La finta semplice

Mozart

Information

La finta semplice (K51)
Opera buffa in three acts
First performance at Salzburg in 1769
Libretto by Carlo Goldini and Marco Coltellini, after La fausse Agnès, ou la poète campagnard by Philippe Néricault Destouches (1734)
English translation, as Pride and Pretence, by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

The Deanery garden, Bampton 19, 20 July 2013
The Orangery Terrace, Westonbirt School 25 August 2013
St John's, Smith Square 17 September 2013
The Barn at Bury Court 20 October 2013
The Northern Aldborough Festival 13 June 2014

Cast

Rosina, a Hungarian baroness, sister of Fracasso Aoife O’Sullivan
Don Cassandro, a rich, foolish and miserly gentleman landowner Nicholas Merryweather
Don Polidoro, his younger brother, a foolish nobleman  Robert Anthony Gardiner
Giacinta, their sister Caryl Hughes
Ninetta, their maid  Nathalie Chalkley (2013)
Caroline Kennedy (2014)
Fracasso, a Hungarian captain stationed in the area Adam Tunnicliffe
Simone, his sergeant  Gavan Ring
 
The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera (July, August, October)
CHROMA (September)  
   
Repetiteur Charlotte Forrest
Conductor Andrew Griffiths
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

 

Act I

Fracasso and Simone are billeted on Don Cassandro, a somewhat vain and miserly gentleman of Cremona, who does not intend to allow marriages between his sister, Giacinta, and the captain nor his maid, Ninetta, and Simone.  Fracasso summons Rosina for help: she pretends to be a simpleton who would like to marry not on Cassandro but his silly younger brother Polidoro as well.  She succeeds in wheedling a precious ring from Cassandro.

Act II
Rosina finds herself having to tolerate Polidoro’s boorishness and Cassandro’s drunkenness; the latter narrowly escapes fighting a duel with the captain.  Persuaded that Giacinta has run off with the family treasure, Cassandro promises her hand to whoever finds and returns her.

Act III
Rosina has developed a natural affection for Cassandro.  The other couples are found, forgiven and betrothed whilst Polidoro consoles himself that he wasn’t the only one deceived by the whole episode.

Reviews

...played impeccably
The Oxford Times, July 2013

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...played impeccably

The Oxford Times, July 2013

Bampton Opera is marking its 20th birthday this year by doing what it does best – unearthing a little-known opera and making a case for its acceptance into the mainstream operatic repertoire.  Mozart’s La finta semplice, the composer’s first full-length comedy, was written when he was just 12 and is a delectable cocktail of familiar ingredients – deceit, disguise, flirting and general mayhem.

Admittedly, librettists Carlo Goldini and Marco Coltellini are not in the same league as da Ponte, and even the witty new English translation by Bampton founders Gilly French and Jeremy Gray can’t quite capture the sparkle of the late Mozart operas.  But the music saves the day, and although gain it doesn’t compare to the composer’s mature works, much of it is unmistakeably Mozartian.

Aristocrat Giacinta and her housemaid, Ninetta, are in love with Fracasso and Simone, two soldiers billeted into their household.  But the marriages are forbidden by Giacinta’s brother, Don Cassandro, so they enlist the help of Fracasso’s sister, Rosina.  Usig all her seductive charm, Rosina flirts with both Cassandro and his brother Polidoro, in the hope of softening their attitude to marriage.  Cassandro is eventually forced to accept the marriages of Giacinta and Ninetta – but which brother will Rosina choose?

At Bampton the cast romped their way through the piece with gusto, despite having to battle occasionally against the wind that whips through the Deanery garden.  Nicholas Merryweather coped best in this respect, and his Cassandro was a pleasingly larger-than-life, drunken oaf who could have stepped straight out of 90s sitcom Men Behaving Badly.

Aoife O’Sullivan was delightfully coquettish as Rosina, and she played the two brothers off against each other with impish glee.  Caryl Hughes, Nathalie Chalkley, Adam Tunnicliffe and Gavan Ring were full of energy as the star-crossed lovers, Robert Anthony Gardiner was a hilariously foolish Polidoro and the ever-reliable Bampton orchestra played impeccably under the baton of Andrew Griffiths.

