Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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World Premiere Review: All-Star Cast and Crew, Ardent Audience Ovation for Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2015

August 3rd, 2015

Charles Frazier’s Pulitzer Prize award-winning novel Cold Mountain is focused on two persons, Confederate soldier W. P. Inman and his Charleston-born sweetheart, Ada Monroe, whose lives have been transformed completely by the devastation that the Civil War wrought upon the South.

Composer Jennifer Higdon teamed with librettist Gene Scheer to create an opera out of Frazier’s sprawling work.

[Below: Composer Jennifer Higdon; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

HIGDON (400)

The creative team did not follow the novel’s structure, which alternates Inman’s and Ada’s stories. Instead, the creative team skillfully (and ingeniously) integrated both story lines. Scheer’s libretto creates a linear narrative that gives the audience a sense of what each character is doing at any point in time.

Nathan Gunn’s W. P. Inman

Leading a strong cast is lyric baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman.

In an interview with him before the “Cold Mountain” commission was announced, Gunn said that “as a musician, I don’t want to be a curator of opera. I want to help create the new ones” [see Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part and Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part 2.]

[Below: Nathan Gunn as W. P. Inman; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

S FE COLD 11 (400) GUNN

Gunn’s performance, not only beautifully sung, but a fine piece of theater, was the emotional center of the opera.

Wounded, demoralized by the death around him and the stupidity of the generals who led the Confederate troops, against all odds he manages to survive great hardships, finally to be reunited, however briefly, with Ada Monroe, the woman he loves.

Gunn’s operatic super-star status helps assure the success of any project to which he lends his formidable talent. His creation of the role of Inman should be regarded as one of the high points of his important career and a contribution of incalculable value to the opera’s future.

[Below: the Blind Man (Kevin Burdette, left) suggests to Inman (Nathan Gunn, right) that if he is thinking of deserting from the Confederate Army, he should do it now, rather than waiting; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Isabel Leonard’s Ada Monroe

Inman represents the catastrophic impact of the Civil War on so many of the soldiers who fought it. Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard) and her companion Ruby Thewes (Emily Fons) represent how many of the women found inner strength, coping  with the devastation that the war brought to the home front.

Raised a preacher’s daughter among the ladies of Charleston, Ada finds herself in a small town in mountainous Western North Carolina, where her late father had been minister when the war began.

[Below: Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard, left) and Ruby Thewes (Emily Fons, right) are pleased that their hard work has resulted in their survival, despite the war’s devastation; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Leonard has a wide vocal range and a repertory that encompasses both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Isabel Leonard.]

As Ada, much of her part lay high in her range, and Leonard performed the high tessitura of the role masterfully.

Ada’s poignantly brief reunion with Inman – their first opportunity ever for an intimate moment – provided a memorable opportunity to observe Leonard’s dramatic powers.

Emily Fons’ Ruby Thewes

The character of Ruby Thewes , the clearheaded, self-sufficient woman who can live off unpromising land and barter for survival, was vividly drawn by Wisconsin mezzo-soprano Emily Fons.

[Below: Teague (Jay Hunter Morris, right) taunts Ruby (Emily Fons, left) with the information that her father is a deserter from the Confederate Army; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Jay Hunter Morris’ Teague

The lead villain in the piece is Teague (Texas tenor Jay Hunter Morris), who has made a wartime career out of tracking down deserters and other persons deemed to be subverting the Confederate cause.

Morris’ natural Southern accent lends itself well to this broadly-drawn character. Morris’ acting ability makes Teague an arresting figure every moment he is onstage.

Since Morris is a peerless American heldentenor and a top choice of operatic management’s for the Siegfried roles in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, his appearance in this comprimario role redefines the term “luxury casting”. However, Morris brings such a feeling of authenticity to this character, Morris deserves commendation for his contribution to the birthing of this opera.

