La Finta Giardiniera is an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it was first performed in 1775.

The Set Up

La Finta Giardiniera, ‘the disguised gardener’, is the Countess Onesti, Violante, the heroine of the opera. She has been stabbed in a fit of jealous rage by her lover, the Count Belfiore, before the opera begins and left for dead. Fortunately she recovers and, calling herself Sandrina, goes into hiding at the house of the local Mayor. The Mayor immediately falls in love with her, which annoys his servant Serpetta, who is in love with him herself. Serpetta is in turn loved by Sandrina’s servant, Nardo (also pretending to be a gardener) and the plot starts to get rather complicated. It’s not helped by the sudden arrival of the Mayor’s niece, Arminda, who has dumped her lover, Ramiro, in order to marry a nobleman her uncle has found for her. Ramiro won’t give up and follows Arminda to her uncle’s house, but he hasn’t got a chance, especially when her fiancé arrives. He is rich, handsome, and called – Belfiore.

Muddle

Confused? Well, you are nothing like as confused as the characters, most of whom don’t know who’s in disguise, who loves whom, or what Sandrina’s real name is. Sandrina is not even sure if she’s alive or dead... Not surprisingly she and Belfiore go mad half way through the show.

Who loves whom.

Language

La finta giardiniera is sung in Italian. You can follow the English translation on a screen above the stage, but knowing a couple of Italian words will come in handy. One is ‘Il Podesta’, which means ‘The Mayor’ and the other is ‘Il Conte’, which means ‘The Count’. The Podesta is called by his title throughout the show, Belfiore is sometimes called Il Conte.

The Plot

Act I

Murder?

The opera starts with the overture. The curtain goes up on a large 18th century room, all windows, mirrors and doors. In the centre of the stage stands a young man with a knife in his hands. He looks with horror at the body of a young woman, slumped on a sofa, and tries to get out – but in his panic he can’t open the doors or windows. Eventually he manages to climb out of the room. Time passes and the young woman gets up, pulls herself together, and joins the rest of the cast as they enter for the opening number. The opera has begun.

Heartbreak

The Podesta (The Mayor), Sandrina, Serpetta, Nardo and Ramiro sing cheerfully about the the pleasant weather.

However only the Podesta, attracted by the beautiful Sandrina, is really happy; everybody else has something on their mind and they tell us about it in a series of solo lines. Ramiro, a teenager who looks like an 18th century Goth, is particularly gloomy. His heart is broken and, when the Podesta suggests he finds another girl, he breaks into a furious aria. The last thing he wants is to fall in love again. The Podesta tries to flirt with Sandrina, but she’s not interested and Serpetta keeps interrupting them. It’s so frustrating that he explodes into an aria in which he compares his conflicting emotions to all the instruments of the orchestra. Sandrina is just as upset and, left alone with Nardo, wonders whether she ought to give up and go home. Suddenly, the sheer difficulty of being a woman overwhelms her. Perhaps women should never be born in the first place?

Enter a Diva...

Arminda arrives, looking for trouble, and furious that her fiancé is not there to greet her. Fortunately he is only five minutes late and he enters, prepared to be knocked out by her beauty.

The young man turns out to be Sandrina’s ex-lover, Conte Belfiore, trying to forget that he’s a killed a woman and desperate to start a new life. He doesn’t make a good impression: he makes a mess of his first aria and (worse) gets mixed up between Arminda and Serpetta. Arminda is not impressed and lets him know that she’s not the sort of girl to be trifled with.

Meanwhile Serpetta has taken a dislike to Arminda and, rather than be ordered about by her, thinks that marriage might not be such a bad idea. Her song about finding a husband is overheard, and mimicked, by Nardo, but she tells him she’ll have no difficulty in attracting a man.

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Sandrina enters, singing a melancholy aria – she says she feels like a turtle dove deprived of its mate. Arminda barges in, demands to know what the matter is, and revealing that her fiancé is none other than Conte Belfiore. Sandrina faints. Arminda dashes off for smelling salts, ordering Belfiore to help the girl as she goes. He runs on, only to discover the unconscious body of the woman he thought he’d murdered.

The Finale

This discovery brings everyone on stage for the big number that will close Act 1 – the Finale. It starts with Belfiore wondering whether he’s hallucinating.

Sandrina comes to, Ramiro wanders on, and Arminda returns with first aid. Everyone freezes: Arminda had no idea that Ramiro was in the house, he’s just as surprised to see her, while Sandrina and Belfiore can only stare at each other in amazement. Serpetta, Nardo and the Mayor appear from nowhere and the act ends with everyone bewildered, angry, and singing at the top of their voices.

Act II

Temper

The next morning everybody is in a vile temper. Arminda realises that Belfiore is desperate to see Sandrina and blasts him with a furious aria as she threatens to punish him. Ramiro thinks he’s in with a chance, and tries to woo Arminda: naturally he’s turned down flat, but he stays on stage to sing a hopeful aria. Serpetta decides to work off her irritation by being rude to Nardo, only to find (to her surprise) that he’s beginning to amuse her. Nardo feels she’s softening and has a go at wooing her in three languages. (It doesn’t work...)

Charged with Murder

Arminda decides to marry Belfiore after all – when Ramiro unexpectedly produces a warrant for the Count for the murder of Violante, the Countess Onesti. (Ramiro has just been sent this by a relative in Milan). The Podesta stops the wedding at once, he can’t have his niece married to a criminal. Meanwhile Belfiore is not getting anywhere with Sandrina, who punishes him by pretending to be Violante one moment and Sandrina the next. Rather sensibly he doesn’t try and defend himself but tells her how beautiful she is instead.

Enter the corpse

They are interrupted by the Mayor who feels obliged to try Belfiore for murder. He’s determined to get him off, but the Count’s defence is so incompetent that the young man is only saved by the appearance of the murdered lady herself. Sandrina reveals that she is Violante and (after a moment of astonishment) everybody withdraws to give Sandrina and the Count a chance to sort things out.

Madness

But Sandrina is in no mood for forgiveness. She says she only pretended to be Violante to get him off, and exits – leaving Belfiore on the brink of insanity.

Lost in the Dark

Meanwhile Sandrina has run away. The Mayor is horrified and orders out a search party.

Sandrina enters, terrified by the dark and imagining all sorts of horrors. Fortunately the rest of the cast find her by the time she’s finished and Belfiore starts the Act 2 Finale, by groping his way through the shadows. The most embarrassing mix-ups happen in the gloom, until Ramiro has the sense to fetch a lantern. As they disentangle themselves, the cast look round for somebody to blame, and turn on Sandrina and the Conte. Their combined fury drives the lovers mad. You’ll notice that Sandrina and Belfiore sing nonsense, though they actually behave more sanely than they have done all opera.

Act III

Misery

Everybody is unhappy: Arminda tells Ramiro to accept the fact she doesn’t love him, but he can’t cope. The Podesta dumps Serpetta, who is so furious that she dumps Nardo. He can’t cope either.

Happiness

Meanwhile the lovers have fallen into a deep sleep. They awake refreshed and sane and decide to forgive each other. Cautiously they re-establish their relationship and the scene ends in a duet in which they leave the set, the stage, and all disguise, to start again in the real world.

The rest of the cast forget their own unhappiness as they congratulate Sandrina and Belfiore, and the opera ends (more or less) happily.

