Mozart’s little-known opera, La finta giardiniera (‘The pretend gardener’) follows the story of Count Belfiore, his fiancé Arminda, and his former lover, Marchioness Violante, whom he believes he murdered before the opera starts but who is in fact alive and disguised as the gardener Sandrina. Tenor James Gilchrist is singing the role of Count Belfiore in a concert staging of the work at the Barbican on 24 June. He talks to us about the role and why he thinks this opera has been undeservedly neglected.
This is not one of Mozart’s best-known works. Tell us a bit about it.
It is a rather unusual opera – Mozart was very young when he wrote it – but what I find extraordinary about it is that, although it is quite clearly a comedy, the themes that run through it are profound and tragic. Count Belfiore is an extraordinarily complex character because at the beginning of the opera he thinks he has murdered his beloved. So his first entrance is one where he believes himself guilty of a horrific crime that has robbed him of the one person whom he loved. The complexity of what it is to be carrying history with you and of what love means is an astonishing achievement in this piece.
So why do you think it isn’t part of the core opera repertoire?
I think it’s unjust really – it’s full of astonishing music. I wonder whether it has suffered a bit in the past from being done in the German translation, which Mozart himself made later and is much more of a lightweight work than the original Italian version. But the music is just as good as anything you get elsewhere. Everybody has great arias and I think that the plot and intellectual development is every bit as good as any of his other operas.
You’re performing with the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) and Richard Egarr. What are your thoughts on the importance of authentic performance and period instruments?
The period instrument movement has been with us for some time now – AAM is in its fourth decade and I think the two schools have really cross-fertilised one another. It’s rare nowadays to hear Baroque music played on a modern instrument without a better understanding of phrase and shape, and similarly I think that the earlier music ensembles have mellowed with age. There’s less of a ‘pickled-in-aspic’ reverence for the music and much more of a visceral engagement with it. The AAM has a great history of playing Classical music on Classical instruments and Richard Egarr never wants to play things with a straight bat – he enjoys quirkiness and surprises.
In the past you’ve not performed very much opera. What kind of repertoire do you prefer singing?
Historically I’ve done a lot of Baroque and Classical music but increasingly I’m finding myself singing Lieder and the Art Song repertoire. I’m doing a recital later this year with Julius Drake in the Temple Church in London and also performing in the Oxford Lieder Festival. It’s where I feel my heart lies, but the little opera work I have done I’ve enjoyed enormously. It’s interesting that I feel drawn towards song repertoire because to some extent it is an opera in miniature.
James Gilchrist will be appearing in La finta giardiniera on 24 June at the Barbican Centre, London at 6.30pm
Interview by Elizabeth Davis