Kevin Burdette’s Stobrod and Blindman

Another native-born Southerner in the world premiere cast is Tennessee bass Kevin Burdette.

[Below: Ada (Isabel Leonard, right) tells Stobrod (Kevin Burdette, left) that it his daughter Ruby’s resourcefulness that has assured their survival; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Although he is a master of opera’s comic bass roles [Buff Buffo: An Interview with Kevin Burdette], he also now occupies a special niche as a character actor, especially in operatic world premieres. This is only one of four world premieres in which Burdette has performed or has scheduled in 2015. The other three were commissioned by The Dallas Opera and include new operas composed by Jake Heggie and by Mark Adamo.

For “Cold Mountain”, Burdette (who, incidentally, grew up not far from where composer Higdon was raised) brought his authentic Eastern Tennessee accent to the incisively drawn characters of the Blind Man and Stobrod. For Stobrod, whose fiddle-playing is a plot point, Higdon composed some fiddle music which, incredibly, Burdette plays onstage, while singing.

Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Monroe and Pangle

In yet another example of luxury casting, the eminent English Verdi baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore was cast in two roles – the solemn preacher Monroe, whose calling to preach in the mountainous North Carolina hinterlands is what brought Ada to Cold Mountain.

Michaels-Moore also plays Stobrod’s witless companion, the banjo-playing Pangle, who indiscreetly reveals what he and Stobrod have been up to to the merciless mercenary Teague, getting himself killed in the bargain.

Both the parts of Monroe and Pangle are brief, but Michaels-Moore brought his years of experience in making their appearances memorable. (He also sang the even briefer role of a chain gang guard.)

Deborah Nansteel’s Lucinda

Last year, I had praised Deborah Nansteel, who as “Carousel’s” Nettie, sang two of the great contributions to the “American song book” by Rodgers and Hammerstein  [see Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014].

Nansteel’s assignment in “Cold Mountain” is that of a fugitive slave who comes across the still living Inman in a group of executed prisoners chained together. Engaged in robbing the bodies of dead soldiers, Nansteel’s Lucinda, even though not trusting white men, in an act of human decency, saves Inman’s life by releasing him from his chains.

Nansteel’s dramatic contribution was yet another extraordinary example of the care taken to assure a successful world premiere.

[Below: Lucinda (Deborah Nanstell, standing center) threatens to shoot Inman (Nathan Gunn, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


Other Cast Members and the Musical Performance

Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell appear as the preacher Veasey, who has abandoned the “path of righteousness”. Canadian bass Robert Pomakov is Owen.

Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists appearing in the production included Texas baritone Michael Adams; California soprano Chelsea Basler playing Sara; New York tenor Daniel Bates playing Junior and Charlie; Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee; Tennessee baritone Nicholas Davis; Pennsylvania soprano Bridgette Gan playing Lila; Georgia tenor Cullen Gandy; Ohio bass-baritone Calvin Griffith; Lebanese tenor Roy Hage playing Reid and a Chain Gang Guard; California mezzo-soprano Shabnam Kalbazi; Canadian tenor Adrian Kramer playing Owens’ son; Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Megan Marino playing Claire; Texas tenor Tyson Miller and California tenor John Matthews Myers.

Other Apprentice Artists in “Cold Mountain” are Florida tenor Cooper Nolan, Canadian soprano Andrea Nunez as Laura; Pennsylvania baritone Jarrett Ott; Virginia baritone Andrew Paulson; Ohio soprano Heather Phillips as Katie; Maine bass Tyler Putnam as Thomas; Texas tenor Galeano Salas; Kansas tenor Aaron Short; North Carolina bass-baritone Adrian N. Smith; New York tenor Derrek Stark; Minnesota tenor Jack Swanson; District of Columbia bass Kevin Thompson; Washington bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski; Texas tenor Christopher Trapani; Pennsylvania tenor Benjamin Werley and New York baritone Jorell Williams.

