Last night's opening performance of La Finta Giardiniera at The Independent Theatre, was an impressive display of operatic talents by burgeoning stars from young artist's company, Operantics. I wouldn't expect anything less. When I was just a mere opera 'virgin', earlier this year, I was delighted by the troupe's lively, comedic adaptation of Strauss' Die Fledermaus. With the opportunity to experience their new production (a three performance-run in North Sydney, 6-8 October), I, therefore jumped at the chance.
Perhaps the only trap I fell into as an opera newbie, was expecting more light-hearted love triangles and mistaken identities, from the elegantly titled La Finta Giardiniera ('the disguised gardener'). This is opera after all and with such a rich history of epic scores to choose from, it is much safer to expect the unexpected. This is a good thing; Operantics is a fearless young company. The team has shown they are not afraid to embrace lesser-known classics and tackle their complexities head-on.
The cast of 'La Finta Giadiniera' in full splendour (photo by Rosa Doric c/o- Operantics)
As with Die Fledermaus and a host of other operas, the basic premise of La Finta Giardiniera is love triangles and mistaken identity but though classed as a comedy, I think it's more akin to tragi-comedy. The subject matter is dark and the tendencies of the characters, manic. Sandrina, the titular heroine, is left for dead by a jealous lover, Count Belfiore, only to find herself reunited with him in a strange turn of events that brings him to the house of Mayor Il Podesta, where Sandrina has found shelter, in the guise of a gardener. Faced with demons from her past, Sandrina must navigate, what to modern eyes is a malevolent battle of the sexes, with a passionate and unhinged cast of star-crossed lovers. Will she forgive Count Belfiore his transgressions? Certainly not before a considerable amount of mayhem and melodrama ensues ….
Director Joseph Restubog and Artistic Director/Producer Katie Miller-Crispe , have approached what must have been a daunting task, with the strategy of simplicity and pairing back the opera to its essence. The grandeur and elaborate sets of professional opera are not present and neither is an orchestra. The staging is simple with minimal props and the dramatic score is brought to life by a solo piano player, the incredibly talented Nathaniel Kong and a deft conductor, Natalia Raspopova. Backed only by a projected screen with subtitles and alternated garden, drawing room and cave settings, this performance is all about the eccentric cast of characters, rich 18th Century costumes, facial expressions and most of all, magnificent operatic talents. If Operantics' objective is to develop future sopranos and tenors of the Australian stage and make opera accessible to local audiences, the company achieves this in spades.
The tenors lament their 'ill-treatment' by the fairer sex (photo by Rosa Doric c/o- Operantics)
With a tight ensemble cast of seven characters, every performer is relied on for star turns and there is not a weak link amongst them. The casting is excellent with some returning favourites from Die Fledermaus, leading man Tristan Entwistle as Sandrina's faithful servant Nardo, Spencer Darby as the dapper yet dubious 'hero' Count Belfiore and Rebecca Hart, a master of comedic drag, as the very angry Don Ramiro.
Katie Miller-Crispe, as talented a vocalist, as she is a producer, provides spice as the master flirt, Serpetta and Pamela Andrews 'brings the crazy' as the scheming Arminda, with a powerful, belting soprano to match. And then there is comic relief in the form of the unlucky-in-love Mayor, played delightfully by tenor Nathan Bryon, with excellent comic timing and a healthy complement of camp.
Sarah Ampil as Sandrina lends gravitas to the heroine's plight (photo by Rosa Doric c/o- Operantics)
And what of the heroine herself? Sarah Ampil as the beautiful but haunted Sandrina, puts the 'tragedy' in this tragi-comedy. While most of the characters around her are stupid, OTT or just plain mean, she is a tortured soul and brings gravitas to the story. Although we may not agree with the 'disguised gardener's' final decision, we believe the internal struggle she has endured to make it. Amil's soprano is flawless and she is an engaging, emotional presence on stage.
Like all Operantics' runs, La Finta Giardiniera's season is strictly limited, so if you're open to opera and appreciate independent theatre, book your tickets online, or arrive early at the box office, to avoid missing out. Final performances are Saturday 7th October at 7.30pm and Sunday 8th at 4.30pm.