Review: Suds on Speed. „La finta giardiniera“ in Zurich


[Curtain Call: Adrian Timpau (Nardo), Rebeca Olvera (Serpetta), Kenneth Tarver (Il Podestà), Margarita Gritskova (Ramiro), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Arminda), Mauro Peter (Belfiore) and Rosa Feola (Sandrina). Also, a whole lot of foam. – Feb 24th, 2019, Opera Zurich]

Between the press work for the current run of Ligeti‘s „Grand Macabre“ (also staged by Gürbaca) and the „Rosenkavalier“ revival featuring Devieilhe, the mainstage outing of Mozart‘s „Finta giardiniera“ at Opera Zurich – in  the Gürbaca staging premiered last season as junior production in Winterthur – was blink-and-you‘ll-miss-it. Apart from a short blog interview with Rebeca Olvera (Serpetta) (also published in MAG65) and a two or three barren social media posts with photos of last year‘s cast, this show seems to be the second-row stepchild that hasn‘t been invited to the ball (in retaliation, there are lots of shoes used as props on stage). That doesn‘t need to result in a sloppy show (glowering at you, 2nd row Mozart at Wiener Staatsoper): work away from publicity pressure can have a lot more creative flow. But was that what happened here?

This “Giardiniera” turned out to be a mixed bag, with the quirky, over-the-top staging not settling seamlessly onto the shoulders of a cast who hadn‘t developed it.

The evening‘s biggest hurdle, to me, are its tempi: breakneck speed with, yes, marked rhythm and some nice coloring particularly late in Act II, but with little elasticity. The pit (conducting, taking over for Capuano, was Carrie-Ann Mattheson, who was met with warm applause and cheers at the end) largely raced through the first part, occasionally covering up the voices, as if there was free beer to be had at intermission (which, with Zurich prices, would be an understandable motivation).

Was there a directive order to bring this in in under three hours, including the generous intermission? Because that is what it felt like. Some arias were cut (especially in the beginning), leaving the story and character development spotty, and the racing speed left the singers (who delivered good performances throughout, this *is* Zurich, after all) often unable to develop their lines, let alone their characters.

The Gürbaca staging didn‘t help matters there – set in a space of pink-pillared plexiglass doors (that trembled distractingly when moved), the room (stage: Henrik Ahr) had the distinct not-charm of an industrial launderette, which actually did work well with the mood of the staging: The look at the characters is cool and detached. They ironize and parody themselves at every turn. Motions and moods are constantly over-the-top, never meant to engage with, only to laugh at.
This does leave the viewer detached, laughing along at the characters when prompted, but never with them. A deep distrust seems to permeate the the stance towards the work overall: as if the piece couldn‘t carry itself, as if it needed to be cut into quirky bites and served through bright filters with running commentary to win over an audience.

At several points, I wondered whether the staging had a different drive with the junior cast who developed it last season. Perhaps some jokes were lost along the way? (Why is the Podestà in a toga? Ramiro spends the first half hour flailing and crawling across stage while he drinks himself into a stupor; Sandrina tries to kill herself in continuoulsy more absurd ways during „Geme la tortorella“: all these seemed disjointed. I wanted to know the motivation.)

At intermission, we were rather disenchanted and pondered that we might have gone to Venice for early Mozart instead, where „Il rè pastore“ with Roberta Mameli as Aminta is currrently running at la Fenice, with Sardelli at the helm and an enthusiastic press team behind it (or Zurich could put on „Rè pastore“ – if they invited back Papatanasiu (please do), they‘d already have a lead soprano with an early Mozart track record in the genre).

I didn‘t expect the evening to haul itself around again. But it did, to a large degree. And it happened, interestingly enough, over the gimmick of turning the stage into a giant foam bath for the forest finale of Act II.

„Oh God, not more silliness on top of all that mock-exagerate energy,“ I thought, but then the opposite happened: in between the materiality of the foam and its impact on everyone‘s movements, the mockery fell away (in addition to some of the alienating costumes), allowing for actual situations to build between bodies egalized by maneuvering through suds.

