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Review: Quartet of Santa Fe Opera favorites return for ‘La finta giardiniera’

SANTA FE, N.M. — Mozart never had much use for the aristocracy. They might have helped finance some of his work, but he had no qualms about ridiculing them in his operas.

“The Marriage of Figaro” was wildly satirical, even pre-revolutionary in tone, but that was nothing he hadn’t tackled before. The Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Mozart’s “La finta giardiniera” (The Pretend Gardener) makes that abundantly clear.

The plot of “La finta” is far too comically convoluted to describe here. Suffice it to say that after a great deal of disguises, scrambling and false starts, love rules the day.

Few will have seen a production of “La finta” as it is only rarely produced despite some marvelous arias sometimes done in concert. So how good can it be? I was once forced to sit through an opera by Jomelli. Jomelli? One of the most celebrated professional opera composers of the late 18th century.

The experience definitely did one thing. It made me so grateful for Mozart. Even the 18-year-old Mozart was a far more interesting composer than virtually any of his contemporaries.

Had he not gone on to write the later more famous operas, as he re-cast the genre in his own image, I have no doubt “La finta” would be part of the repertory. It’s not that he wasn’t adopting many of the operatic conventions of the time, but there is always a spark of the innovative and above all a sense of spontaneity.

A quartet of SFO favorites return for this production. Heidi Stober sings Sandrina, the Marchioness Violante in disguise, along with William Burden as the Podesta and Joshua Hopkins is Nardo the servant of the Marchioness.

Susanna Phillips, who has sung a variety of Mozart roles at SFO over the past few years, gives a riotous comic portrayal of the Arminda, the haughty, spoiled niece of the Podesta. Her “I long to punish you” love/hate aria with its hilarious emotional oscillations is a highlight. Along with her bright, full soprano, Phillips’ mastery at playing the scorned woman out for vengeance is second to none.

Nardo, after having not much to sing in the first act, is then given the most famous aria of the work, “Der verliebte Italiener” (An Italian lover would say). Hopkins lends his powerfully resonant baritone to this attempt at wooing the housekeeper Serpetta (Laura Tatulescu) by demonstrating a versatility in foreign languages (including English!).

The scheming Arminda has Sandrina abducted and left to die in the wilds of the forest. Stober gives an impassioned plea for mercy (Crudeli, oh Dio!) as night falls. Ramiro, a trouser role sung by Cecelia Hall, was originally written for a castrato. The most consistent of the characters, Ramiro, in the beautiful aria “Va pure,” laments his frustration, having been rejected by Arminda throughout.

The many ensembles in the opera are stunning with Mozart as inventive as his adolescent self was capable, and they all sparkle with animation in this production. Chief Conductor Harry Bicket leads the SFO orchestra with tempos designed to keep the music moving at a crisp pace.