Teenage Mozart

La finta giardiniera was first performed on Jan 13th 1775, just two weeks before Mozart’s 19th birthday: he had already written seven operas.

Mozart had been a professional musician since he was six. He and his sister were star performers on the keyboard and spent their childhood touring Europe with their parents. However, it’s one thing to be a brilliant kid, quite another to be an spotty teenager and, when Mozart was 18, he was trying to hold down a decent job. He was employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg to write church music, rehearse the choir and teach choirboys the keyboard. It was a good ordinary job, rather like being a modern session musician, but it didn’t pay well and anyway Mozart knew he was a genius. He wanted to be independent, make money, and write works that suited him. For Mozart that meant Italian opera.

Italian Opera

The Italians had invented opera back in 1600 and it had swept Europe. Every city had an opera house, just as it had a cathedral, a town hall and a palace. A decent opera house was part of civic pride and, in Milan, people would greet other people in the street with, ‘See you at the opera tonight’ knowing that practically everyone would be there.

Italian is a particularly good language to sing in and Italian singers were super stars. More than that, Italian opera was one of the few ways you could make money – real hard cash. (That was quite rare in the 18th century, most people were paid with food, lodging, jewelled snuff boxes and IOU notes.) So Mozart was bound to be drawn to the theatre but, more than the cash and the glamour, he wanted to compose opera because he loved it. “I only have to hear an opera discussed, “ he wrote, “I have only to sit in a theatre and hear the orchestra tuning up – and I am quite beside myself...’

The First Finta

La finta giardiniera was performed in Munich in January 1775. Mozart turned up before Christmas anxious to meet the singers – the the music he wrote for them would have to fit their voices like a glove. He and his father travelled through a frozen countryside, in a half open coach with bundles of hay packed round their feet. That was his father’s idea, Leopold Mozart spent his life trying to keep the family healthy on the road. Even so, young Wolfgang (or Wolfie as he was know in the family) stayed inside for a few days with a swollen face and toothache. By the time Nannerl (his sister) arrived, Wolfgang was deep in rehearsals and letters began to fly back and forth from Munich to Mrs Mozart left behind in Salzburg. Some of them give an uncanny sense of Mozart being in the next room, “I sent the servant to fetch Nannerl to have coffee with us’ writes Leopold, “she is drinking some with Wolfgang this very moment...” More to the point, Wolfgang was able to tell his mother that the opera was a triumph, “After each aria there was a terrific noise, clapping of hands and cries of ‘Bravo maestro!’” That is Italian for ‘Well done, master!’ You can still hear people shouting it in opera houses when the conductor takes his bow. No wonder Mozart was pleased. Even so, the show only ran for three nights.

Opera

Opera is a play set to music and, in Mozart’s day, most of the music in an opera was written for the solo voice. Serious opera was basically a string of solo songs, but comic opera (which is, more or less, what La finta giardiniera is) often had several characters singing at the same time. However, all opera, whether comic or serious, works in the same way. The plot zips along in recitative (link to recit vid) and, every now and then, a character interrupts the action to tell the audience exactly how he, or she, feels about life and sings an aria.

Recitative

Recitative is the operatic equivalent of ordinary conversation. The characters barely sing, their music follows the patterns of normal speech, and only a couple of instruments accompany them – usually just a harpsichord and a cello. Singers usually shorten 'recitative' to 'recit'.

Arias

Arias are usually about private emotion, feelings you don’t want to share with other people (except the audience of course...) It’s understood that an aria takes place outside the plot. Time stops still for a moment as a character explores their feelings.

An aria is always a solo. Towards the end of the opera, the lovers usually sing a duet together and, at the end of each act, the story requires all the characters to turn up on stage and sing together. Any section written for more than one person is called an ensemble.

Ensemble

An ensemble is a musical number written for several voices. It might be a duet (2 voices) or a trio (3) or a quartet (4), a quintet (5), sextet (6) even a septet (7). Sometimes a chorus appears on stage, which can be any number of people and their ensemble is called after them – a chorus. Mozart wrote ensembles to bring the drama to life. In them the characters interact with the rest of the cast, they annoy each other, scheme, plot, or fall in love.

The Orchestra

The singers are accompanied by an orchestra: which sits in front and below the stage, tucked just out of sight in the orchestra pit. It is the engine house of the show and gives the opera pace, speed, and what musicians call ‘colour’. Orchestral colour is the distinctive sound made by individual instruments. In this performance of La finta giardiniera the instruments have an 18th century sound: they are replicas of the sort of violins, flutes and trumpets Mozart had in mind when he wrote the opera, and are played by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Mozart himself would have played the harpsichord in the pit during the first performances of La finta and directed the orchestra – possibly with his hand, more likely with a nod of his head – as he led the recitative. Modern operas are led by a conductor.

Singing

Opera is about singing. The Italians are very fierce about this, they hate it if an orchestra is so loud it drowns the voices. In the 18th century people didn’t really like two or three people singing at the same time either, they wanted to hear a solo voice singing difficult music beautifully. ‘Difficult’ music at this time meant lots of notes... runs, scales, things going really fast.

Listening to the singers

Anyone who could sing this sort of music was called a ‘virtuoso’, which means ‘excellent’. Italian audiences were famous for chattering all through opera performances – probably because they went every night and knew the show by heart – but they listened closely when a virtuoso began to sing. If the singer pulled it off they were rewarded by cheers of ‘Bravo!’ if they were male, ‘Brava!’ if female, or ‘Bravi!’if the audience decided to cheer everybody on stage. (People cheer like this in opera houses to this day.)

High and Low

The voices they heard were split into various types. From soprano (the highest female voice) to bass (the lowest male). As you listen to an opera you get used to the dominant sound. 19th century Russian opera, for example, always seems to have loads of basses – all monks and Tsars, singing into their beards – but the 18th century opera preferred high voices.

They thought that a natural male voice was cracked in some way (we still say that a boy’s voice has ‘broken’ when he starts to sound like a man). So they preferred the high voice – soprano, alto, mezzo soprano, all the female sounds. Most of the lovers (male and female) in an 18th century opera have unbroken voices – though the tenor (the highest natural male voice) was just beginning to be used for young male characters.

Characters

Sandrina

Sandrina is the heroine of La finta giardiniera. That makes her a soprano. As a rule of thumb, the higher the voice in opera the younger you are. The original singer would have been called the ‘prima donna’ the ‘first woman’ in the cast and she would have expected Mozart to write for her voice. Mozart did so, but Sandrina is a complex character. Left for dead by Belfiore at the beginning of the show, she's running away from him and trying to find him at the same time. She hardly knows whether she's alive or dead. Neither do we. Her make up is ghostly, and her costume gauzy.

Sandrina is pretending to be a gardener, but she doesn't do a stroke of work in the garden for the entire show. Its probably more important to think about her disguise as being a change of name. She’s no longer Violante, but she hasn’t really become anyone else; the story charts her gradual return to life. Her music is difficult but not showy, it’s distressed, angry, and questioning. Is she frightened of Belfiore? Or furious? Does she love him? She spends the opera finding out – and suddenly the question as to whether she goes off to prune the roses or mow the lawn doesn't seem very important.