For a world premiere, the conductor, always a critical element in mounting any opera, has a myriad of  responsibilities for translating the composer’s intentions into a musical performance. The Santa Fe Opera secured Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the music director of the Fort Worth (Texas) Symphony Orchestra, for the opera’s launch. Under Harth-Bedoya’s baton, Higdon’s complex and often luminous music was beautifully realized.

I believe that Higdon’s choral passages, particularly the lament for the fallen soldiers, will become early favorite excerpts from the opera. These passages were realized by the Santa Fe Opera chorus, composed of Apprentices, under the direction of Chorus Master Susanne Sheston.

Leonard Foglia’s Staging, Robert Brill’s sets, Brian Nason’s Lighting Design and Elaine J. McCarthy’s Projections

The team assembled for the creation of Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” contains the core team that assisted composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer in the launching of their momentous opera “Moby Dick”, arguably the most successful American opera so far this century.

The sets were created by California designer Robert Brill, whose massive unit set for “Wozzeck” created in collaboration with Broadway director Des McAnuff I praised [Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007].

For “Cold Mountain” Brill created an ingenious multi-level set, whose irregular planes and surfaces, gave Massachusetts Director Leonard Foglia the ability to change scenes rapidly.

[Below: Robert Brill’s sets for “Cold Mountain”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Foglia staged the world premiere (and subsequent mountings) of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” [see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010 and my subsequent reviews of “Moby Dick” performances in San Diego and San Francisco].

Foglia brings fast-paced staging utilizing the work of New York lighting designer Brian Nason. The spectacular projections of Elaine J. McCarthy, another veteran of “Moby Dick”, added to the visual experience.


I recommend the cast and production of Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” to the veteran opera-goer, especially one who appreciates the new directions in American opera, and the person new to opera who loves the book “Cold Mountain”.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews

Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015

August 1st, 2015

The Santa Fe Opera presented Richard Strauss’ “Salome” in an intense production by English director Daniel Slater.

Alex Penda’s Salome

The performance starred Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda. Her chilling portrayal plumbed the tenets of Freud’s revolutionary theories of human depravity.

Assaying one of the most demanding of dramatic soprano roles after a distinguished career in the bel canto operatic repertory, Penda exhibited a voice that is beautifully expressive with a firmly controlled pianissimo and that is capable of explosive power when expressing Salome’s impatience or rage.

[Below: Alex Penda as Salome; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


At the 2014 Santa Fe Opera Festival, Penda, singing the role of Leonore/Fidelio [see Review: A Finely Crafted “Fidelio” from Stephen Wadsworth – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2014.], Penda demonstrated an affinity for the German dramatic soprano repertory. Her success as Salome suggests she is ready to take on a range of Strauss soprano roles.

Refocusing “Salome”

Daniel Slater’s presentation of the work de-emphasizes the Biblical roots of Oscar Wilde’s poetic drama that Strauss chose for his earliest enduring success and most shocking of his operas. Slater shifts the story to the end of the 19th century when Sigmund Freud published his principal expositions of his theories.

[Below: the Syrian captain Narraboth (Brian Jagde, below left, kneeling) observes Salome (Alex Penda, seated, fifth from right) at dinner; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


In doing so, the depravity that Wilde in his drama and Strauss in his music intended to show, is transformed into a Freudian explanation of what exists deep in Salome’s subconscious. Much of that Slater reveals for us in the extended orchestral passage that we know as The Dance of the Seven Veils.

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, right) knowingly manipulates the lustful desires of Narraboth (Brian Jagde, left) and Jokanaan (Ryan McKinny, center) leading to the deaths of both men; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


We as the audience observe Salome from two different perspectives. We first observe her behavior towards the other principal characters, Narraboth (tenor Brian Jagde), John the Baptist or Jokanaan (baritone Ryan McKinny), Herod (tenor Robert Brubaker) and Herodias (Michaela Martens).

