Mozart’s first full-length opera La finta semplice (K. 51) was performed on 6 June 2018, a sunny afternoon at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London’s Southbank Centre. The work was presented by Classical Opera as a part of the Mozart 250 project, an ongoing exploration of Mozart’s works and influences begun in 2015. Mozart 250 works chronologically, this year’s focus being on the works of 1768, exactly 250 years ago. The performance marks the much-anticipated debut of Classical Opera conductor Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Southbank Centre; appropriately timed too, as the newly renovated Queen Elizabeth Hall offers updated seating and improved acoustics.
A rare work to see live, La finta semplice (which roughly translates as ‘the false innocent’) was sadly only performed once during Mozart’s lifetime, and received little attention until 1983 when it was recorded in its entirety for the first time by Austrian conductor Leopold Hager (see Thomas E. Glasow, ‘Recordings’, Opera Quarterly 8: 3 (1991), 147-151). At the age of twelve, Mozart began composing his first opera at the request of Emperor Joseph II. He successfully composed the piece, however staging the performance would prove difficult as Viennese impresario Giusseppe Affligio had legal control over the opera houses in Vienna. According to the evening’s programme, Affligio began a rumour that Wolfgang’s father, Leopold, was behind the compositions; consequently ‘the singers were incited, the orchestra was stirred up, and everything was done to stop the performance of the opera’. In this day and age, it is unthinkable to question the originality and genius of Mozart’s compositions, however at the time the boy prodigy garnered awe and jealousy in equal measures.
If audience members were expecting a reserved performance, this rendition of Mozart’s first opera will have disappointed. La finta semplice is first and foremost an opera buffa. Based on a text by Carlo Goldoni, it features twenty-six numbers over three acts, and traces the antics of seven characters who manage to fall in love, dupe each other, and marry within a span of 24 hours. La finta is lively with moments of slapstick humour, drunken tirades, pantomime, runaway brides, and recognizable eighteenth-century trope figures. That is not to say however that the acting was overdone, or too exaggerated. On the contrary, the performers built their emotions appropriately throughout the evening in a believable and congruous manner.
The opera opens on an elegant semi-staged set with the Mozartists situated upstage. The action takes place in Cremona, Northern Italy, and features two sets of lovers: Giacinta (played by Sophie Rennert; mezzo-soprano) paired with Hungarian captain Fracasso (played by Thomas Elwin; tenor); and his sergeant Simone (played by Božidar Smiljanić; bass) paired with Giacinta’s maid Ninetta (played by Chiara Skerath, soprano). The true stars of both the text and the performance are brothers Don Cassandro (played by Lukas Jakobski; bass) and Don Polidoro (Alessandro Fisher; tenor) who vie for the heart of Fracasso’s sister, Baroness Rosina (played by Regula Mühlemann; soprano). Rosina acts the part of the false innocent, as she tricks the Dons into falling in love with her. Through a well-hatched plan that claims Ninetta and Giacinta fled with the family fortunes, Rosina forces the brothers to promise that their sister and maid must be allowed to marry whomever “finds” them first, respectively Capt. Fracasso and Simone.
Jakobski’s body and voice commanded attention, first as he acted the part of an aggressive misogynist, and then later as the passionate, even silly, bachelor. His costume of muted red satin breeches, white stockings, and bright gold vest showed his character’s high status in society, while the singer’s towering height and bald head contributed to his commanding presence on the stage. The costume lends itself to the lovelorn role he later assumes, and marks the transitions from attitudes such as aria no. 4, ‘Non c’e al mondo altro che donne’, wherein he bans women from his household, to aria no. 8, ‘Ella vuole ed io torrei’, which sees his enchanted attempts to describe his emotions for Rosina as the ‘blo, blo’ beating of his blood. Without a doubt, Jakobski presents the most comedic acting in the opera, as he memorably breaks the wall between singer and orchestra—to hide at Rosina’s bidding among the violinists, or humorously nick a bow to use in a duel between himself and Fracasso. Though the tricks feel contemporary, they do not dissolve the dignity of the opera’s artistry. In fact, these moments paralleled the more subtle interactions between the orchestra and the actors, as each displayed a rapt attention and reciprocity.
In terms of musical aptitude, Mühlemann’s expertise was obvious from aria no. 9, ‘Senti l’eco, ove t’aggiri’. As an orange glow of light lowered over Rosina’s gold dress and diamond necklace, her sincere and plaintive tone expressed her desire to choose a lover who would treat her right, the ‘echo’ that ‘mimics the speaker’. The incorporation of coloured lighting was simple, yet added depth to the emotional expression of the music. Additionally, the music was performed on eighteenth-century accurate instruments such as the harpsichord, which added to the atmospheric immersion of the senses. English surtitles were offered on a screen above the stage; at first, I was concerned this would distract from the singers, but found the translations were invaluable in deepening my appreciation for an already superb and entertaining performance.
Although it has been suggested that the plot is rather wooden compared to Così fan tutte or Figaro, it has to be remembered that even at twelve, Mozart possessed a musical maturity which imbues the characters with warmth and lively compassion. The programme gives an example of this: ‘Polidoro’s serenade in Act Two puts one in mind of the six-year-old Wolfgang proposing marriage to Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France.’ It is this childish and endearing quality, matched with a wisdom far beyond his years, that expresses itself in La finta semplice.
Classical Opera’s production of La finta semplice was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, on 6 and 8 June 2018, as well as at Birmingham Town Hall on 2 June 2018.