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Nicola Lisle

 

an uplifting and energised evening
Opera Now, September 2013

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an uplifting and energised evening

Opera Now, September 2013

Few British companies are cannier than Bampton in capturing the flair and the fizz of operas that have tumbled out of the repertoire. Amid Paisiello, Gazzaniga, Portugal, Stirace and Henneberg they find time for rare operas by recognised greats: regular forays into Gluck, Haydn and Salieri, and – as here – early Mozart.

The prodigious scamp was 12 when he turned out La finta semplice, three full acts of amazingly pukka material. True, it’s not Figaro, but it’s far from negligible.

In their beautiful garden setting in Oxfordshire, with a punchy if not period orchestra under a top-drawer young conductor, Andrew Griffiths, Bampton didn’t always equal the Buxton Festival’s classic perspective-exploring Finta; yet Jeremy Gray’s surreal, Magritte-spoofing production often came near.

Spinning operatic yarns is one of Bampton’s specialities, making classical opera endless fun. Aoife O’Sullivan’s Rosina, the feigned simpleton of this ditty (actually a feisty Hungarian countess) proved to be the production’s plum. Tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner, splendid at recitative, was cast as the real goon. Gray and his wife Gilly French provided their usual knockout, highly singable rhyming translation.

Nicholas Merryweather, a baritone who can out-Terfel Bryn on a good day, sounded a little muted in Bampton’s rural surroundings; but he was very funny nevertheless. Nathalie Chalkley’s Ninetta is the other obviously superlative voice in a tip-top team. This was an uplifting and energised evening – all in the best traditions of Bampton.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

talented singers… lively performances...
The Daily Telegraph, September 2013

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talented singers… lively performances...

The Daily Telegraph, September 2013

At the age of 12, Mozart was commissioned by the court theatre in Vienna to write a three-act comic opera. In-fighting meant that it only received its première two years later in Salzburg, by which time the composer had moved on to grander things and would have blushed at its naivete.

Yet La finta semplice (roughly translated as “the girl pretending to be a fool”) remains at one level a prodigious achievement – indeed, it seems barely credible that someone still pubescent could have written anything so technically assured and readily tuneful. (Unless the boy had a helping hand from his Tiger Dad Leopold?)

Unfortunately, if age and experience are discounted, the piece stands as little more than a formulaic exercise in the well-established genre of opera buffa, suggestive of a genius for imitation rather than creative originality.

The plot involves the same sort of frivolous amorous deceits as Così fan tutte, without any big surprises. The overall tone is rococo, pretty and perky, with a narrow emotional range which only darkens slightly in two arias in the second act. Both characterization and recitative are perfunctory. At the end, however, comes a tantalizing pre-echo of the reconciliatory music which eighteen years later would crown Le nozze di Figaro. For a moment, it’s something more than competent.

Bampton Classical Opera – based in the summer in a Deanery garden in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency – makes a speciality of rarely heard works of the eighteenth century, and the piece’s modest demands nicely fits its equally modest resources.

Transferred to St John’s Smith Square, Jeremy Gray’s staging does nothing to elucidate the comings and goings or differences of rank, age or personality type, preferring instead to set up a confusingly surreal background evoking the paintings of Magritte.

But seven talented young singers give lively performances: Aoife O’Sullivan sparkles as the lady feigning stupidity in order to get her way, and Caryl Hughes, Robert Anthony Gardiner and Gavan Ring (an Irish baritone clearly going places) also shine as brightly as their music permits. Andrew Griffiths conducts the Chroma ensemble, which played neatly. More of Gray’s amusing translation might have come across in an acoustic less resonant than St John’s.

This is something that any lover of Mozart might want to hear once. But my curiosity has been slaked, and I have no desire to hear a note of it ever again.

 

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Rupert Christiansen

 

commitment and exuberance...
Boulezian, 17 September 2013

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commitment and exuberance...

Boulezian, 17 September 2013

 

Bampton Classical Opera’s annual visit to St John’s Smith Square this year offered La finta semplice, the twelve-year-old Mozart’s three-act opera buffa to a Goldoni libretto as modified by Marco Coltellini. Coltellini had settled in Vienna in the early 1760s, having been appointed as Metastasio’s successor as court poet. Libretti included that for Tommaso Traetta’s 1763 Ifigenia in Tauride, in some ways a precursor of Gluck’s reform operas, incorporating as it did many elements of French tragédie lyrique into the typically more Italianate Viennese opera. Indeed, Gluck would set Coltellini’s Telemaco in 1765, and Salieri his Armida in 1771.