In Slater’s production, we also observe Salome’s through the perspective of her unconscious, from which the veils hiding a childhood of terror and abuse are being stripped one by one.

Brian Jagde’s Narraboth

The first character to succumb to Salome is the Narraboth (Brian Jagde). Casting Jagde –  as the Syrian captain who dangerously obsessed by the princess’ sexuality – was a brilliant choice. His Narraboth is physically handsome and vocally impressive.

[Below: Obsessed with lust for  Salome (Alex Penda, right), Narraboth (Brian Jagde, center), disobeys strict orders by permitting her access to Jokanaan (Ryan McKinny, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


Jagde’s gleaming spinto  voice has made him a “must-have” tenor for Puccini’s great leading roles, and such parts as the Prince in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (January 2016 at the Houston Grand Opera) and as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” (May-June 2016 at the San Francisco Opera.

Ryan McKinny’s Jokanaan

Ryan McKinny, in his Santa Fe Opera debut season, continues to augment what is already an impressive repertory for a young dramatic baritone. The growth in McKinny’s vocal resources is complemented by an accomplished acting style.

In recent months he has taken on the roles as varied the Dutchman [Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013], Rigoletto [Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014], Stanley Kowalski [A Theatrically Brilliant “Streetcar Named Desire” Stars Fleming, McKinny, Tappan and Griffey – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2014] and Billy Bigelow [Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014 ].

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, left) is a disconcerting presence to Jokanaan (Ryan McKinny, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


In Slater’s reconceptualization of “Salome”, John the Baptist’s persona seems rather more that of a pioneer clinical psychiatrist than that of a New Testament mystic, with powerful effect. He has a link to Salome’s father. The room in which he is imprisoned was the very room in which Salome’s father also spent his last days.

Robert Brubaker’s Herod and Michaela Martens’ Herodias

The power couple, Herod and Herodias, share a dysfunctional marriage and often antagonistic political strategies. Herod understands the danger to him should the blood of Jokanaan be on his hands, while Herodias recognizes Jokanaan as her personal enemy who must be destroyed.

[Below: Herodias (Michaela Martens, left) attempts to persuade Salome (Alex Penda, right) to do her bidding; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Brubaker’s Herod has a backstory that is revealed to us in stages as the veils of Salome’s subconscious are revealed in tableaux and pantomimes, accompanied by Strauss’ seductive dance music.

Herod is responsible for the death of Herodias’ husband and Salome’s father. Once married to Herodias, Herod commences the raping of the child stepdaughter.

Both of the portraits – Brubaker’s Herod and Martens’ Herodias – were memorable and sobering. Salome’s traumatic childhood in Slater’s staging provides an explanation of the Salome’s crippling psychoses.

[Below: Herod (Robert Brubaker, right) attempts to persuade Salome (Alex Penda left) to engage in a sensuous dance for him; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Other Cast Members

Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Megan Marino was impressive as the Page.

Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee and Maine bass Tyler Putnam were the Soldiers, Washington bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski was a Cappadocian, New York tenor Daniel Bates a Butler. The two Nazarenes were sung by Chinese bass Peixin Chen and Canadian tenor Adrian Kramer.

The lively disputes of the five Jews were well-sung and effectively performed by Texas tenor Christopher Trapani (First Jew), Lebanese tenor Roy Hage (Second Jew), Georgia tenor Cullen Gandy (Third Jew), Kansas tenor Aaron Short (Fourth Jew) and District of Columbia bass Kevin Thompson.

Conductor David Robertson (who also conducted the 2011 revival of Slater’s production of Berg’s “Wozzeck” at Santa Fe), achieved a rich and seductive sound from the augmented Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, lying on table) kisses the severed head of Jokanaan; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The Visual Presentation

The sets and costumes were created by English designer Leslie Travers. They reflect the fashions of end of the 19th century Central Europe.

