La Finta Giardiniera, Garsington Opera, Oxford

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The Independent Culture

One problem with restoring early Mozart - such as La Finta Giardiniera ("The Lady Gardener who really isn't one"), his first Italian comic opera, composed when he was a near-mature 18 - to the operatic canon is that an imaginative staging is de rigueur. Aidan Lang's lucid, exquisitely designed staging of Mozart's La Finta Semplice for Buxton recently, David McVicar making sense of Mitridate, or Garsington's witty Haydn extravaganzas all gave an idea of what is possible. And it's exactly what this limp Garsington production, from the Australian Paul Curran and his designer, Kevin Knight, lacks.

This indifferent, amateurish staging, with costumes dragged from some garden opera company's dressing-up box, feels vapid, empty of ideas, all but devoid (Act II's opening excepted) of visual precision and insight. It may work better in the soberer setting of the Barbican Hall, where it will be "semi-staged".

The conductor Stuart Bedford unhelpfully slows the start with one bit of histrionic plodding in mid-overture, but he has the lion's task of keeping sheaves of Mozartian recitative moving, and manages it to good effect. Both the sustained finales, to Acts I and II - quality Mozart - were electrifying.

Mozart was permitted seven principals for the opera's 1775 premiere - a generous allow-ance by Italian standards (Ross-ini was frequently restricted to five). Eighteen arias pepper the production, and many appealed. There are glances ahead and backwards, including overtones of The Magic Flute's initiated duo, Gluck and Paisiello's Nina.

Coping amid the maze of mistaken identities, Garsington's cast mostly make their mark, though none ever achieves that solar plexus moment: Majella Cullagh (the snooty Arminda) gets just one stab, but whams into it with real gutsiness. Adrian Thompson's sense of detail improves year by year; this fine Lieder singer's rhythmic flair in the pugnacious "Mio padrone" proved one of the evening's best snippets (though he barks his "dolcezzas"). Thompson makes Mr Mayor not just some bumbling old lecher but an intriguing, moody Mozartian personality. Mezzo Michelle Walton, offered a triple bite of the cherry, delivered an exquisite first aria and a finely energised last one, but wafted about and (more crucially) lost the plot in Act II with a miserably flat-sounding "Dolce d'amor".

The punters cheered themselves hoarse for the central pair: the American Lisa Saffer (acclaimed as ENO's Lulu), slightly wasted as a curiously unregal Violante (the "gardener" of the title), and Iain Paton's Belfiore. My laurels (once she'd stopped overacting) went to the Canadian Carla Huhtanen's mischievous Serpetta and (as the similarly disguised servant) to Damian Thantrey, a vocally flexible young baritone who moves more intelligently than the rest and has vestiges of a fledgling Thomas Hampson.

Barbican Hall, London EC1 (020-7638 8891) on Saturday

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