La finta semplice, composed in 1768, came between those two works. Though rehearsed in Vienna in 1768, it was not performed, seemingly the victim of Leopold Mozart’s failure to gain a contract, Mozart’s father having acted upon Joseph II’s suggestion – Joseph was now Holy Roman Emperor, and Co-regent of the Habsburg lands with Maria Theresa, though she still very much wore the imperial trousers – that Mozart might write a work for performance by the court opera. Intrigues that would not have been out of place in Amadeus thwarted the expected performance, and the Mozarts abruptly returned to Salzburg, where La finta semplice would be performed the following year at the Archbishop’s Palace, probably on 1 May. We can be reasonably sure that that performance, employing local musicians including Michael Haydn’s wife, Magdalena Lipp, as Rosina, was the only one during Mozart’s lifetime.

Though occasionally staged since, it remains a rarity. My only previous theatrical encounter with it having been during the heavenly anniversary year of 2006, when Salzburg staged all of Mozart’s operas, though this particular opera received an anything-but-heavenly staging, recitatives being ditched in favour of a gameshow format, in which a squeaky-voiced woman clad in a bright yellow jumpsuit shouted directorial inanities. Michael Hofstetter’s conducting of the Camerata Salzburg was not much better, abrasively harrying an orchestra that bore all too readily the wounds of its Norringtonian passion. (Though I have proved unable to bring myself to return to it, the production is available on DVD, lest the reader think it a figment of my fevered imagination.)

It was, then, with eagerness that I travelled to Westminster for a second chance, sad perhaps that the opera was being offered in translation, yet grateful that it was to be performed at all. The ‘new English translation’ by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray was one of those translations more akin to a new ‘version’: not a problem if it works and proves a thoroughgoing recreation, but in this case tended more towards the merely silly. Words and sometimes whole couplets seemed chosen more on account of the opportunity for an attention-seeking rhyme, such as ‘boozing’ and ‘snoozing’, than because they were dramatically fitting, let alone faithful. Nevertheless, when making a mental comparison with the jumpsuit gameshow ‘version’, one could breathe a sigh or two of relief. Gray’s staging, insofar as one could tell, given its transporting from Bampton to Westminster, offered manic – sometimes a little too manic – action against a vaguely surrealistic backdrop. In that, it was doubtless consistent with the conception apparent from the translation of kinship to farce, though I am not sure that it thereby displayed any real appreciation of Goldoni’s buffa form, Coltellini’s revisions, or indeed Mozart’s music. Partly for that reason, I shall not delve more deeply into the plot; synopses are readily available, and in the circumstances, the musical performance became more evidently the thing.

Certain overheated moments apart, though, it did not particular harm either. Andrew Griffiths was able as conductor to show a far keener appreciation of the score, pacing it well, offering both contrast and, especially during the second and third acts, a proper sense, even at this stage in Mozart’s career, of dramatic development. Griffiths yielded where appropriate, without succumbing in any sense to the mannerisms that so bedevil present performances of eighteenth-century repertoire. If there were occasions when one missed the sound of a full orchestra, the CHROMA ensemble offered for the most part finely honed, sensitive playing: stylish without affectation. Charlotte Forrest deserves special mention as the excellent harpsichord continuo player. A young cast offered an ensemble that was definitely more than the sum of its parts, not that they were negligible. If in many cases some numbers proved more strongly sung than others, there was a high level not only of promise but accomplishment.   Aoife O’Sullivan’s account of Rosina, the baroness, was perhaps the high point, its musical sensitivity matching that of the players. But a general sense of commitment and exuberance went a long way.

