Mozart: La finta semplice
Classical Opera & The Mozartists, Ian Page
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2 June 2018
The Classical Opera & The Mozartists’ ambitious Mozart 250 project started in 2015, the anniversary of Mozart’s childhood London visit, aged 8, and the composition of his first symphony. Each year they are programming concerts reflecting Mozart’s, and his contemporaries, compositions dating from 250 years ago. So 2018 is centred on music from 1768. Their two concerts earlier this year explored the music surrounding the 12 year-old Mozart in Vienna in 1768 (reviewed here), with pieces by Haydn, Jommelli, JC Bach, Hasse, Vanhal, and an extract from Mozart’s La finta semplice; followed by a rare performance of Haydn’s Applausus Cantata: Jubilaeum Virtutis Palatium (reviewed here). But tonight it was Mozart’s turn, with a semi-staged performance of his first opera buffa, La finta semplice. It is all too easy to denigrate Mozart’s early works, to the extent that the chronological sequence of the Mozart 250 project could have been a risk, at least for the first few years. But it has turned out to be very much not the case. Part of the responsibility for that is the excellent performances of Classical Opera & The Mozartists, lifting what can be rather less than outstanding music into memorable performances.
La finta semplice was written in Vienna, at the suggestion of the Emporer Joseph II. During rehearsals, several composers spread rumours that it was the work of Mozart’s father, and not the 12-year-old boy. Additional threats to sabotage the first night meant that it was not staged in Vienna. It was given a single performance the following year in Salzburg. It was then unheard until 2006.
The story is the usual opera buffa nonsense, telling the story of two Hungarian soldiers (Fracasso and Simone) billeted with a dysfunctional Italian family of two brothers and a sister, the misogynist and bullying elder brother Cassandro totally dominating his siblings, Polidoro and Giacinta. Fracasso has fallen for Giacinta, and her maid, Ninetta, ditto for Simone. Realising the Don Cassandro would never approve of either match, Ninetta hatches a plot whereby Fracasso’s soon-to-arrive sister Rosina (the finta semplice of the title, not easily translatable into English, but suggesting feigned naive innocence – sometimes translated as ‘the pretend simpleton’) persuades both brothers to fall in love with her. Much of the opera is based on this scenario, notably the hapless Polidoro’s lengthy attempts to woo Rosina. Eventually, Giacinta and Ninetta pretend to run away, leaving Cassaondro to promise that whoever finds them can marry then – which, of course, Fracasso and Simone promptly do. For reasons that are quite beyond me, Rosina then agrees to marry the obnoxious Cassandro, leaving poor Polidoro alone and bereft. So far, so silly.
Whatever the 12-year-old Mozart learnt from actually composing the music, he would have learnt quite a bit about love, human relationships, and deception, from just reading the libretto. And his music shows early examples of his music responding to the text, with his accompaniments sometimes subverting what was actually being sung, a technique he grew increasingly fond of. His use of instruments is an example, notably in the scene when Polidoro thinks that Rosina has chosen him over Cassandro, when the cuckolding horns blare out.
For any in the audience who would not normally rate early Mozart, the saving grace of the evening was the sheer quality of the singing, playing, and staging. Chiara Skerath as a gleefully bubbly Ninetta and Regula Mühlemann as the duplicitous Rosina stole the show for me, with Sophie Rennert’s Giacinta not far behind. Of the male singers, Lukas Jakobski’s Don Polidoro ranged from grotesquely frightening to bumblingly drink – the latter a brilliant bit of acting. Alessandro Fisher’s downtrodden Don Polidoro, Thomas Elwin’s Fracasso Bozidar Smiljanic’s Simone were all very well sung and acted. Of the instrumentalists James Eastaway (oboe) was the only one to have much of a solo role, but as is so often the case, it was the continuo players that excelled – Pawel Siwczak, with some very effective and appropriately modest harpsichord realisations, supported by Alex Rolton, cello, and a particularly impressive Cecelia Bruggemeyer, bass.
This was my first visit to the newly restored Queen Elizabeth Hall. Apart from a general clean up and reupholstered seats, the main visible and acoustical difference is in the stage area, where new timber panelling and the removal of obsolete technical equipment has given a slightly better acoustic resonance and focus. For this performance, the orchestra was positioned right at the back of the stage area, with the singers some way in front. The lack of the opera-house style video monitors in the auditorium allowing singers to see the conductor meant that there were a few moments when the cohesion became slightly adrift. But Ian Page, one of the most considerate of conductors for working with his singers, soon brought things back on track.