he is to be calling attention to himself. But taken on balance, this one is a winner.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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