 

Jeremy Gray’s reply (18 September)

I'm delighted that you found plenty to praise in our performance and there is some comfort that you considered the production preferable to the Salzburg one, which certainly seemed abstracted to the point of emptiness. But perhaps I might comment on some of your points? La finta semplice is the work of a child - tuneful and energetic, bursting with promise, but predictably low on emotional depth. Some of its faults may lie in the fact that a 12 yr-old composer could hardly have understood the issues of marital relationships on which the libretto centres. But - and this was quickly apparent at the start of the long process of bringing the piece to realisation on the stage - the main 'problems' in the work lie squarely in the libretto, one which surely a few years later Mozart would have soundly rejected. Goldoni and Coltellini may be significant librettists but ‘finta’ is extraordinarily weak – in sentiments, narrative and structure. We almost dropped the project when we came to understand what a poor text we were having to work with. Perhaps we could have glossed over its infelicities by performing in Italian, but there seems little point in presenting an unknown comedy on the stage to audiences in a language they do not (usually) understand. In our translation we aimed at verbal energy and directness to communicate what is undeniably a farcical plot enacted by two-dimensional characters. The Italian original bristles with rhymes, often quite forced, and in a language which is often blunt and replete with insults. Our English was therefore rather closer to the meaning and spirit of the Italian than you might think. 
We will admit to being a ‘version’ inasmuch as we drastically shortened the recitatives. In some cases these extended to twenty pages of score with little development of plot or character: such adaptation could be criticised as not ‘displaying any real appreciation’ but is entirely within the spirit of eighteenth-century performance practice when there was little respect for the finality of the score. As for language, you mention as an example ‘boozing’ and ‘snoozing’ – but here’s the Italian: Un affronto novella! Corpo di santanasso! Andatene a dormire, se avete voi bevuto! / Ma l’anello l’ha avuto. / Che anello, ubriacone? A row between a drunken lord and an enraged soldier is unlikely to be voiced in a refined literary style, and the translator must find an appropriate idiom for argument and insult whilst also respecting the rhythms and stresses of the music. 
I wonder why you found the setting only ‘vaguely’ surrealist? Within the limitations of a small budget, the design was closely modelled on specific paintings by Magritte which many have recognised, approved of and smiled at. I made some comments on this by way of explanation in a programme note. Magritte was the ultimate faux-naïf in art, rigorously pursuing a ‘feigned naiviety’ in style and subject in order to explore the paradoxes of illusion. That seemed well-suited to the underlying theme of the text.

 

Mark Berry’s reply (18 September)

Thank you for your generous reply: to my shame, rather more generous than I was. I agree that the libretto is no masterpiece, but at least Italian, whatever its level of elevation or otherwise, has the merit of sounding 'right'; it is what Mozart set. However, although in general, I am no fan of translation, I should hate to be fundamentalist about such matters, and think I should probably have been more appreciative of the difficulty of the task you faced.
'Vaguely' was, I admit, more than a little vague in terms of meaning. I suspect that the cause of such a response was, as you suggest, very real financial restraints. Doubtless the designs would have made a stronger impact with greater resources, but I felt them to be somewhat drowned out, as it were, by the hustle and bustle of the stage activity. Magritte of course shone through nonetheless, and I should clearly have done better to mention him by name. I am afraid I did not see a programme, so was unable to read the essay. The idea you mention here of feigned simplicity, however, seems both apt and winning. Perhaps I should respond differently, were I to see the production again.

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Mark Berry

 

superb, stylish playing...
Opera Today, September 2013

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superb, stylish playing...

Opera Today, September 2013

Mozart cut his operatic teeth on La finta semplice, as a twelve-year-old prodigy being paraded before the Viennese court by his ambitious father, Leopold.

Responding enthusiastically to a casual remark by Emperor Joseph II that the young wunderkind might like to compose an opera for the court, the proud parent precipitately exclaimed, “Today we are to see a Gluck and tomorrow a boy of twelve seated at the harpsichord conducting his own opera”.

Unfortunately his impetuous pronouncement was a little premature, for Leopold had not reckoned with the jealousy of the musical retinue at court, who were not keen to be upstaged by an unwelcome upstart, and with the machinations of the Emperor’s dubious theatre manager, Giuseppe d’Afflisio, who - already in financial difficulties - was unwilling to take a gamble on the first operatic efforts of an untried teenager. The unworthiness of a twelve-year-old to occupy the hallowed maestro’s chair was urged, the merit of the music disputed, and its veracity challenged, some alleging that it had in fact been composed by Leopold.