Count Belfiore

Count Belfiore is a tenor (the highest male voice) and the hero – a very dodgy one. You can’t start the opera stabbing the heroine and expect much sympathy from the audience. However he collapses so completely, from his disastrous first entrance in Act I to his random behaviour for the rest of the show, that we watch him sort himself out with more interest than we normally give to a violent and jealous man.

At the end of the show, young Mozart shows his genius by writing music that describes how people really do forgive each other. Sandrina and Belfiore don’t simply wake up after their mad fit and hug each other. They are cautious, tentative, and only slowly yield to Mozart's music, which tells them they can be sane and happy again.

The other characters are less complicated but, like the lovers, they have to work out who they are and what they really feel about the other characters.

Serpetta

Serpetta for example, is a typical streetwise servant girl – but not as savvy as she thinks. She wants to marry her boss, the the rich Mayor, yet she finds Nardo, her despised other wooer, amusing and faithful – and quite likeable.

Serpetta is also a soprano, but with a lighter voice than Sandrina. This sort of character is called a ‘soubrette’ – it means an amusing woman from the servant class. (Servants were thought to have more common sense than their employers).

Arminda

Arminda is another soprano, but she has much heavier music – which suits her rather overwhelming character. It’s also extremely difficult. She is a character who has wandered in from a serious opera, upper class, demanding, with a wonderful collection of frocks. Listening to her rather flashy music, you can’t help wondering if Mozart wasn’t sending her up.

Ramiro

Ramiro has also wandered in from a serious opera. He is an upper class character with a complicated love life. In fact it’s all he thinks about. Given his unbroken voice (Ramiro is scored for a mezzo soprano and sung by a woman) the designer, Antony McDonald, decided he was a very young man and has made him look like a Goth. If you look at the room Ramiro is always dashing into (on the right side of the stage) you’ll see that it’s Ramiro’s own private den. It’s got drawings and dead birds pinned all over the inside of the door.

A mezzo soprano has a slightly lower voice than a soprano. In the 18th century the part of Ramiro would have been sung by a castrato – a castrated man. Boys with good voices were often castrated in Italy (it was illegal, but nobody took any notice). The operation meant that the boy’s unbroken voice was not only preserved but gathered in strength as he developed adult muscles. Many parts were written for male sopranos and altos but, as 18th century audiences liked cross dressing, some male parts were played by women as well. Nowadays these parts are called ‘trouser roles’.

The Mayor

The Mayor is a ‘character’ tenor. This sort of part is normally given to an older man, who makes his voice sound rougher and more expressive than the young tenor hero. The Mayor is the only middle aged character on stage and the man in charge. Everyone has to be wary of him – even the aristocratic Count Belfiore. Even so, the Mayor has no more control over his emotions than anyone else.

Nardo

Nardo is a bass, the deepest male voice. However, as he’s a young man, he uses his bass voice lightly and we would nowadays call him a baritone – a voice that hovers between the tenor and the bass.

As he’s Sandrina’s servant, Nardo is the natural lover of the other servant in the show, Serpetta. He clearly thinks he’s got a claim to her and he spends the opera trying to point this out to Serpetta – but she won’t hear of it.

Finta

The Glyndebourne production of this opera is based on its title, La finta giardiniera. Particularly the ‘Finta’ – what exactly does it mean?

Well, in modern Italy, little kids say, ‘oh that's just finta...’ when they mean something is just pretend (like the Italian Christmas fairy who leaves sweeties for them on Christmas Eve).

But finta is an important word in the theatre as well.

Theatre is about people pretending to be other people, they stand in front of scenery which looks solid, but is made of plywood and canvas. In fact if you stand at the side of the stage, the wings, you can can't be fooled for a moment.

The odd thing about this show is that even the characters realise they are surrounded by fake scenery and start walking through it, or tearing it up. That’s going to startle the audience. After all, though we know theatre is fake, we go to the theatre prepared to believe in it. We want to be fooled, we want to watch a set of characters and get caught up in their emotions. In fact, if it's well done, we end up realising that theatre is, in some way, true. It tells us what it is like to be human.

In La finta giardiniera the pretence is obvious – Sandrina is in disguise. But other people are in disguise too, from themselves. Arminda is pretending to love Belfiore so that she can make a suitable marriage, Belfiore is kidding himself that he doesn’t have a violent past, Ramiro is in his own fantasy land – and so on. The interesting thing is, given all the fake emotion, only the lovers go mad...

Stage madness

People often go mad on stage - King Lear, Ophelia, Peter Grimes. It's easy to spot them, they run their fingers through their hair, or stick straws in it, or think they're Greek gods but, and this is crucial, they always tell the truth. It might be a wild sort of truth, but it is understood (on stage) that a madman cannot lie. He can be confused as to where he is, or even who he is, but his madness removes all his inhibitions. He can cut through the polite lies and pretence of everyone else and see things as they are.

Direction

The Director of La finta giardiniera is Frederic Wake-Walker: it’s his job to help the singers tell the story. In rehearsal Frederic will have discussed the characters with the singers, what sort of people they are, how they move, when they come on and off stage. Frederic’s production strips the action right back: the show is not about comic disguises, or fake gardeners, its about people fooling themselves. To put this across, Frederic asked the singers to use exaggerated gestures at the beginning of the show – great fun, very theatrical, but nothing to do with real life. They look a little like the china characters people in the 18th century collected: pretty models of people on their best behaviour.

Sandrina and Belfiore go mad at the end of Act II and, as they do so, they drop their theatrical gestures and move normally. They look round at the set, this is clearly ‘finta’ (fake) they say to themselves – and rip it up – then they remove their theatrical costumes. They go out into a landscape of real trees. But that’s ‘finta’ too, just a painted backdrop. It too disappears, and the lovers are left as they are, two ordinary human beings on a bare stage, in love with each other – and totally sane.

Design

The most exciting thing about the La finta giardiniera design is that Antony Mcdonald takes ‘finta’ very seriously, and shows us that the whole set has been fake from beginning to end by having it collapse at the end.

The Act 1 set looks solid (though of course it is just plywood) but the Act II set looks curiously flimsy... The audience get uneasy about it the moment Arminda throws her shoe through it. After that the whole thing starts collapsing: it’s intended to give the audience a shock – they jump in their seats. In fact, though you are reading about this right now, you'll still find it comes as a total surprise when you're sitting in the theatre.

Giardiniera

Sandrina is supposed to be a gardener, as is Nardo, but they never even pot a geranium. Even so, it suggested to the designer that it might be interesting to think about 18th century gardens – especially as there was a certain amount of ‘finta’ (pretence) about them.

The 18th century liked their gardens neat. Trees and bushes were clipped into shape, flower beds arranged into patterns, everything was tidy and formal, like like a well ordered drawing room.

Yet inside an 18th century house – especially a grand one – nature was apparently allowed to take over. Huge rooms had painted ceilings which suggested that there was no roof to them at all, just an enormous sky full of people sitting on clouds. Painted trees and shrubs appeared everywhere, even the plaster work sprouted vegetation.

