In a contest for complicated opera plots, Mozart's La finta giardiniera could have the inside track. For all of the machinations in this comedy about love, jealousy and disguises among a colorful bunch of aristocrats and servants, nothing of great significance happens - unlike in Mozart's mature comic masterpieces The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. But there's plenty of entertainment in a sitcom-y way and, more importantly, the music is delectable. At 19, Mozart was far from green; his genius is everywhere to be heard.
You can sample the charms of the rarely staged La finta giardiniera (roughly, The Pretend Gardener) in a pleasant production from Opera Vivente that wraps up this weekend. Director John Bowen has chosen to use as a starting point the revision of the score Mozart made when it was refashioned into a German singspiel - a style that uses spoken dialogue, rather than accompanied recitative, in between the vocal numbers. The opera is given here in English.
The score contains more than three hours of music. Not all of the minutes therein flew by Friday night in the cozy performance space at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, but Bowen's light touch helped the action flow in generally stylish form. Conductor Aaron Sherber, who prepared the effective reduction of the original orchestration to fit the company's dimensions, did his part to keep things moving, too. The 10-piece ensemble encountered some rough patches, but conveyed a good deal of the music's sparkle.
Although not exactly matched in tone and technique, the spirited cast served the music nicely. As the countess temporarily reduced to gardening after being stabbed and left for dead by her lover (don't ask), Vikki Jones offered warm, vibrant singing. A little roughness at the top of the scale was easily compensated for by the soprano's elegant phrasing. Jennifer Blades had great fun with the role of Arminda, engaged to the very same knife-wielding man who messed up the gardener's life. The mezzo's juicy tone and flair for comic mugging gave the performance a continual lift.
Another mezzo, Jessica Renfro, brought vocal polish to the trouser role of the Arminda-smitten Don Ramiro. The cast also included Elizabeth Davis, William Helm, William Martin and John Zuckerman. Paul Christensen's simple set, based on botanical designs (note the poisonous varieties), did the trick, as did Norah Worthington's comely period costumes.
Remaining performances of La finta giardiniera are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $28, $20 for students and seniors. Call 410-547-7997.
The Handel Choir of Baltimore honored its namesake with an engaging performance of the oratorio Solomon Sunday afternoon in the acoustically inviting sanctuary at Har Sinai. Although short on narrative power, the score contains some of Handel's most brilliant writing, vocal and instrumental.
T. Herbert Dimmock's conducting could have used more clarity and rhythmic solidity, but he was sensitive to the structural and emotional strengths of the music. He hit a particularly effective peak in "Swell, swell the full chorus," setting a bouncy pace and bringing out the bright colors of Handel's writing. But his tempo for the famous orchestral number, "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba," was rather draggy (a concession, perhaps, to the dancers who appeared as part of the semi-staged - and not terribly persuasive - elements in this presentation).
At their best, the choristers produced a balanced sound, articulated cleanly and scored expressive points. Accurate pitch and rhythm proved to be a sometime thing for mezzo Nancy Ginsberg, as Solomon, though she rallied nicely by the end. Darren Chase sang with such warmth and nuance that a few strained high notes proved insignificant; the tenor's deep affinity for the Handelian style came through at every turn in the melodic line.
The other soloists - Edward Crafts, Wonjung Kim and Jocelyn Taylor - did more or less accomplished, stylish work. Some raggedness aside, the orchestra provided strong support; when the baroque trumpets and timpani joined the fray, the majesty of Solomon emerged quite compellingly.