Mozart did compose the opera, but had to wait until 1769 for the first performance, in Salzburg. However, in some ways Leopold Mozart’s suggestion that a new operatic age, led by his precocious offspring, was about to dawn was spot on. While a remarkable achievement for an adolescent, La finta semplice is understandably lacking in the richness and variety of human feeling of Mozart’s later works, but nevertheless the instinctive sense of the dramatic and innate feeling for musical characterisation is already evident, and there are a few gleams of the move from aria-based form to truly interactive ensembles which was soon to follow. Moreover, there are incipient signs of the combination of the comic and the tragic which define the Mozartian genius.

Comparisons with the mature opera buffa are unfair but inevitable, especially as the plot revolves around that old staple of obstructions to young love being overcome by wiles and wisdom; and one may indeed discern a touch of Despina in Ninetta, or a foretaste of Figaro’s Countess in Rosina.

In fact, the actions of Coltellini’s libretto, adapted from a play by Goldoni’s 1764, and the familiar character ‘types’, drawn from everyday life, are closer to commedia dell’arte than the clever complexities of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s comic masterpieces. A Hungarian officer, Fracasso, and his sergeant, Simone, are billeted with two rich, unmarried brothers, the irritable and petulant Don Cassandro and the more timid, empty-headed Don Polidoro. The brothers have a sister, Giacinta, whom Fracasso is wooing, while Simone addresses his amorous advances towards Giacinta’s maid, Ninetta. Fracasso and Simone determine to enlist the assistance of Fracasso’s sister, Rosina; with ‘finta semplice’ - literally, pretended foolishness - she will flirt and divert the attention of both brothers. This she does with thespian adroitness and the predictable complications follow. Ultimately, the brothers are told that Giacinta and Ninetta have absconded with the family jewels and the princes are persuaded by Rosina to offer the light-fingered lasses’ hands in marriage to the men who can find them and return the treasures. Inevitably, this feat is duly accomplished by Fracasso and Simone, and the nuptials are agreed. Rosina - having led Polidoro to believe he is the favoured one - at the last surprisingly switches her devotion to the misogynist Cassandro, exposing her ‘innocent’ deception and declaring that she surely deserves forgiveness for being cleverer than she appeared. Polidoro accepts his rejection, consoled by the fact that his brother has been proven to be equally foolish, and multiple marriages ensue.

‘Pride and Pretence’, the title of Jeremy Gray and Gilly French’s frivolous but efficacious translation, aptly encapsulates the work. Sharp rhymes keep the farce whipping along and add a touch of slickness to the boisterous larks on stage.

So often the plots of commedia and of opera buffa defy unequivocal explanation - have you ever tried to summarise the libretto of Figaro for an opera novice? Thus, Jeremy Gray’s surreal sets, comprising copious visual references to René Magritte - who so disliked explanations which diluted the enigma of his images - made a fittingly ambiguous and paradoxical backdrop to this tale of mistaken identity and crossed purposes.

Magritte’s Les amants, in which the identity of the figures is mysteriously veiled in white muslin, as two blanketed heads attempt to kiss each other through their cloth encasements, may hint at darker themes - isolation, suffocation and alienation - but here served to highlight the frustrated desire experienced by all the personnel, and perhaps too the inability to fully know the true nature of even our most intimate acquaintances. Sculptured torsos, derived from ‘La Lumière des coincidences’ were similarly enshrouded throwing illumination on the illogicality of life - as Magritte himself said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us.” The floating clouds of the painter’s ‘The Empire of Light’, hovering bowler hats and green apples plucked from ‘The Son of Man’, and the impenetrable perplexities of ‘Ceci n'est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe) formed a kind of surreal graffiti which established an aptly chaotic ambience of confusion and contradiction, blurring reality and illusion.

The cast were uniformly excellent - totally committed to the music and alert to the comic potential of the drama. Several of the singers are long-time Bampton associates and this helped to create a sense of comfortable companionship and confidence.

As the irascible Don Cassandro, baritone Nicholas Merryweather was drily peevish in his Act 1 aria but he did not settle into caricature, and showed dramatic and musical intelligence in developing the complexity of the role as the action progressed. Mozart’s music may be stylistically somewhat unvarying but there are some signs of the remarkable musical delineation which would be the hallmark of his later operas. Thus, Polidoro’s arias are often of slower tempo and while Robert Anthony Gardiner took advantage of every opportunity to convey the younger prince’s inanity he also added an occasional note of pathos to his warm tenor, especially during the aria in which he confesses his subjugation to Rosina and at the moment of his ultimate disillusionment.

