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La Finta Giardiniera

Royal Opera House

AFTER the controversy that has dogged the proposed new production of Mozart's Idomeneo in Berlin (fears of a Muslim backlash for the use of Mohammed's severed head), La finta Giardiniera is almost like a stroll around the garden - which is exactly what it is.

The false gardener of the title is Sandrina (Genia Kühmeier), who is pottering away ignoring the attentions of her boss, the mayor, Don Anchise (Kurt Streit). In reality she is a marchioness, who has fled from her lover Count Belfiore (Nicholas Watts) because he tried to kill her. Well, it is a comedy.

The count, meanwhile, turns up to marry the mayor's niece, Arminda (sung by the very sexy Camilla Tilling). That starts a whole merry-go-round of people claiming to be who they are not. It is a farce worthy of the Strand itself. Sophie Koch plays Arminda's spurned lover Ramiro in a trouser role. Christopher Maltman is magnificent as the marchioness's servant, also disguised as a gardener, while Patrizia Biccirè is the mayor's feisty servant, Serpetta.

This production of one of the little man's less-known operas - this was its Covent Garden debut - has had its own problems, although more of handbags at six paces rather than the religious extremist kind.

The original director, Christof Loy, did a bit of a girlie fit over cuts in the score. Which was a bit foolish as the man in charge of the baton, John Eliot Gardiner (the only one in the production who wasn't a fake Gardiner), can do no wrong at the moment and there is no doubting whose side the House's powers that be would come down on.

Loy's assistant, Annika Haller, took over and has kept faith with the modern-dress, lively production first seen in Düsseldorf in 1998. Indeed, it starts with such speed that you have to concentrate to keep up with who is who, who's in love with whom, and who is in love with someone else - if you catch my drift.

It might not be in the same league as Cosi fan tutte, with which it has many similarities, but what is? Missing are the big-name stars, memorable arias, even though there are a lot of them, and the thrilling tunes, although Act 2 starts thrillingly. The plus points are some good acting, excellent singing and, when you've got Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists in the pit, you know there is enough class to steer it through any problems.

It is a bit too long, so any cuts were welcome, and the set left a lot to be desired. In fact, it wasn't that bad, it just seemed to be in the wrong opera. At first it was difficult to know where the house ended and the garden, which stretched down over the orchestra pit, started. Why was Sandrina digging up the earth in a floor that had tiles? Mind you, the house looked like something dreamed up by a Lottery winner from Essex, so a grow-bag in the living room sounds about right.

Review by Peter Wilson


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