This production is no undiscovered classic, but it is a slice of rarely performed, highly stylised and utterly ridiculous fun.
Written by Mozart at the age of 18, La Finta Giardiniera was never going to have the success of the fully fledged genius. It is unnecessarily long, lacks some of the verve that made his later operas memorable and the plot is bizarre even by operatic standards.
There are two things you can do to try and rescue a ridiculous plot: try (and inevitably fail) to mask it, or go with it. Be ridiculous yourself, go overboard. This production does the latter.
At first, the effect is a bit, well, panto. Stock characters camping it up in what amounts not so much to a love triangle as a love conga.
It’s fairly common to have one comic character to lighten up a tragedy, it’s not so often that you get a comedy with one tragic character. At first the effect is jarring. I say ‘at first’, because Feola is brilliant as the heartbroken Violante, both as an actress and an incredible soprano.
I say ‘at first’, because pretty soon you get into the deliberate absurdity of the production. The costumes are lavish and quirky, and range from the towering wigs of masquerade balls to a man with suspenders holding up his diamond patterned socks. The acting is highly stylised, with mixed results: Feola and Olivieri are particularly good while Scala and Robinson are just overacting. The staging is elegant and the set is almost an extra character; the cast climb through the windows, sing from inside the fireplace and throw shoes through the walls. Moulds conducts a fresh, controlled orchestra through a score that drags in places and surprising in others.
Given how bizarre the plot is, the production makes a smooth transition from the courtly world of unrequited love and mistaken identities to the manic forest scene where the characters start to think that they are, in fact, Greek gods (as you do). This is particularly due to great lighting and the dark masquerade costumes. The second act is significantly weirder than the first and surprisingly all the better for it. The production throws what little caution they had to the wind and the result is hilarious. The cast clearly enjoy ripping apart the set in a zany, topsy-turvy visual feast. Deep and meaningful this is not. But, fun? Definitely.