Portland State University Opera delivered a high-spirited production of “La Finta Gardiniera,” one of Mozart’s early operas and a definitive precursor to his famous comic works “Così fan tutti” and “Le nozze di Figaro.” He wrote “La Finta Gardiniera” (The Pretend Gardener) when he was 18 on commission for the Munich Carnival. It is stuffed with convoluted love triangles, mad scenes, and humorous situations that PSU Opera’s talented singers delivered with gusto to an enthusiastic audience at Lincoln Hall on opening night, April 19th.
PSU Opera featured two different casts for the production. The singers I heard were led by the supple and expressive voice of Savannah Panah as Sandrina, who pretends to be a gardener in the home of the Podesta (mayor) of Lagonero. However, Sandrina is actually the Marchioness Violante, and she surreptitiously becomes a gardener in order to flee from her violent lover, the Count Belfiore. The Posdesta, sung with a wink and a nod by Erik Standifird, falls in love with Sandrina. In the meantime, the Podesta’s haughty niece, Arminda, given an appropriately high-handed delivery by Helen Soultanian, shows up to receive her suitor Count Belfiore, delivered with impeccable comic timing by Avesta Mirashrafi, but she is confronted by her rejected lover Cavalier Ramiero, which countertenor Nicholas Wavers sang with earnest conviction.
To further complicate matters, the servant Serpetta, sung wonderfully by Maeve Stier, is in love with the Podesta, but another servant Nardo, sung by the rich voice of Jonathan Roberts, loves Serpetta.
A blend of absurd and serious situations become intertwined before things get straightened out so that the lovers find each other with the exception of the Posesta, who must wait until another Sandrina shows up. Under the direction of David Ward, the singers generated a ton of laughter in the first act and did well with the complicated mad scene in the second act and the untangling of the story in the third act.
Traditional costumes designed by Hadley Yoder included accented the opera buffa style. In particular, Standifird’s Podesta sported a magnificent, pillowy pompadour that was matched in its ridiculousness by the red mop of a haystack atop Soultanian’s Arminda. Sets designed by Carey Wong featured a series of panels that were enhanced by the lush bucolic paintings of Elecia Beebe and the lighting of Peter West.
Ken Selden’s crisp conducting paced the PSU Orchestra at a good clip. There were some slips in intonation but the spirit of the music was conveyed with gusto. Music Director Chuck Dillard’s supple harpsichord accompaniment was spot on. The interplay between the singers and the orchestra musicians was especially enjoyable when singers recalled dreams in which an oboe, flute, or other instrument could be heard. Just after a particular instrument was mentioned, Mozart gave that instrument a lovely exposed passage, and each time the PSU Orchestra member played his/her solo superbly.
Overall, “La finta Gardiniera” is an excellent choice for a university production. On college campuses there a plenty of convoluted love triangles, and some even get resolved. PSU Opera deserves kudos for creating a production that can still make us laugh.