A patterned grey wall forms the backdrop for much of the opera, but at key points, a rectangular opening reveals a room in which takes place, early in the opera, Herod’s formal dinner and later, in place of the Seven Veils dance, the exploration of Salome’s subconscious.

[Below: Salome (Alex Penda, left) lies drenched in blood as an image of her as a child  is seen at the right; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]



I recommend this cast and production enthusiastically to the lover of German opera in general and Richard Strauss in particular, to the adventuresome, and to those who wish to see intelligently conceived innovations in the staging of familiar operas.


For my reviews of other productions by Daniel Slater, see:  A Second Look: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012and also, 

Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009, and also,

“Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews

Review: “La Finta Giardiniera”: Madcap Mozart at the Santa Fe Opera – July 29, 2015

July 30th, 2015

Santa Fe Opera’s new production of “La Finta Giardiniera” proved to be an effectively mounted and beautifully sung presentation of the 18-year old Mozart’s foray into romantic comic opera. Each aria is a masterpiece.

Santa Fe Opera audiences were treated to a performance in which the seven principals were carefully chosen to excel in an opera of which the company intends to be an advocate.

The company’s Chief Conductor Harry Bicket assumed the podium for an affectionate reading of Mozart’s score.

[Below: the Count Belfiore (Joel Prieto, above) suspects that the gardener Sandrina is actually his fiancée, the Marchioness Violante Onesti (Heidi Stober, on ground), whom he thought he had accidentally killed; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The opera has seven characters. By opera’s end six have paired off and are betrothed to be married to the person for whom we in the audience know they were destined. The Count Belfiore (Spanish leggiero tenor Joel Prieto) will marry the Marchioness Onesti (Wisconsin soprano Heidi Stober).

Heidi Stober’s Sandrina

Heidi Stober (Sandrina/Marchioness), with some of Mozart’s most beautiful music to sing and a third act mad-scene to boot, made a powerful impression.

[Below: Heidi Stober as the Marchioness; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Spanish tenor Joel Prieto as an appealing leggiero tenor voice and incisive comic timing. He showered the audience with charm and a witty, often very funny portrayal of a character whose resume would otherwise suggest a sordid and dislikable person (Belfiore stabs the Marchioness, and thinking her dead, abandons her and subsequently pursues marriage to another woman, but we come to like him in the end).

[Below: Joel Prieto as Count Belfiore; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The final duet between count and marchioness – Dove mai son! – is one of Mozart’s most charming creations and was convincingly sung by Stober and Prieto.

[Below: Don Ramiro (Cecelia Hall, left) has pursued marriage with Arminda (Susanna Phillips, right), and is upset she is betrothed to another man; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


William Burden’s Podesta

The role of the Podesta (mayor) was assigned to the distinguished lyric tenor William Burden [see American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden].

Wildly costumed, he excelled in this great character part, whose intense vocal demands Burden dispatched with a master’s touch.

[Below: William Burden as the Podesta with Laura Tatulescu as Serpetta; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Other Cast Members

Cecelia Hall made a convincing impression in the “pants role” of Don Ramiro, who has three significant arias, culminating in Hall’s nicely performed and vocally strong Va pure ad altri in braccio.

[Below: Cecelia Hall as Don Ramiro; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Susanna Phillips, whose previous appearances in Santa Fe have been in Mozart’s statelier female parts [See Santa Fe Opera Reverentially Revives “Nozze di Figaro” – June 29, 2013 and The Man Who Loved Women: Lucas Meachem’s Empathetic Don Giovanni – Santa Fe, July 31, 2009] got to play her hand in the slapstick comic role, though one that required Phillips’ manifestly abundant vocal skills.

In the servants’ roles both Hopkins as Nardo and Tatulescu as Serpetta excelled. Joshua Hopkins’ Nardo was an ardent and impressive presence, with a vibrant lyric baritone.  Laura Tatulescu’s Serpetta provided  the comic touch to every scene with an attitude that presages the likes of “Cosi fan Tutte’s” Despina.