Wigs

While the singers rehearse their parts, other departments of Glyndebourne are making sets, costumes and wigs. Each opera has its own look and, in La finta giardiniera, the style is over-the-top 18th century – and that means wigs. The wigs are made of thousands of strands of real hair, carefully sewn on to a fine mesh by the Glyndebourne wig department, and are re-styled before every performance. The thin mesh and wig hair act just like ordinary hair so, as the singer perspires under the stage lights, the sweat goes up into the wig, and has to be washed out again. Some days the wig department can look like a macabre hairdressers, dozens of heads of hair and no customers... To add to the excitement, several characters have a change of wig during the show – which means a team from wigs and make up, standing by in the wings, ready to whip one wig off and fit the next one on in a matter of minutes.

Wardrobe

Everybody on stage is interested in what they look like. ‘What am I wearing?’ is one of the first things a singer asks as they get to grips with their character. That’s because getting into a costume helps you get into a part, especially if the costume is historical. People move differently in 18th century frocks, and heavy 18th century jackets. Every opera house is awash with costumes and it’s up to the wardrobe department at Glyndebourne to make and maintain them – mending tears, freshening them up and getting them to the dressing rooms on time. In La finta giardiniera they also have to be in the wings for quick changes. Nine minutes for one change, only six for another. The wardrobe staff sets out everythingneeded in the quick change booth – stockings already rolled down, the new frock ready to be stepped into, and three or four wardrobe staff, each with their own job: one to get the singer out of the old costume, another to hook up the new one (the fastenings are usually at the back) another on hand with the shoes. ‘The secret’ said Lucy Harris, the wardrobe manager, ‘is not to let the singer ‘help’ you. They just slow things up...’

Lighting

Once everything is in place – costumes, sets and wigs – the show has to be lit. The lighting plan is crucial, it brings the different parts of the show together and gives the opera its own atmosphere. The wonderful thing about theatre is you can sit back and enjoy the lights – watch how one candle apparently lights up a whole stage, how cleverly a spotlight follows a singer, how cunningly the lighting designer makes sure you only look at the things she and the director want you to see. The lighting designer for La finta giardiniera is Lucy Carter, and she was asked not simply to light the piece, but induce a ghostly atmosphere, followed by a sunny one, followed by a scene set in darkness. The last was very difficult of course, because even if the singers can’t (apparently) see each other – we want to see them...

Performance

Suddenly there’s nothing more to do – but play the piece. The singers and conductor and orchestra give 15 or so performances and, in a way, the show is in their hands now. Certainly they are the only people the audience see. But, behind the scenes, other members of the stage staff take their places – stage crew to shift the scenery, fly men to ‘fly in’ scenery from above the stage, prop staff to swap the solid furniture of Act 1 for cardboard furniture in Act 2, lighting men and dressers. And of course the most important people in the theatre, bar none, begin to fill up the auditorium. The people the stage staff can hardly see – the audience: the reason for having an opera house, and putting on operas, at all.

Cueing the show

Being on the side of the stage during a performance is exciting and disconcerting. You are in almost total darkness, the only light coming through the cracks in the scenery and from the Prompt Desk. That desk is the nerve centre of the show and at it sits the Deputy Stage Manager with the score of the opera in front of her, cueing in everything – every exit, entrance, quick change, door opening, spotlight, and – in the case of La finta giardiniera – the collapsing wall. He or she switches on cue lights which are like little traffic lights and are placed all over the stage, in the fly gallery, even on the conductors desk. The Deputy Stage Manager talks to the other stage managers and lighting men on portable radios – and never get the channels muddled up – and they end the show as unruffled and calm as they started. It's a brilliant job, but you need to have nerves of steel to consider it.

It's all over

Theatre is live. The same opera may be given 15 times, but every night it will come across differently to the audience. That’s what makes theatre so exciting. Everybody in an opera house knows that at a given moment in the day the curtain will go up and 2,000 people will watch a show under hundreds of bright lights – and there’s nowhere to hide. It means that everyone on and near the stage is incredibly focused – and full of adrenaline. And when, at the end of the show, the curtain comes down and the audience claps, such a wave of happiness sweeps across the stage, you can see why people in the theatre think they’ve got the best job in the world.

Activity Packs

The musical structure of operas

Writing your own dramatic recitative

Turning a song in to a comic duet

Vocal fireworks: coloratura

La finta's eithical issues for a modern audience

Gardens and gardeners in literature and music

Things to ask

How serious is the violence at the start of the opera? Are we supposed to be pleased that Belfiore and Sandrina get together again? (No marriage guidance counsellor would be very happy about their relationship.) What do you think happens at the end? Is anyone happy? Bring some binoculars to the show and look carefully at the set. Is there any clue in the Act I act set that the world round the characters is not as solid as it seems?

Watch out for

Detail

Opera is not film: the setting isn’t constantly moving – in fact the audience sit looking at one set for a long time – so many designers give them detail to look at. What details can you see? Look out for Ramiro’s den, the falling plaster, the Podesta's costume, is it 18th century? Why not? Can you guess what references it is making?

Gestures

In the course of the evening the gestures begin to disappear as Sandrina and Belfiore stop pretending and learn to love each other again. The director is telling us, OK the story is pretend, the scenery is made of paper, the characters are acting – but the feelings are real.

Exits and entrances

There are some strange exits and entrances in this show – can you spot the number of times people don’t come in through the door? Where do they come from? Belfiore can't get out of the room at the beginning of the opera. How does he manage it? Is there something weird about the exit he chooses?

During the show

In the 18th century the audience would have chattered through a lot of the show and listened to the 'big' numbers. But they saw the opera several times. Modern audiences listen to the whole piece in total silence - they may never see or hear it again - but they still act like 18th century audiences when it comes to the big numbers. Watch out for the number of times they clap, did you hear any cheers, did anyone shout 'bravo!'? Opera is a spectator sport, join in!

Discover

You can discover more about La finta giardiniera by downloading the activities below.

The six activities are designed to support your visit to Glyndebourne’s production of La finta giardiniera. They are designed to work in conjunction with the resources to enable your students to get the most from their visit.

The themes of the activities

1. The Musical structure of operas: musical numbers and recitative

2. Writing your own dramatic recitative

3. Turning a song into a comic duet

4. Vocal fireworks: coloratura

5. La Finta’s ethical issues for a modern audience

6. Gardens and gardeners in literature and music

The aim of this pack is to get your students actively engaged in the musical and ethical issues found in this opera. But please note that whilst La finta giardiniera is the starting point, care has been taken to make these activities more widely ‘usable’ in the long term. For example, there are composing and performing ideas using the voice that could lead to developing new skills and working towards a portfolio of compositions which could be included within exam coursework.

The target group includes students preparing for GCSE exams (especially in Music, although there are opportunities for other subjects e.g. creative writing tasks and dramatic staging). However, the activities are easily adapted for A’ level, BTec courses or Key Stage 3 groups with specific areas of study.

The six activities are stand-alone resources and are adaptable to fit your group’s needs, as well as your own teaching preferences.

The activities are written as if speaking directly to the students, but the expectation is that you will take the group through the tasks to enable them to get full access. The tasks within each of the activity sheets mix research (books, recordings and on-line), class discussion, listening, composing and performing opportunities.

Credits

Sarah Lenton - Writer and presenter

Shadric Toop - Designer and Art Director

Emma Savage and Ernest Mills (Savage Mills) - Film makers

Lucy Bradley - Production Consultant

Paul Foster - Writer (activity packs) and education consultant


With thanks to the cast of the Glyndebourne Festival production of La finta giardiniera and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

La Finta Giardiniera is an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it was first performed in 1775.

The Set Up

La Finta Giardiniera, ‘the disguised gardener’, is the Countess Onesti, Violante, the heroine of the opera. She has been stabbed in a fit of jealous rage by her lover, the Count Belfiore, before the opera begins and left for dead. Fortunately she recovers and, calling herself Sandrina, goes into hiding at the house of the local Mayor. The Mayor immediately falls in love with her, which annoys his servant Serpetta, who is in love with him herself. Serpetta is in turn loved by Sandrina’s servant, Nardo (also pretending to be a gardener) and the plot starts to get rather complicated. It’s not helped by the sudden arrival of the Mayor’s niece, Arminda, who has dumped her lover, Ramiro, in order to marry a nobleman her uncle has found for her. Ramiro won’t give up and follows Arminda to her uncle’s house, but he hasn’t got a chance, especially when her fiancé arrives. He is rich, handsome, and called – Belfiore.

Muddle

Confused? Well, you are nothing like as confused as the characters, most of whom don’t know who’s in disguise, who loves whom, or what Sandrina’s real name is. Sandrina is not even sure if she’s alive or dead... Not surprisingly she and Belfiore go mad half way through the show.

Language

La finta giardiniera is sung in Italian. You can follow the English translation on a screen above the stage, but knowing a couple of Italian words will come in handy. One is ‘Il Podesta’, which means ‘The Mayor’ and the other is ‘Il Conte’, which means ‘The Count’. The Podesta is called by his title throughout the show, Belfiore is sometimes called Il Conte.

The Plot

Act I

Murder?

The opera starts with the overture. The curtain goes up on a large 18th century room, all windows, mirrors and doors. In the centre of the stage stands a young man with a knife in his hands. He looks with horror at the body of a young woman, slumped on a sofa, and tries to get out – but in his panic he can’t open the doors or windows. Eventually he manages to climb out of the room. Time passes and the young woman gets up, pulls herself together, and joins the rest of the cast as they enter for the opening number. The opera has begun.

Heartbreak

The Podesta (The Mayor), Sandrina, Serpetta, Nardo and Ramiro sing cheerfully about the the pleasant weather.

However only the Podesta, attracted by the beautiful Sandrina, is really happy; everybody else has something on their mind and they tell us about it in a series of solo lines. Ramiro, a teenager who looks like an 18th century Goth, is particularly gloomy. His heart is broken and, when the Podesta suggests he finds another girl, he breaks into a furious aria. The last thing he wants is to fall in love again. The Podesta tries to flirt with Sandrina, but she’s not interested and Serpetta keeps interrupting them. It’s so frustrating that he explodes into an aria in which he compares his conflicting emotions to all the instruments of the orchestra. Sandrina is just as upset and, left alone with Nardo, wonders whether she ought to give up and go home. Suddenly, the sheer difficulty of being a woman overwhelms her. Perhaps women should never be born in the first place?

Enter a Diva...

Arminda arrives, looking for trouble, and furious that her fiancé is not there to greet her. Fortunately he is only five minutes late and he enters, prepared to be knocked out by her beauty.

The young man turns out to be Sandrina’s ex-lover, Conte Belfiore, trying to forget that he’s a killed a woman and desperate to start a new life. He doesn’t make a good impression: he makes a mess of his first aria and (worse) gets mixed up between Arminda and Serpetta. Arminda is not impressed and lets him know that she’s not the sort of girl to be trifled with.

Meanwhile Serpetta has taken a dislike to Arminda and, rather than be ordered about by her, thinks that marriage might not be such a bad idea. Her song about finding a husband is overheard, and mimicked, by Nardo, but she tells him she’ll have no difficulty in attracting a man.

Collapse

Sandrina enters, singing a melancholy aria – she says she feels like a turtle dove deprived of its mate. Arminda barges in, demands to know what the matter is, and revealing that her fiancé is none other than Conte Belfiore. Sandrina faints. Arminda dashes off for smelling salts, ordering Belfiore to help the girl as she goes. He runs on, only to discover the unconscious body of the woman he thought he’d murdered.

The Finale

This discovery brings everyone on stage for the big number that will close Act 1 – the Finale. It starts with Belfiore wondering whether he’s hallucinating.

Sandrina comes to, Ramiro wanders on, and Arminda returns with first aid. Everyone freezes: Arminda had no idea that Ramiro was in the house, he’s just as surprised to see her, while Sandrina and Belfiore can only stare at each other in amazement. Serpetta, Nardo and the Mayor appear from nowhere and the act ends with everyone bewildered, angry, and singing at the top of their voices.

Act II

Temper

The next morning everybody is in a vile temper. Arminda realises that Belfiore is desperate to see Sandrina and blasts him with a furious aria as she threatens to punish him. Ramiro thinks he’s in with a chance, and tries to woo Arminda: naturally he’s turned down flat, but he stays on stage to sing a hopeful aria. Serpetta decides to work off her irritation by being rude to Nardo, only to find (to her surprise) that he’s beginning to amuse her. Nardo feels she’s softening and has a go at wooing her in three languages. (It doesn’t work...)

Charged with Murder

Arminda decides to marry Belfiore after all – when Ramiro unexpectedly produces a warrant for the Count for the murder of Violante, the Countess Onesti. (Ramiro has just been sent this by a relative in Milan). The Podesta stops the wedding at once, he can’t have his niece married to a criminal. Meanwhile Belfiore is not getting anywhere with Sandrina, who punishes him by pretending to be Violante one moment and Sandrina the next. Rather sensibly he doesn’t try and defend himself but tells her how beautiful she is instead.

Enter the corpse

They are interrupted by the Mayor who feels obliged to try Belfiore for murder. He’s determined to get him off, but the Count’s defence is so incompetent that the young man is only saved by the appearance of the murdered lady herself. Sandrina reveals that she is Violante and (after a moment of astonishment) everybody withdraws to give Sandrina and the Count a chance to sort things out.

Madness

But Sandrina is in no mood for forgiveness. She says she only pretended to be Violante to get him off, and exits – leaving Belfiore on the brink of insanity.

Lost in the Dark

Meanwhile Sandrina has run away. The Mayor is horrified and orders out a search party.

Sandrina enters, terrified by the dark and imagining all sorts of horrors. Fortunately the rest of the cast find her by the time she’s finished and Belfiore starts the Act 2 Finale, by groping his way through the shadows. The most embarrassing mix-ups happen in the gloom, until Ramiro has the sense to fetch a lantern. As they disentangle themselves, the cast look round for somebody to blame, and turn on Sandrina and the Conte. Their combined fury drives the lovers mad. You'll notice that, though Sandrina and Belfiore sing nonsense, they actually behave more sanely than they have done all opera.

Act III

Misery

Everybody is unhappy: Arminda tells Ramiro to accept the fact she doesn’t love him, but he can’t cope. The Podesta dumps Serpetta, who is so furious that she dumps Nardo. He can’t cope either.

Happiness

Meanwhile the lovers have fallen into a deep sleep. They awake refreshed and sane and decide to forgive each other. Cautiously they re-establish their relationship and the scene ends in a duet in which they leave the set, the stage, and all disguise, to start again in the real world.

The rest of the cast forget their own unhappiness as they congratulate Sandrina and Belfiore, and the opera ends (more or less) happily.