The foam rains in thick, cushy suds from the ceiling during Sandrina’s cavatina and aria in the woods, and they are piling up like amorphous masses behind her as she sings, like looming Jabba The Hood triplets.
It is a lot of foam, provoking an anarchic inward giggle at its sheer abundance. And then, surprisingly, it worked as an agens that finally made this evening click: from Sandrina’s first steps treading through it, to akwkwardly entangled, slipperly limbs that could never quite claim grace, nor landed where their owners wanted them to throughout the Act 2 finale.

Also onwards, it was physicality that allowed for moments to gain meanings: Tarver‘s „Mio signore…io dir vorrei“ in early Act III was a good example for that, with constant clap-trap shifts between Tarver, Gritskova‘s wildly gesticulating Ramiro and the insistent shoulder-tapping of Papatanasiu‘s Arminda.

Another example one are the arrangements of the two final couplings, that here happen as team efforts and really gave both scenes an added depth and quality with the ‚happy ends‘ being teamwork (while Serpetta is, in contrast and unsuspecting, pushed onto Nardo by the Podestà) – first, more briefly, for Ramiro’s „Va pure ad altri in braccio“: The outburst in turn makes Arminda vulnerable and has her reach out to him, with the other characters then stepping up and mediating between the two of them (teenage me, who first saw „Finta Giardiniera“ in 1989 from Drottningholm, smiled at much-older-me across the distance of 30 years at the handholding resolution of that scene).
This commentary repeats, on a much larger scale, for the winding make-up duet between Belfiore and Sandrina, where every twist and turn is used by the other characters to push the two together, stop them from walking off, and to exchange looks and comments between themselves at their stubborness, only to cheer them on at the end. It was a surprisingly cute moment that came across as genuine and I wouldn‘t have expected it at all after the over-the-top race before the intermission.

A detail I enjoyed was the work with spoken phrases and added extempores (a bit like Haim did for „Mio signore…“ in the 2014 Lille production) – characters muttering, also in tongues other than Italian – Olvera in Spanish, Tarver in English -, or shouting after others, cursing or sighing or exclaiming their frustation, often blending in and out of recit lines: this really added plasticity to the scenes, at times even in the choppy first half. This extempore feeling also bled into variations in the da capo parts that time and again suprised with neat variations and a generous heap of extra top notes.

A few words on the singing, which is, as always, just my personal impression from one specific night:

Rosa Feola‘s Sandrina had a touch of Konstanze to it, an even lyric soprano with some nice anchoring weight to her tone; sweet, but without outward mannerisms. I kept wondering what Mozart she might do next. Overall, I found her portrayal a little too uniform, but very pleasant in tone and largely engaging in delivery (having the piny role in a more mocking staging is a bit of a tough condition to work with).

As Belfiore, Mauro Peter gave the most nuanced and engaging performance among the men, with a beautiful flow of tone and enough heft to dig his feet in. His work on his Act 2 madness aria („Già divento freddo, freddo“ with the preceding accompagnato) had small-scale dynamic work with diction, a large array of colors and a captivating gleam where vocal blossoming was asked for – something he then had in spades for „Care pupille“.

Kenneth Tarver, with a clear, Don Ottavio-ish sound, fell a bit on the lightweight side for the Podestà. He has a clean and cultivated delivery and a fair command of his top, all very smooth, but his light and bright tone lacked a little in weight and colors for me. This Podestà was never a menace (though Tarver can do menacing and shady, as he did in the 2017 Madrid „Lucio Silla“).

Adrian Timpau brought good stage energy and a kind of sound in the middle and lower register that points towards either Giovanni or Leporello or both in his future; his top still has a few colors less, leaving a slightly more hoarse impression. I hope he won‘t go the bellowy route in the next twenty years over #2Verdi2Soon: his tone is smooth and supple as it is and I would like to hear him in more 18th/early 19th century repertory.

Rebeca Olvera‘s Sandrina has a soubretta-ish gleam, but with a bit more warmth and ease to her middle register than would be trademark for the fach. She gets to do some dazzle ornamentation and is the the only one who is building a character (and as the stereotypical maid, no less) from the beginning, with a consistency to her actions and with her commentary being more about others than about herself. Serpetta may have an unfair advantage in role here, but she did‘t turn herself into a caricature.
Olvera has a very good instict here for being genunely funny, but not ridiculing her role – e.g. in having to clean up props in the foam mess in early Act III, muttering under her breath in Spanish and pretending to have a hangover.

A pleasant surprise turned out to be Margarita Gritskova‘s Ramiro, previously known as Eiskonfekt. Her first aria was cut, so in Act I she was reduced to ridiculous overacting without much singing to do, but she threw herself into it (or rather, on top of it: it was commentary more than inhabitating), making Ramiro an embarassingly clingy, pathetic, madcap ex-girlfriend.
It would be easy for Gritskova to just rest on her vocal material and sing prettily: the voice is lush and gleaming, grandly led, with appealing dark color and substanial heft (she *does* focus on singling prettily for most of it, but it‘s less uniform and less polished than I am used to hear from her. She is, to me, finally beginning to do more interesting things with her material, and it is gratifying to hear). She does get to finally call the breakneck speed show to a halt with „Dolce d‘amor compagna“ which she does in large, veering arcs. And she does of course have the substance for a roaring „Va pure ad altri in braccio“ towards the end, interestingly staged here as the moment where Arminda and Ramiro get back together. Scenicelly, Gritskova – after barely any interaction in the Act I and just wild over-the-top comedy-ring – really developed a give-and-take especially with Arminda towards the end, in a way that gave situations weight and meaning through simple movements. This is, of course, something that Papatanasiu excels at, who here had various stage partners to react to (Gritskova in Act 3, but also the scene-building with Serpetta before the Act 2 finale).

Myrtò Papatanasiu‘s Arminda (she has sung Sandrina earlier in her career) was the lucky kind of fit I had hoped it would be, even if her first aria (where Arminda is immobile – of course, Papatanasiu doesn’t make it feel immobile – in a huge bridal dress underneath which everyone else is making out or having another kind of party) had to struggle against the pit race. The role has got a wide range of moods, from flirty and quirky to self-deprecating and scheming, with big dramatic outbursts that lend themselves very well to the sharper edge her tone can acquire. Her showy second aria was, next to Peter‘s arias, the vocal highlight of the evening for me, with all the leaps and sudden swerves it offers, and the sufficient vocal attack to deliver on every one of them.
The approach of telling a story through music instead of just singing music beautifully lends intself far better to roles with more bite than the typical lyrical soprano fare (I don’t think she would have gotten to show as much of her interpreting chops as Sandrina), and it made her stand out. Apropos: Her innate talent of structuring a moment with movement is something didn‘t find much place at first in this staging, but gained footing later. As always, a pleasure to see a singer-actress of her format at work.
(ok, did I manage to keep the fangirling in check here? Not quite? Ah well. I tried.)

Also, the uncommented fact that Arminda in this staging apparently has an ex-girlfriend (this Ramiro didn’t present as a guy for even one hot second – on a scale from Max to Helena: Dana at most. Possibly Jenny) gave an interesting undercurrent to the interactions with Sandrina, where Arminda suddenly has a wider array of weapons to assuage her jealously, leaving her less pushed to the sidelines, and with Serpetta, where the class power play before Sandrina‘s abduction (balanced out in a small detail such as the repeatedly cigarette-tipping Arminda giving Serpetta a smoke, and then a light. Eventually.) is charged with another power current in addition.

Overall, it is in small moments that this evening manages to leave an impression, largely due to the (team)work of its singers. Another moment that stood out for me was the mad scene of Belfiore‘s „Già divento freddo, freddo“ that was staged as him hallucinating moments – the opening choreography, interactions with both Arminda and Sandrina – lived earlier, culminating in a reveral of his accidental shooting of Sandrina in the ouverture, with Sandrina standing over him with the tiny handgun, having shot him just as inconsequentially. This had a poignancy the production – though sufficiently entertaining – was missing in other places, and this cast could certainly have delivered it (and they would have deserved some more press for it).

2 thoughts on “Review: Suds on Speed. „La finta giardiniera“ in Zurich”

  1. I especially enjoy your attention to the group dynamics of the performance, as they overcame the let’s-do-it-and-forget-it production. Nothing like soapsuds to help high spirits overcome cheap plastic doors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unconventional as team-building method, but it seems to have worked? It could easily gone let‘s-do-it-and-forget-it, with the approach of the flippant first half. i am still trying to figure out whether the turnaround was planned this way, or whether the team – and they gave off a team impression, which is always lovely – took over and got that ship home.


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