[Below: Nardo (Joshua Hopkins, right) is enamored with an occasionally interested Serpetta (Laura Tatulescu, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Notes on the Stage Direction and Design

British Director Tim Albery, whose work at Santa Fe Opera includes ventures into Richard Strauss’ later works [see Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012] will include next season’s “Capriccio”, took Mozart’s unpromising libretto and created an absorbing theatrical experience.

The sets and costumes by German scenic designer Hildegard Bechtler and English costume designer Jon Morrell caught the spirit of the over-the-top comedy.

The Opera’s Story Line

For the person new to the opera, I recommend against trying to sort out the opera’s plot in advance. My suggestion is to keep in mind how the characters will pair off in the end, aware that they will have misadventures along the way. The newcomer will figure it all out as the opera progresses.

Podesta pursues the Gardener, Serpetta the Podesta, with the Marchioness, Count Belfiore and Arminda conflicted as to what they really want, and only Don Ramiro and Nardo each ardently pursuing the woman who will become his spouse.

Don Ramiro (North Carolina mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall) will marry Arminda (Alabama soprano Susanna Phillips), the niece of the Podesta (New Jersey lyric tenor William Burden) and the Marchioness’ servant Nardo (Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins) will marry the Podesta’s servant Serpetta (Connecticut soprano Laura Tatulescu). Only the Podesta will remain unhitched (but still looking) at opera’s end.

[Below: the Podesta (William Burden, right) has become enamored with his new gardener, unaware that she is the Marchioness Onesti (Heidi Stober, left) in disguise; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


There are complications that result in what certainly should be an overwhelming favorite in any contest for the most outlandish scene in a Mozart opera. The Marchioness has been kidnapped by Arminda and abandoned in a wilderness place inhabited by wolves. All seven of the opera’s characters go into the wilderness where both the Count and Marchioness temporarily and simultaneously lose their sanity.

[Below: the Marchioness (Heidi Stober, left center in wood headdress) and Count Belfiore (Joel Prieto, right center, holding the Marchioness’ hand) have both gone mad as Arminda (Susanna Phillips, left), Nardo (Joshua Hopkins, seated, second from left), the Podesta (William Burden, right) and Serpetta (Laura Tatulescu, second from left in background), look on in wonder; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


What ensues is a scene that might be thought of as the 18th century equivalent of the maenad scene in Szymanowski’s 20th century opera “King Roger”. The two principals, Stober’s Marchioness and Prieto’s Count, both behaving wildly, unleash all inhibitions. We are left we no doubt that they truly care for each other.

“Finta Giardiniera” as the Confirmation of Mozart’s Musical Dramatic Genius

A half-century ago the original version of this work, composed to an Italian text for the Bavarian capital of Munich, was considered lost [an abridged German singspiel version existed] , but in 1970 a copy of the complete opera was found, and the opera has slowly begun to find a place in the performance repertory.

My hints at the opera’s plot presented above may suggest a challenge to any opera composer. What is clear (and confirmed by his correspondence) was that Mozart saw abundant opportunities in this arcane story to create and refine his own operatic style of composition.

Without question Mozart succeeded in a way no teenager has done before or since. Starting with a zany story whose complicated, rangy plot conformed to a genre popular in Mozart’s time, he infused into every aria a distinct emotion.

Every aria and ensemble shows the same genius as his four most performed works [“The Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni”, “Cosi fan Tutte” and “The Magic Flute”.]

There are arias that are breathtakingly beautiful. Had Mozart saved them in exactly the form they appear in “Finta Giardiniera” for any of these four later operas, they would be just as revered today as the great arias of the Countess or Donna Anna or Pamina.


I recommend this without reservation to admirers of Mozart’s operas, to the adventuresome, and to any opera-goer who appreciates a well-sung, intelligently staged production of a wacky comedy.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews