While Summerfest is reaching out to first-time opera goers this season, even opera fans are unlikely to be familiar with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's delightful "The Secret Gardener," which the festival presented for the first time Sunday afternoon at The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.
Four of the operas Mozart wrote late in his short life -- "The Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni," "Cosi fan tutte" and "The Magic Flute" -- established him as an opera composer with an unsurpassable gift for combining comedy with extraordinarily sympathetic depiction of deeper feelings.
"La finta giardineira" was written in 1774 when Mozart was 18 -- more than a decade before "Figaro." The title refers to an aristocratic lady who is pretending to be a gardener, which will provide the dramatic resolution for a romantic comedy built, as so many are, on confused identities and misaligned romantic desires.
Summerfest offered an abridged and condensed version of "The Secret Gardener." The opera, when it is performed, is usually cut. A complete performance lasts nearly three-and-a-half hours without intermissions. The version heard Sunday lasted two hours. Many arias were removed, and there were trims in individual numbers. The second and third acts were presented without break, and the opening of the third act was transplanted to follow the single intermission.
Comedy was the cardinal virtue in Summerfest's production, which was directed by Michelle Sutherland. Mozart wrote recitatives for the premiere and substituted spoken dialogue for a revision in German in 1780. The opera was performed with dialogue in an English translation by Anthony Addison.
Sutherland led the cast to inflect the words in ways -- often with sexual innuendo -- sure to get laughs. When the mayor of the town, one of the purely comic figures in the show, says near the end, "I shall be a widower for the rest of my days," he emphasized the last word in a way that everyone thought of what follows days.
Laughter repeatedly rang out during the performance. Yet, the style of comedy Sutherland used, for the most part stock characters with popular sit-com sensibilities, undercut a quality that makes this early opera a precursor of greater Mozart. Several characters in "The Secret Gardener" feel a tragic element in their lives that is treated sympathetically by Mozart, feelings that are not fodder for humor for the first time in Italian comic opera.
One should feel sympathy with, above all, the secret gardener herself, the aristocrat Violante Onesti, who is believed to have been killed in a fight with her fiancee, Count Belfiore, before the opera begins. Despite a good if lightweight performance of the title role by Catherine O'Rourke, the staging didn't encourage taking anything seriously.
Sutherland used the back of the Art Deco Theater for the action, leaving the room's stage unused behind the audience. Much of the singing was delivered as though the opera was an oratorio -- facing the audience directly at the front of a small balcony -- with comparatively little physical interaction between the characters. Their hand gestures were stylized and awkward.
The standout vocal performance was by countertenor Andrey Nemzer as Don Ramiro, who has been dumped by the woman he loves, Arminda.
Nemzer, who was one of the winners of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, has an amazing voice that is full- bodied up to his highest notes. He has the first aria, "Cruel is her heart," and established a vocal standard that none of the other singers met. His singing style was, admittedly, more oriented to opera seria than comedy, but his Russian-accented speaking voice was full of witty insinuation.
Armida was strongly played by Julia Turnbull, but was encouraged to be so aggressively assertive that any prospective husband would be wise to get a protection from abuse order as part of a prenuptual agreement.
The other singers played their roles effectively but with limitations, such as Joseph Gaines as Belfiore lacking agility and James Rodriguez as Nardo being prone to edging sharp.
The instrumental contribution also was problematic, following inevitably from the small orchestra of single strings and winds not tuning right before the conductor came out.
Maria Sensi Sellner led with authority, using a clean beat, choosing excellent tempi and showing admirable sensitivity to the singers.
"The Secret Gardener" will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. July 20 at The Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. Admission is $20 to $70. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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