Simone is a role of minor importance, but bass Gavan Ring made a big impression, his voice full of character and his diction clear; his breathless entrance during the Act 1 Finale was especially effective, as he rushed in with an announcement that a handsome stranger is requesting permission to wait upon Rosina and take her out to dinner, throwing all into confusion and paving the way for the troubles and trickeries ahead. Adam Tunnicliffe was a boisterous Fracasso, expertly colouring the recitative, every word audible, and singing with ringing tone. Only in his final aria did he seem to tire a little, the rhythmic tightness occasionally lessening.

Aoife O’Sullivan demonstrated stamina and flexibility in the demanding role of Rosina, despatching the glittering coloratura of her lengthy Act 3 aria with accomplishment and ease. She used her supple, sweet-toned soprano to communicate character and text with clarity, and revealed herself to be no mean actress too, drolly playing the simpleton to Polidoro, masterfully manipulating Cassandro and clever controlling the amorous destinies of her brother, her sister-in-law-to-be’s maid and herself. As Ninetta, Nathalie Chalkley’s bright soprano and comic astuteness suggest she would make a good Susanna; Caryl Hughes was highly effective in the small role of Giacinta.

Conductor Andrew Griffiths demonstrated a keen sense of style and dramatic momentum, drawing superb, stylish playing from the eighteen musicians of CHROMA. The recitatives, skilfully and sensitively accompanied by harpsichordist Charlotte Forrest, raced along - convincing, lively conversations rather than dramatic longueurs (the contrast to Figaro at the ROH the evening before was notable). It was in the act finales - where the characters enter in rather jerky succession compared with the smooth accumulation of texture and tempo of the later operas - that Griffiths most particularly showed his dramatic acumen, managing the abrupt changes of style, tempo and time signature with impressive control, forming an effective chain of contrasting sections.

Occasionally the on-stage shenanigans were perhaps rather too busy and barmy, but this may well have been a result of the restrictions imposed by the limited stage area: the elongated narrow strip must have seemed exasperatingly cluttered and congested compared to the more expansive dimensions of the open-air stage at the Deanery Gardens in Bampton for which the production was devised. (Incidentally, operatic croquet seems to be all the rage at present: BYO’s recent production of Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage featured a panoply of ‘sporting’ ensembles - but Bampton got there first!) Overall, this was another discerningly amusing performance by Bampton Classical Opera: a cheerful, charming production which confirmed the essential mystery of the ordinary and the inscrutability of the world of love.

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Claire Seymour

 

Programme notes

Pride and Pretence
Julian Rushton

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Pride and Pretence

 

Pride and Pretence

The title is probably best left without translation. ‘Finta’ and its parallel male form ‘finto’ have no neat English equivalent, but both, and their plural form, often crop up in opera buffatitles. ‘Pretended’ is favoured by the New Grove Dictionary, but seems cumbersome; the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopediaoffers ‘The Feigned Simpleton’. The person described is acting a part, in order to be taken for a different person, or a person of different character. So ‘Finta/o’ might be rendered as ‘fake’ or ‘false’, so long as these are not taken to imply disapproval; in most cases as the imposture is undertaken for a good reason, and by a virtuous character. The point of the pretence, of course, is that the other characters, or some of them, are in the dark, while the audience knows who the person really is – even when, as in Mozart’s La finta giardiniera(1775), the lady herself (a countess pretending to be a gardener) becomes confused about her identity.

The Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni, the most influential librettist in the formation of an increasingly sophisticated type of opera buffa, wrote Il finto principe(the fake prince) in 1749; a later setting is listed among ‘doubtful’ works of the great master of opera buffa, Giovanni Paisiello. His confirmed output includes Le finte contesse(the fake countesses) and La finta amante(one –female – pretending to be a lover). Thus it isn’t too surprising that Mozart’s relatively modest output of opera buffa(just five finished works: Paisiello had written over 30 before his delightful Barbiere di Siviglia  of 1782, with many more to follow) should include two ‘fintas’.

