Conservatories give music lovers the chance to see unusual repertoire without the constraint of the box office. It was enterprising of the UNC School of the Arts to present a professional quality staging of the comic opera La Finta Giardiniera (The Disguised Gardener-Girl) (1775) by the seventeen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) in the Agnes de Mille Theatre. Productions give the full theater experience to members of both the School of Music and the School of Design and Production. The lead singers are members of the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute along with additional singers, extras, and instrumentalists from the music school. Costumes, sets, lighting, and wigs were created by the School of Design and Production. The opera was sung in Italian with lively English supertitles.
Black silhouette portraits were popular in the eighteenth century so it was apt and imaginative to have the now-traditional plot mime taking place during the overture set within an ornamental cartouche in the center of the movable outer set representing a garden wall. This depicts the accidental stabbing of Marchesa Violante Onesti by her lover Count Belfiore which sets the opera plot in motion. Violante is thought to be dead, but she has disguised herself as Sandrina, the gardener of the Podestà (Mayor) of Lagonero, Don Anchise. Her servant Roberto is pretending to be her cousin Nardo. Serpetta is the Mayor's opinionated servant. The Mayor is arranging a marriage between his niece, Arminda (a Milanese noblewoman) and Count Belfiore (Violante's former lover). The Mayor's friend, the Cavalier Ramiro, is the rejected former lover of Arminda. The plot line involves the Mayor, who loves Sandrina; his servant Serpetta, who loves him; and Sandrina's "cousin" Nardo, who loves Serpetta. Count Belfiore and Arminda seem more than ready to settle for a good match until the plot thickens. Cavalier Ramiro moons about, brings a crucial message, and finally catches "fire" in Act III. Love matches are more or less solved.
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lazarz* displayed a solid, well-rounded voice in the role of the dejected Cavalier Ramiro. Her vocal prowess finally got a chance to shine in her aria "Va pure ad altri in braccio," in which Ramiro scolds Arminda. The role of the Podestà was sung beautifully by tenor Jonathan Johnson, who pulled out the stops while fleshing out his rich comic role, giving a truly brilliant performance. His aria "Dentro il mio petto" was tour de force, sung as he stood near the orchestra pit, rhapsodizing over various musical combinations, not the least Mozart's frequent division of the violas. Soprano Jaclyn Surso lacked nothing in vocal power or agility, conveying Violante/Sandrina's emotional turmoil. Her aria "Vorrei punirti, indegno" was a highlight in which she vents her fury against Belfiore in Mozart's favorite emotional key of G minor.
Baritone Thao Nguyen sang his display aria "Con un vezzo all'Italiana" in which Nardo/Roberto tries to win Serpetta with a funny polyglot-like love song that reflects Mozart's love of comic wordplay. Soprano Megan Cleaveland brought considerable comic skills to the role of Serpetta, a role similar to the world-wise Despina in Così fan tutte but with an edge. She blended a strong and even voice with comic high jinks. Her aria "Chi vuol godere il mondo," advising taking the world as it is, as well as her later drunken aria, were hits with the audience.
A red wig was apt for the fiery Arminda, sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar, whose voice lacked nothing in power or control. Her aria "Si promette facilmente" is a frank character portrait in which she warns fiancée Belfiore she will slap him into the next county if ever she catches him cheating. Jesse Darden brought a warm, even tenor voice to the role of the indecisive and guilt-ridden Belfiore. His aria "Che beltà, che leggiadria" is a formal portrait of the gallant lover while his passionate love for Violante is revealed in their duets.
Conductor James Allbritten led a sensitive and stylish performance with precise co-ordination between the singers on stage and the skilled UNCSA Symphony Orchestra in the pit. Stage Director Steven La Cosse blocked his singers superbly and helped bring out rich characterizations from his cast. The mix of movable units by scene designer Amber Primm made an effective space. Costumes by Katherine Pavlovna Goldberg and wigs and makeup by Loryn Pretorius were very rich and effective, as was the lighting designed by Manuel O. Da Silva. The wilderness set or its design ought to be saved for some future "Wolf's Glen" in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. Do not miss any chance to see one of the two remaining performances.
The opera will be repeated on April 25 at 7:30 p.m. and April 27 at 2:00 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.
*Updated 5/7/14: "The Martina Arroyo Foundation's young artist program, Prelude to Performance, [is] happy to announce that ... mezzo-soprano, Jennifer Lazarz who studies with Marilyn Taylor the the Fletcher School of Music, will be joining our Prelude to Performance program in NYC this summer. Ms. Lazarz will be performing the role of Berta in Rossini's, Il Barbiere di Siviglia( Barber of Seville). Ms. Arroyo, internationally celebrated spinto soprano who was a recent Kennedy Center Honors recipient, began her Foundation, a not for profit 501(c) (3) organization based in NYC, in 2003. She realized through her performance experience and teaching that young emerging opera singers needed a good basis in character study, language and stage craft as well as music coachings and an opportunity to perform in a safe environment while learning a complete role. For more information about the Foundation please go to http://www.martinaarroyofdn.