Teenage Mozart

La finta giardiniera was first performed on Jan 13th 1775, just two weeks before Mozart’s 19th birthday: he had already written seven operas.

Mozart had been a professional musician since he was six. He and his sister were star performers on the keyboard and spent their childhood touring Europe with their parents. However, it’s one thing to be a brilliant kid, quite another to be an spotty teenager and, when Mozart was 18, he was trying to hold down a decent job. He was employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg to write church music, rehearse the choir and teach choirboys the keyboard. It was a good ordinary job, rather like being a modern session musician, but it didn’t pay well and anyway Mozart knew he was a genius. He wanted to be independent, make money, and write works that suited him. For Mozart that meant Italian opera.

Italian Opera

The Italians had invented opera back in 1600 and it had swept Europe. Every city had an opera house, just as it had a cathedral, a town hall and a palace. A decent opera house was part of civic pride and, in Milan, people would greet other people in the street with, ‘See you at the opera tonight’ knowing that practically everyone would be there.

Italian is a particularly good language to sing in and Italian singers were super stars. More than that, Italian opera was one of the few ways you could make money – real hard cash. (That was quite rare in the 18th century, most people were paid with food, lodging, jewelled snuff boxes and IOU notes.) So Mozart was bound to be drawn to the theatre but, more than the cash and the glamour, he wanted to compose opera because he loved it. “I only have to hear an opera discussed, “ he wrote, “I have only to sit in a theatre and hear the orchestra tuning up – and I am quite beside myself...’

The First Finta

La finta giardiniera was performed in Munich in January 1775. Mozart turned up before Christmas anxious to meet the singers – the the music he wrote for them would have to fit their voices like a glove. He and his father travelled through a frozen countryside, in a half open coach with bundles of hay packed round their feet. That was his father’s idea, Leopold Mozart spent his life trying to keep the family healthy on the road. Even so, young Wolfgang (or Wolfie as he was know in the family) stayed inside for a few days with a swollen face and toothache. By the time Nannerl (his sister) arrived, Wolfgang was deep in rehearsals and letters began to fly back and forth from Munich to Mrs Mozart left behind in Salzburg. Some of them give an uncanny sense of Mozart being in the next room, “I sent the servant to fetch Nannerl to have coffee with us’ writes Leopold, “she is drinking some with Wolfgang this very moment...” More to the point, Wolfgang was able to tell his mother that the opera was a triumph, “After each aria there was a terrific noise, clapping of hands and cries of ‘Bravo maestro!’” That is Italian for ‘Well done, master!’ You can still hear people shouting it in opera houses when the conductor takes his bow. No wonder Mozart was pleased. Even so, the show only ran for three nights.

Opera

Opera is a play set to music and, in Mozart’s day, most of the music in an opera was written for the solo voice. Serious opera was basically a string of solo songs, but comic opera (which is, more or less, what La finta giardiniera is) often had several characters singing at the same time. However, all opera, whether comic or serious, works in the same way. The plot zips along in recitative (link to recit vid) and, every now and then, a character interrupts the action to tell the audience exactly how he, or she, feels about life and sings an aria.

Recitative

Recitative is the operatic equivalent of ordinary conversation. The characters barely sing, their music follows the patterns of normal speech, and only a couple of instruments accompany them – usually just a harpsichord and a cello. Singers usually shorten 'recitative' to 'recit'.

Arias

Arias are usually about private emotion, feelings you don’t want to share with other people (except the audience of course...) It’s understood that an aria takes place outside the plot. Time stops still for a moment as a character explores their feelings.

An aria is always a solo. Towards the end of the opera, the lovers usually sing a duet together and, at the end of each act, the story requires all the characters to turn up on stage and sing together. Any section written for more than one person is called an ensemble.

Ensemble

An ensemble is a musical number written for several voices. It might be a duet (2 voices) or a trio (3) or a quartet (4), a quintet (5), sextet (6) even a septet (7). Sometimes a chorus appears on stage, which can be any number of people and their ensemble is called after them – a chorus. Mozart wrote ensembles to bring the drama to life. In them the characters interact with the rest of the cast, they annoy each other, scheme, plot, or fall in love.

The Orchestra

The singers are accompanied by an orchestra: which sits in front and below the stage, tucked just out of sight in the orchestra pit. It is the engine house of the show and gives the opera pace, speed, and what musicians call ‘colour’. Orchestral colour is the distinctive sound made by individual instruments. In this performance of La finta giardiniera the instruments have an 18th century sound: they are replicas of the sort of violins, flutes and trumpets Mozart had in mind when he wrote the opera, and are played by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Mozart himself would have played the harpsichord in the pit during the first performances of La finta and directed the orchestra – possibly with his hand, more likely with a nod of his head – as he led the recitative. Modern operas are led by a conductor.

Singing

Opera is about singing. The Italians are very fierce about this, they hate it if an orchestra is so loud it drowns the voices. In the 18th century people didn’t really like two or three people singing at the same time either, they wanted to hear a solo voice singing difficult music beautifully. ‘Difficult’ music at this time meant lots of notes... runs, scales, things going really fast.

Listening to the singers

Anyone who could sing this sort of music was called a ‘virtuoso’, which means ‘excellent’. Italian audiences were famous for chattering all through opera performances – probably because they went every night and knew the show by heart – but they listened closely when a virtuoso began to sing. If the singer pulled it off they were rewarded by cheers of ‘Bravo!’ if they were male, ‘Brava!’ if female, or ‘Bravi!’if the audience decided to cheer everybody on stage. (People cheer like this in opera houses to this day.)

High and Low

The voices they heard were split into various types. From soprano (the highest female voice) to bass (the lowest male). As you listen to an opera you get used to the dominant sound. 19th century Russian opera, for example, always seems to have loads of basses – all monks and Tsars, singing into their beards – but the 18th century opera preferred high voices.

They thought that a natural male voice was cracked in some way (we still say that a boy’s voice has ‘broken’ when he starts to sound like a man). So they preferred the high voice – soprano, alto, mezzo soprano, all the female sounds. Most of the lovers (male and female) in an 18th century opera have unbroken voices – though the tenor (the highest natural male voice) was just beginning to be used for young male characters.

Characters

Sandrina

Sandrina is the heroine of La finta giardiniera. That makes her a soprano. As a rule of thumb, the higher the voice in opera the younger you are. The original singer would have been called the ‘prima donna’ the ‘first woman’ in the cast and she would have expected Mozart to write for her voice. Mozart did so, but Sandrina is a complex character. Left for dead by Belfiore at the beginning of the show, she's running away from him and trying to find him at the same time. She hardly knows whether she's alive or dead. Neither do we. Her make up is ghostly, and her costume gauzy.

Sandrina is pretending to be a gardener, but she doesn't do a stroke of work in the garden for the entire show. Its probably more important to think about her disguise as being a change of name. She’s no longer Violante, but she hasn’t really become anyone else; the story charts her gradual return to life. Her music is difficult but not showy, it’s distressed, angry, and questioning. Is she frightened of Belfiore? Or furious? Does she love him? She spends the opera finding out – and suddenly the question as to whether she goes off to prune the roses or mow the lawn doesn't seem very important.