In Goldoni’s La finta semplice(1764), the person pretending to be a simpleton (Rosina) is known from the start to be acting, her role-play being directed specifically at Cassandro whom, rather surprisingly given what we see of him, she finally decides to marry. This allows the other characters to pair off, except for his brother Polidoro. He is somewhat cruelly deceived into believing that Rosina will marry him, but is left on the shelf, like the Mayor at the end of La finta giardiniera. Such rejection seems to be the fate of the second tenor, whereas the first tenor (Fracasso) and his servant (Simone) have successfully manipulated the brothers to gain their consent to marry, respectively, Giacinta and Ninetta. The essence of the plot is typical of opera buffa, flowing even into the masterpiece of the genre, Le nozze di Figaro, though more obviously in its prequel, Il barbiere: obstacles to young love are raised by an older man, and are overcome through the ingenuity of the lovers, with a little help from their friends. The story is capable of infinite variation. In this case the novelty is that the foolish older man is split into the brothers Cassandro and Polidoro, each described in the cast-list as ‘gentiluomo sciocco’: foolish gentleman. But their stupidity takes different forms, reflected in their music: Cassandro choleric and domineering, Polidoro weakly amorous. It is mainly for Cassandro’s benefit that Rosina, to help her brother Fracasso win his bride, pretends to be simple-minded. One is left feeling that their marriage will be more equal than if she wed the ineffectual Polidoro, or even that she will prove the dominant partner.

The other members of the cast are also formed from the pool of types expected this genre, drawn from the popular commedia dell’arte, with its Harlequin, Pantaloon, and Columbine. Ninetta is the ingenious maid who gets her way, a well-established type in Italian comedy, represented in Mozart’s opera buffeby Sandrina (La finta giardiniera) and of course Susanna. Her musical style is simpler than Rosina’s, who is given most opportunities for vocal display, and Giacinta’s, whose Act III aria in a minor key reflects her fear of her brothers; they have dominated her life so far, and she has just run off with their money and is about to marry a young man they disapprove of, despite his military bearing and engaging personality.

The great difference between the ‘finta’ operas and Mozart’s Da Ponte masterpieces is the use, in the latter, of ensembles: the duets, trios, and larger groupings that drive the action forward in parallel with the expansion of the musical form. In the form established by Goldoni and imitated by other librettists, the solo aria predominated just as it did in serious opera of the time. Only in the short ‘chorus’ (of soloists) that begins the opera, and in the three finales, do several voices come together, and even there much of the music is rapid exchange rather than the complicated textures Mozart was to master in the 1780s. There is one entertaining duet as Fracasso and Cassandro offer to fight a duel; and the arias are separated by simple recitatives, intended to be delivered at the speed of speech.

Within this somewhat rigid formula, one can only admire the 12-year-old composer’s ability to pattern his arias differently according to the character and situation. They vary in length, with Rosina and Fracasso allowed the greatest expansion for singing that touches on the style of serious opera; Goldoni’s librettos promoted this mixture of serious and comic idioms, in which he was followed by Da Ponte. The arias are varied in form, some maintaining a single tempo, others presenting contrasted speeds and metres. Giacinta’s minor-key aria is never finished, as Fracasso interrupts and persuades her that she has nothing to fear, before setting off on the longest aria with the usually modest orchestra enlarged by flutes. As a military man, he might have had trumpets, but Mozart was no doubt working within the limitations of the theatre. The importance of Rosina (clearly the prima donna, and a baroness to boot) is enhanced when one of her arias is enriched by the sound of two cors anglais as well as a solo oboe and horns: at this point, she is in her true character, as the foolish brothers are not present.

* * * * *

The Mozart family visited Vienna in 1767, only a few months after returning home to Salzburg at the end of their Grand Tour through Western Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands. Their plan to conquer the Austrian capital was interrupted by a smallpox epidemic, in which one of the Habsburg Archduchesses died. The Mozarts were offered hospitality out of harm’s way, in Moravia, but both children nevertheless contracted the disease (which was not always fatal). The family returned to Vienna shortly before Wolfgang’s twelfth birthday, and were graciously received by the widowed empress Maria Theresia. At this royal audience her eldest son, recently promoted to being joint ruler as emperor Joseph II, idly remarked that it would be interesting to see the young genius write an opera buffa. Leopold Mozart, ever eager to show off his son, took this as the promise of a commission from the court theatre; the impresario was informed and probably agreed to provide a suitable libretto. La finta semplicewas chosen. It had been set four years earlier, and in another city, by a wholly forgotten composer named Perillo. For Mozart, it was touched up by a local poet and librettist, Marco Coltellini, who strengthened the piece by adding a more elaborate finale to the third act. So far so good …

