Saturday, August 3, 2019

Portland Opera harvests laughter amidst the more serious tones of La Finta Giardiniera

Lindsay Ohse | Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera
Mozart wrote thee operas by the time he was 12 years old then received a commission to write another one in 1770 when he was only 14. He followed that with three more operas, so that by the time he wrote La finta giardiniera, in 1774, to fulfill a commission for the Munich Carnival, he was already a veteran at the age of 18. According to scholars, La finta giardiniera (The pretend gardener) is the first of Mozart’s operas that shows the imprint of his style and his uncanny ability to express the implications of comic and serious situations.

Well, those facts provided an intriguing preface to Portland Opera’s presentation of La finta giardiniera on July 12 at the Newmark Theatre. The company made the most of its first-ever performance of this early Mozart work, delivering an engaging and charming new production under the direction of Chas Rader-Shieber.
Mark Thomsen, Helen Huang, Thomas Cilluffo, and Antonia Tamer | Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera
Containing a lot of nuances and relying on impeccable timing during the humorous situations, the directions of Rader-Shieber resonated well with the singers. One of the best moments occurred when the Podesta (The Mayor) slapped Count Belfiore, jolting his attention toward his daughter Arminda instead of the pretend gardener, Sandrina. Everyone got into the silliness of the romantic juxtapositions, including the mad scene in which Sandrina and Belfiore partially disrobed. However, Rader-Shieber’s directions for Serpetta focused on her rebuttals of Nardo’s gentle advances, which gave her a negative sheen.

Lindsay Ohse glowed in the role of Sandrina, wonderfully conveying the turbulent emotions of a woman who sought refuge from her abusive lover, then after a period of “madness” falls in love with him. Thomas Cilluffo created a smug, amiable, yet slightly clueless Belfiore, singing with virility and charm while raking in the laughs. As Arminda, Antonia Tamer, convincingly preened and pouted, generating ample amounts of laughter yet managed to stiff arm her former lover. Mark Thomsen fashioned a suave and avuncular Podesta, but his voice was underpowered.
Geoffrey Schellenberg and Helen Huang| Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera
Florid passages flowed with pinpoint accuracy from Camille Sherman, who fashioned a loyal yet frustrated Ramiro who could not win back Arminda. Helen Huang, as the maid, Serpetta, also commanded her lines with a beautiful agility. Sporting the red cap of a gnome, Geoffrey Schellenberg (looking a bit like John Belushi) created a robust, humorous, and lovesick Nardo, the assistant gardener.
Mark Thomsen and Camille Sherman | Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera
A colorful new set design by Michael Olich for Portland Opera featured terraces surrounded by walls that were painted with large flower blossoms, giving the production a bright, magical effect. Olich also designed carefree costumes that bordered on the cheesy side, such as Belfiore’s flowery suit. Olich's gnome-like costumes for four supernumeraries, who deftly worked about the garden, seamlessly fit into the story.

Playing the harpsicord and conducting, George Manahan guided the orchestra in a polished performance that overcame the dry acoustic of the hall.

At the end of the opera, Sandrina and Belfiore regain their sanity and fall in love, but the other pairings don’t work out. So, Ramiro and Arminda did not reunite, and Serpetta and Nardo remained separate entities. That outcome was a twist on the original score and worked, but left a slightly sour taste.

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