BWW Review: Mozart's GARDENER Is On Site Opera's SECRET Weapon
It had a great score but an unmanageable book. So the director had it reshaped, cut and done in a creative environmental production that sent the singers scampering throughout the audience. No, I'm not talking about Hal Prince's famous reinvention of Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE, but On Site Opera's (OSO) charming new take on Mozart's THE SECRET GARDENER (LA FINTA GIARDINIERA), remodeled in coproduction with the Atlanta Opera and done in a garden on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (It travels next week to Atlanta's Botanical Gardens).
The opera was written when Mozart was just 18, though he already had plenty of work, including operas, under his belt by then--and he hadn't met librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who would help shape three of his most famous operas, LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, COSI FAN TUTTE and DON GIOVANNI. The result was a charming little work, showing us seven people dealing with love and relationships in different ways, that was blown up like one of the balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, nearly four hours long.Still, when the Atlanta Opera's General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun came to OSO's General Director Eric Einhorn (who would also direct the opera) with the idea of doing the opera as a co-production, they both saw something that said "ready for prime time" in the gorgeous music that hinted at some of the great Mozart to come, despite its bloated libretto. All that was needed was a sharp pair of scissors.
The result: a delightful version (and diversion) in a translation by Kelley Rourke that clocked in at about 90 minutes (no intermission) under Einhorn's sure hand. It was the kind of unique, immersive, site-specific production that is OSO's bread and butter, lit creatively by Shawn K. Kaufman. Add to that a cast of young, talented singers and a perky wind octet (plus bass fiddle), called Grand Harmonie led by Music Director Geoffrey McDonald, and the performance was as airy as a day in spring. Thanks to the Westside Community Garden's placement between two apartment buildings, the acoustics weren't the problem they might have been in a more open space, since it was done without amplification.
One really needed a roadmap to keep things straight, since it was everything in the garden for Mozart's lovers, would-be lovers and never-had-a-chance lovers: Mistaken identities, disguises and thwarted advances fill the opera to the brim and the cast was game for anything thrown at them. They even suffered way-below normal temperatures for the first week in May, as they cavorted in sometimes skimpy costumes, done in lively, spring-like colors by Beth Goldenberg, without batting an eyelash.
Standouts were soprano Alisa Jordheim as Serpetta (a feisty Despina-type), fending off the advances of baritone Jorell Williams as Robert (a lively sort of Figaro-in-training), soprano Maeve Hoagland as Arminda (a high-flying cross of Queen of the Night and Donna Elvira) and mezzo Kristin Gornstein as Ramiro, a pants role (soulful in the Gluck mode). Nicely rounding out the cast was soprano Ashley Kerr as Sandrina/Lady Violet (a sort of Susanna with a bigger voice), tenor Spencer Viator as the hotheaded Count Belfiore (a Don Ottavio with nerve) and tenor Jonathan Blalock as Mayor Podesta, whose plans are upended.
All in all, it was the perfect entertainment for a spring evening--if only Mother Nature had cooperated better.
The production, with some revisions, opens in Atlanta on May 19 for three performances for Atlanta Opera subscribers and visitors to the Botanical Gardens, where it will be broadcast live.
On Site Opera's next performances in June, also part of the New York Operafest, complete its alternate Figaro Trilogy with Darius Milhaud's THE GUILTY MOTHER. (Paisiello's BARBER OF SEVILLE and Portugal's THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO were done in previous seasons.) See the OSO website for details.