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La Finta Giardiniera: an opera for opera beginners

It’d been a while since I’d been to an opera, and even though I got my tickets for “La Finta Giardiniera” well in advance, I guess I didn’t fully process that I was going to an opera — a real opera. I know this because when the first sung note of “La Finta Giardiniera” hit my ears, I immediately started writing my notes in all caps, my brain flung into utter chaos. It was beautiful. It was wonderful. I was reminded that opera singers sing with no microphones and it doesn’t even matter because they’re better without them.

My experience only improved as the plot began to develop before me. “La Finta Giardiniera'' — or “The Fake Garden-Girl” — first premiered in 1775, written by Mozart when he was only 18. It puts the opera in soap opera, with a minimalist-type cast and a low demand on audience analysis. Five characters engage in a classic, plot-twist, love-triangle dance, all via Italian language vocals set over a whimsical and ever-changing melodic track.

We begin with Podestà, owner of the home where the story takes place. The story circles predominantly around an upcoming boxing match between Ramiro “The Dove” and Belfiore “The Count”; however, Belfiore has arrived at Podestà’s home for another reason: to marry his outspoken niece, Arminda. This is unfortunate because Ramiro is still nursing a heart broken by Arminda, who deemed him too poor to love. Meanwhile, Belfiore’s presence at the home has shaken up Podestà’s garden-girl — whom he is also in love with — because they had been married until he had attempted — unsuccessfully, unbeknownst to him — to kill her. In the background of all of this action, a worker in the house, Nardo, chases after his co-worker Serpetta, who has absolutely no interest in him.

The tumultuous, if predictable, action was set on a wonderfully minimal set, with simple emotions portrayed lightheartedly by the actors. The most fun part of watching this show was watching the actors have even more fun. As the program noted, the subtitles were not accurate to the literal Italian translations of the vocal parts, and in many cases lines were even added where they did not necessarily occur in the music. Rather than take away from the quality of the show however, the eccentric and ever-comedic subtitling played a large role in the overall modernization of the classic opera and consistently engaged the audience. Tropes and ideas that were native to Mozart’s teenage years were made brand new and relevant by the utter simplicity of the piece - even elements of domestic abuse were approached with care, though it was easy to see the traces of misogynistic values in what original writing remained exposed.

It was an enjoyable opera, with an incredibly charismatic cast, enjoyed by an audience that had a wholesome community aura. There was something for everyone — a failed wedding, a failed proposal, female empowerment, drugs and alcohol, and some unadulterated drama. After two of the characters decide to get high, a dark sequence followed which involved flashlights, glow-in-the-dark Styrofoam popcorn, and neon safety vests. It was pure chaos and pure joy — a wonderful intro to opera for any newcomers and a perfect piece for those who have sat through many.