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Shared Madness: Mozart's 'La Finta Giardiniera'

'La Finta Giardiniera' at La Monnaie in Brussels, March 2011.
Bernd Uhlig
courtesy of La Monnaie
'La Finta Giardiniera' at La Monnaie in Brussels, March 2011.

It doesn't take much effort to identify artistic expressions of just about every human emotion imaginable. Love, envy, joy, anger, hope and despair — you can find them all in everything from simple drawings and brief verses to vast canvases, hour-long symphonies and epic poems. But there's one state of mind that music — and especially singing — seems to express more vividly than just about any other from of art: madness.

In the rock world alone, the examples seem endless — from Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" to Green Day's "Basket Case" to Nirvana's "Lithium." Adding several dozen more to the list would only be scratching the surface, and the catalog of rock and roll craziness goes back decades.

Then there's the opera house, where musical insanity dates to the early 1600s, when opera itself was a brand new concept. As things progressed, madness became an operatic specialty, and specific sorts of musical numbers evolved to express it. Generally, "mad scenes" in opera involve a single character — often a woman in love — who goes off the deep end while everyone around her looks on in horror and amazement. The most famous example may be the mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, in which an unhappy bride carves up her husband on their wedding night.

Sometimes, though, operatic madness gets a bit more complicated, and there's a great example of that in Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, an uneasy comedy written when the composer was just 18 years old. The opera centers on a pair of once and future lovers — Violante and Belfiore — who seem unbalanced right from the start; he once tried to stab her, and yet she seems willing to take him back.

Yet, as often happens in Mozart's comic operas, he seems to justify a dubious plotline with a disturbing reminder of the unlikely events that can also go on in our own heads — especially when love is involved. Violante may be crazy to want her violent lover back, but she also seems determined to drive Belfiore nuts as well as part of her price for reconciliation. One result is a unique double mad scene that morphs into one of Mozart's signature ensemble finales — a remarkably complex and effective number for a composer who was still a teenager.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Finta Giardiniera in a production from the royal theater La Monnaie in Brussels. The stars are soprano Sandrine Piau as the woman who goes over the edge and tenor Jeremy Ovenden as the man who joins her there.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.