Count Belfiore

Count Belfiore is a tenor (the highest male voice) and the hero – a very dodgy one. You can’t start the opera stabbing the heroine and expect much sympathy from the audience. However he collapses so completely, from his disastrous first entrance in Act I to his random behaviour for the rest of the show, that we watch him sort himself out with more interest than we normally give to a violent and jealous man.

At the end of the show, young Mozart shows his genius by writing music that describes how people really do forgive each other. Sandrina and Belfiore don’t simply wake up after their mad fit and hug each other. They are cautious, tentative, and only slowly yield to Mozart's music, which tells them they can be sane and happy again.

The other characters are less complicated but, like the lovers, they have to work out who they are and what they really feel about the other characters.

Serpetta

Serpetta for example, is a typical streetwise servant girl – but not as savvy as she thinks. She wants to marry her boss, the the rich Mayor, yet she finds Nardo, her despised other wooer, amusing and faithful – and quite likeable.

Serpetta is also a soprano, but with a lighter voice than Sandrina. This sort of character is called a ‘soubrette’ – it means an amusing woman from the servant class. (Servants were thought to have more common sense than their employers).

Arminda

Arminda is another soprano, but she has much heavier music – which suits her rather overwhelming character. It’s also extremely difficult. She is a character who has wandered in from a serious opera, upper class, demanding, with a wonderful collection of frocks. Listening to her rather flashy music, you can’t help wondering if Mozart wasn’t sending her up.

Ramiro

Ramiro has also wandered in from a serious opera. He is an upper class character with a complicated love life. In fact it’s all he thinks about. Given his unbroken voice (Ramiro is scored for a mezzo soprano and sung by a woman) the designer, Antony McDonald, decided he was a very young man and has made him look like a Goth. If you look at the room Ramiro is always dashing into (on the right side of the stage) you’ll see that it’s Ramiro’s own private den. It’s got drawings and dead birds pinned all over the inside of the door.

A mezzo soprano has a slightly lower voice than a soprano. In the 18th century the part of Ramiro would have been sung by a castrato – a castrated man. Boys with good voices were often castrated in Italy (it was illegal, but nobody took any notice). The operation meant that the boy’s unbroken voice was not only preserved but gathered in strength as he developed adult muscles. Many parts were written for male sopranos and altos but, as 18th century audiences liked cross dressing, some male parts were played by women as well. Nowadays these parts are called ‘trouser roles’.

The Mayor

The Mayor is a ‘character’ tenor. This sort of part is normally given to an older man, who makes his voice sound rougher and more expressive than the young tenor hero. The Mayor is the only middle aged character on stage and the man in charge. Everyone has to be wary of him – even the aristocratic Count Belfiore. Even so, the Mayor has no more control over his emotions than anyone else.

Nardo

Nardo is a bass, the deepest male voice. However, as he’s a young man, he uses his bass voice lightly and we would nowadays call him a baritone – a voice that hovers between the tenor and the bass.

As he’s Sandrina’s servant, Nardo is the natural lover of the other servant in the show, Serpetta. He clearly thinks he’s got a claim to her and he spends the opera trying to point this out to Serpetta – but she won’t hear of it.

Finta

The Glyndebourne production of this opera is based on its title, La finta giardiniera. Particularly the ‘Finta’ – what exactly does it mean?

Well, in modern Italy, little kids say, ‘oh that's just finta...’ when they mean something is just pretend (like the Italian Christmas fairy who leaves sweeties for them on Christmas Eve).

But finta is an important word in the theatre as well.

Theatre is about people pretending to be other people, they stand in front of scenery which looks solid, but is made of plywood and canvas. In fact if you stand at the side of the stage, the wings, you can can't be fooled for a moment.

The odd thing about this show is that even the characters realise they are surrounded by fake scenery and start walking through it, or tearing it up. That’s going to startle the audience. After all, though we know theatre is fake, we go to the theatre prepared to believe in it. We want to be fooled, we want to watch a set of characters and get caught up in their emotions. In fact, if it's well done, we end up realising that theatre is, in some way, true. It tells us what it is like to be human.

In La finta giardiniera the pretence is obvious – Sandrina is in disguise. But other people are in disguise too, from themselves. Arminda is pretending to love Belfiore so that she can make a suitable marriage, Belfiore is kidding himself that he doesn’t have a violent past, Ramiro is in his own fantasy land – and so on. The interesting thing is, given all the fake emotion, only the lovers go mad...

Stage madness

People often go mad on stage - King Lear, Ophelia, Peter Grimes. It's easy to spot them, they run their fingers through their hair, or stick straws in it, or think they're Greek gods but, and this is crucial, they always tell the truth. It might be a wild sort of truth, but it is understood (on stage) that a madman cannot lie. He can be confused as to where he is, or even who he is, but his madness removes all his inhibitions. He can cut through the polite lies and pretence of everyone else and see things as they are.

Direction

The Director of La finta giardiniera is Frederic Wake-Walker: it’s his job to help the singers tell the story. In rehearsal Frederic will have discussed the characters with the singers, what sort of people they are, how they move, when they come on and off stage. Frederic’s production strips the action right back: the show is not about comic disguises, or fake gardeners, its about people fooling themselves. To put this across, Frederic asked the singers to use exaggerated gestures at the beginning of the show – great fun, very theatrical, but nothing to do with real life. They look a little like the china characters people in the 18th century collected: pretty models of people on their best behaviour.

Sandrina and Belfiore go mad at the end of Act II and, as they do so, they drop their theatrical gestures and move normally. They look round at the set, this is clearly ‘finta’ (fake) they say to themselves – and rip it up – then they remove their theatrical costumes. They go out into a landscape of real trees. But that’s ‘finta’ too, just a painted backdrop. It too disappears, and the lovers are left as they are, two ordinary human beings on a bare stage, in love with each other – and totally sane.

Design

The most exciting thing about the La finta giardiniera design is that Antony Mcdonald takes ‘finta’ very seriously, and shows us that the whole set has been fake from beginning to end by having it collapse at the end.

The Act 1 set looks solid (though of course it is just plywood) but the Act II set looks curiously flimsy... The audience get uneasy about it the moment Arminda throws her shoe through it. After that the whole thing starts collapsing: it’s intended to give the audience a shock – they jump in their seats. In fact, though you are reading about this right now, you'll still find it comes as a total surprise when you're sitting in the theatre.

Giardiniera

Sandrina is supposed to be a gardener, as is Nardo, but they never even pot a geranium. Even so, it suggested to the designer that it might be interesting to think about 18th century gardens – especially as there was a certain amount of ‘finta’ (pretence) about them.

The 18th century liked their gardens neat. Trees and bushes were clipped into shape, flower beds arranged into patterns, everything was tidy and formal, like like a well ordered drawing room.

Yet inside an 18th century house – especially a grand one – nature was apparently allowed to take over. Huge rooms had painted ceilings which suggested that there was no roof to them at all, just an enormous sky full of people sitting on clouds. Painted trees and shrubs appeared everywhere, even the plaster work sprouted vegetation.