At the age of twelve, Mozart was best known as a keyboard prodigy, but in addition to instrumental works he had already composed a fair amount of dramatic music. In London he had improvised arias to the astonishment of Daines Barrington, who reported formally on his precocity to the Royal Society. Aged nine and ten, he had composed several separate arias; aged eleven, he wrote part of a German oratorio, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebotes, and a short opera in Latin, Apollo et Hyacinthus. These were performed in Salzburg in 1767, giving Mozart the chance to gauge the effect of his musical choices in form, instrumentation, and style. La finta semplicewas his first comedy, but for a boy with a sense of humour (which Mozart certainly had in abundance) it surely suited his talents no less than serious topics.

But the Viennese knew nothing of his previous efforts; the boy’s abilities in dramatic music were publicly questioned; and since he was only twelve, it was his father Leopold Mozart, not always a model of tact, who had to take on the fight. It is difficult to be certain of the facts here, since the only account we have comes from Leopold, decidedly an interested party. At best, there was misunderstanding; at worst, chicanery of a kind Leopold was only too readily inclined to expect from the Italians who formed the opera buffatroupe.

The problem may have arisen because Leopold should not have taken the emperor’s casual remark – ‘would the boy like to compose an opera and direct the performance?’ – as a formal invitation. But Joseph II had not yet assumed command of the imperial theatres. The opera buffacompany was run by an Italian crook, Giuseppe Affligio, who some years later came to a bad end in the galleys. Affligio may have acted on what he assumed was an imperial diktat, and so at first he agreed to put on the opera and pay the usual fee. But he seems to have developed cold feet; putting on a work by a child was too great a financial risk; he could well have lost his money. It is thus plausible that it was he who rumours that the opera was actually or largely by Leopold, and that the singers would refuse to sing it – although in fact some of them rehearsed their arias and (according to Leopold) were perfectly happy. (The canard that his music was badly written for voices pursued Mozart to the end of his life, affecting the reception of Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito).

The greater calumny, that the boy couldn’t have composed such an elaborate score, was easily refuted. Leopold gathered the great and the good as eye-witnesses and Wolfgang composed an aria to a text he hadn’t previously seen. But Leopold’s letters, no doubt coloured by his tendency to paranoia, suggest that rumours were not so easily suppressed; moreover, Joseph declined to exert force majeure, and was probably not impressed by Leopold’s whinging. In the 1780s, when the adult Mozart lived in Vienna, Joseph (by then sole ruler) was generally supportive, but in 1773 Maria Theresia instructed one of his brothers, then governing in Milan, not to employ ‘useless people’ like Mozart; besides, added this mother of ten, ‘he has a large family’.

Thus in the end La finta semplicewas not given in Vienna. By way of consolation, Mozart had his short German opera Bastien und Bastienneperformed during autumn 1768, and on 7 December, just before the family returned to Salzburg, his large-scale mass known as the Waisenhausmessewas performed in the presence of Habsburg royalty. Finally, in May 1769, the Salzburg singers, although not accustomed to opera buffa, performed La finta semplicejust once, in the Archbishop’s palace. A printed libretto survives from this occasion, with a list of the cast, singers ‘all currently in the service of His Highness the Most Reverend etc.’. This formula refers back to the previous page, which is filled with the titles of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, who commanded the performance. The librettist isn’t named, and small letters beneath the ‘etc.’ tell us ‘The music is by Signor Wolfgango Mozart, in his twelfth year’ (actually his thirteenth). As we now realise, the boy had proved yet again, as he had to Daines Barrington in London, that he was an ape of genius; he could imitate to perfection any dramatic style that was required. But there is nothing to tell us how the opera was received, and it wasn’t heard again until 1921 – translated into German.

 

 

Julian Rushton

Julian Rushton is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and has published extensively on opera and on Mozart.

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