Wigs

While the singers rehearse their parts, other departments of Glyndebourne are making sets, costumes and wigs. Each opera has its own look and, in La finta giardiniera, the style is over the top 18th century – and that means wigs. The wigs are made of thousands of strands of real hair, carefully sewn on to a fine mesh by the Glyndebourne wig department, and are re-styled before every performance. The thin mesh and wig hair act just like ordinary hair so, as the singer perspires under the stage lights, the sweat goes up into the wig, and has to be washed out again. Some days the wig department can look like a macabre hairdressers, dozens of heads of hair and no customers... To add to the excitement, several characters have a change of wig during the show – which means a team from wigs and make up, standing by in the wings, ready to whip one wig off and fit the next one on in a matter of minutes.

Wardrobe

Everybody on stage is interested in what they look like. ‘What am I wearing?’ is one of the first things a singer asks as they get to grips with their character. That’s because getting into a costume helps you get into a part, especially if the costume is historical. People move differently in 18th century frocks, and heavy 18th century jackets. Every opera house is awash with costumes and it’s up to the Wardrobe Department at Glyndebourne to make and maintain them – mending tears, freshening them up and getting them to the dressing rooms on time. In La finta giardiniera they also have to be in the wings for quick changes. Nine minutes for one change, only six for another. The wardrobe staff sets out everything that’s needed in a quick change booth – stockings already rolled down, the new frock ready to be stepped into, and three or four wardrobe staff each with their own job: one to get the singer out of the old costume, another to hook up the new one (the fastenings are at the back usually) another on hand with the shoes. ‘The secret’ said Lucy Harris, wardrobe manager, ‘is not to let the singer ‘help’ you. They just slow things up...’

Lighting

Once everything is in place – costumes, sets and wigs – the show has to be lit. The lighting plan is crucial, it brings the different parts of the show together and gives the opera its own atmosphere. The wonderful thing about theatre is you can sit back and enjoy the lights – watch how one candle apparently lights up a whole stage, how cleverly a spotlight follows a singer, how cunningly the lighting designer makes sure you only look at the things she and the director want you to see. The lighting designer for La finta giardiniera is Lucy Carter, and she was asked not simply to light the piece, but induce a ghostly atmosphere, followed by a sunny one, followed by a scene set in darkness. The last was very difficult of course, because even if the singers can’t (apparently) see each other – we want to see them...

Performance

Suddenly there’s nothing more to do – but play the piece. The singers and conductor and orchestra give 15 or so performances and, in a way, the show is in their hands now. Certainly they are the only people the audience see. But, behind the scenes, other members of the stage staff take their places – stage crew to shift the scenery, fly men to ‘fly in’ scenery from above the stage, prop staff to swap the solid furniture of Act 1 for cardboard furniture in Act 2, lighting men and dressers. And of course the most important people in the theatre, bar none, begin to fill up the auditorium. The people the stage staff can hardly see – the audience: the reason for having an opera house, and putting on operas, at all.

Cueing the show

Being on the side of the stage during a performance is exciting and disconcerting. You are in almost total darkness, the only light coming through the cracks in the scenery and from the Prompt Desk. That desk is the nerve centre of the show and at it sits the Deputy Stage Manager with the score of the opera in front of her, cueing in everything – every exit, entrance, quick change, door opening, spotlight, and – in the case of La finta giardiniera – the collapsing wall. He or she switches on cue lights which are like little traffic lights and are placed all over the stage, in the fly gallery, even on the conductors desk. The Deputy Stage Manager talks to the other stage managers and lighting men on portable radios – and never get the channels muddled up – and they end the show as unruffled and calm as they started. It's a brilliant job, but you need nerves of steel to consider it.

It's all over

Theatre is live. The same opera may be given 15 times, but every night it will come across differently to the audience. That’s what makes theatre so exciting. Everybody in an opera house knows that at a given moment in the day the curtain will go up and 2,000 people will watch a show under hundreds of bright lights – and there’s nowhere to hide. It means that everyone on and near the stage is incredibly focused – and full of adrenaline. And when, at the end of the show, the curtain comes down and the audience claps, such a wave of happiness sweeps across the stage, you can see why people in the theatre think they’ve got the best job in the world.

Activity Packs

The musical structure of operas

Writing your own dramatic recitative

Turning a song in to a comic duet

Vocal fireworks: coloratura

La finta's eithical issues for a modern audience

Gardens and gardeners in literature and music

Things to ask

How serious is the violence at the start of the opera? Are we supposed to be pleased that Belfiore and Sandrina get together again? (No marriage guidance counsellor would be very happy about their relationship.) What do you think happens at the end? Is anyone happy? Bring some binoculars to the show and look carefully at the set. Is there any clue in the Act I act set that the world round the characters is not as solid as it seems?

Watch out for

Detail

Opera is not film: the setting isn’t constantly moving – in fact the audience sit looking at one set for a long time – so many designers give them detail to look at. What details can you see? Look out for Ramiro’s den, the falling plaster, the Podesta's costume, is it 18th century? Why not? Can you guess what references it is making?

Gestures

In the course of the evening the gestures begin to disappear as Sandrina and Belfiore stop pretending and learn to love each other again. The director is telling us, OK the story is pretend, the scenery is made of paper, the characters are acting – but the feelings are real.

Exits and entrances

There are some strange exits and entrances in this show – can you spot the number of times people don’t come in through the door? Where do they come from? Belfiore can't get out of the room at the beginning of the opera. How does he manage it? Is there something weird about the exit he chooses?

During the show

In the 18th century the audience would have chattered through a lot of the show and listened to the 'big' numbers. But they saw the opera several times. Modern audiences listen to the whole piece in total silence - they may never see or hear it again - but they still act like 18th century audiences when it comes to the big numbers. Watch out for the number of times they clap, did you hear any cheers, did anyone shout 'bravo!'? Opera is a spectator sport, join in!

Discover

You can discover more about La finta giardiniera by downloading the activities below.

The six activities are designed to support your visit to Glyndebourne’s production of La finta giardiniera. They are designed to work in conjunction with the resources to enable your students to get the most from their visit.

The themes of the activities

1. The Musical structure of operas: musical numbers and recitative

2. Writing your own dramatic recitative

3. Turning a song into a comic duet

4. Vocal fireworks: coloratura

5. La Finta’s ethical issues for a modern audience

6. Gardens and gardeners in literature and music

The aim of this pack is to get your students actively engaged in the musical and ethical issues found in this opera. But please note that whilst La finta giardiniera is the starting point, care has been taken to make these activities more widely ‘usable’ in the long term. For example, there are composing and performing ideas using the voice that could lead to developing new skills and working towards a portfolio of compositions which could be included within exam coursework.

The target group includes students preparing for GCSE exams (especially in Music, although there are opportunities for other subjects e.g. creative writing tasks and dramatic staging). However, the activities are easily adapted for A’ level, BTec courses or Key Stage 3 groups with specific areas of study.

The six activities are stand-alone resources and are adaptable to fit your group’s needs, as well as your own teaching preferences.

The activities are written as if speaking directly to the students, but the expectation is that you will take the group through the tasks to enable them to get full access. The tasks within each of the activity sheets mix research (books, recordings and on-line), class discussion, listening, composing and performing opportunities.

Credits

Sarah Lenton - Writer and presenter

Shadric Toop - Designer and Art Director

Emma Savage and Ernest Mills (Savage Mills) - Film makers

Lucy Bradley - Production Consultant

Paul Foster - Writer (activity packs) and education consultant


With thanks to the cast of the Glyndebourne Festival production of La finta giardiniera and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment