La finta semplice



La finta semplice (K51)
Opera buffa in three acts
Libretto by Carlo Goldini and Marco Coltellini, after La fausse Agnès, ou la poète campagnard by Philippe Néricault Destouches (1734)
English translation, as Pride and Pretence, by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

First performance at Salzburg in 1769


Rosina, a Hungarian baroness, sister of Fracasso Aoife O’Sullivan
Don Cassandro, a rich, foolish and miserly gentleman landowner Nicholas Merryweather
Don Polidoro, his younger brother, a foolish nobleman  Robert Anthony Gardiner
Giacinta, their sister Caryl Hughes
Ninetta, their maid  Nathalie Chalkley
Fracasso, a Hungarian captain stationed in the area Adam Tunnicliffe
Simone, his sergeant  Gavan Ring
The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera (July, August, October)
CHROMA (September)  
Repetiteur Charlotte Forrest
Conductor Andrew Griffiths
Director Jeremy Gray




Act I
Fracasso and Simone are billeted on Don Cassandro, a somewhat vain and miserly gentleman of Cremona, who does not intend to allow marriages between his sister, Giacinta, and the captain nor his maid, Ninetta, and Simone.  Fracasso summons Rosina for help: she pretends to be a simpleton who would like to marry not on Cassandro but his silly younger brother Polidoro as well.  She succeeds in wheedling a precious ring from Cassandro.

Act II
Rosina finds herself having to tolerate Polidoro’s boorishness and Cassandro’s drunkenness; the latter narrowly escapes fighting a duel with the captain.  Persuaded that Giacinta has run off with the family treasure, Cassandro promises her hand to whoever finds and returns her.

Rosina has developed a natural affection for Cassandro.  The other couples are found, forgiven and betrothed whilst Polidoro consoles himself that he wasn’t the only one deceived by the whole episode.


...played impeccably
The Oxford Times, July 2013


...played impeccably

The Oxford Times, July 2013

Bampton Opera is marking its 20th birthday this year by doing what it does best – unearthing a little-known opera and making a case for its acceptance into the mainstream operatic repertoire.  Mozart’s La finta semplice, the composer’s first full-length comedy, was written when he was just 12 and is a delectable cocktail of familiar ingredients – deceit, disguise, flirting and general mayhem.

Admittedly, librettists Carlo Goldini and Marco Coltellini are not in the same league as da Ponte, and even the witty new English translation by Bampton founders Gilly French and Jeremy Gray can’t quite capture the sparkle of the late Mozart operas.  But the music saves the day, and although gain it doesn’t compare to the composer’s mature works, much of it is unmistakeably Mozartian.

Aristocrat Giacinta and her housemaid, Ninetta, are in love with Fracasso and Simone, two soldiers billeted into their household.  But the marriages are forbidden by Giacinta’s brother, Don Cassandro, so they enlist the help of Fracasso’s sister, Rosina.  Usig all her seductive charm, Rosina flirts with both Cassandro and his brother Polidoro, in the hope of softening their attitude to marriage.  Cassandro is eventually forced to accept the marriages of Giacinta and Ninetta – but which brother will Rosina choose?

At Bampton the cast romped their way through the piece with gusto, despite having to battle occasionally against the wind that whips through the Deanery garden.  Nicholas Merryweather coped best in this respect, and his Cassandro was a pleasingly larger-than-life, drunken oaf who could have stepped straight out of 90s sitcom Men Behaving Badly.

Aoife O’Sullivan was delightfully coquettish as Rosina, and she played the two brothers off against each other with impish glee.  Caryl Hughes, Nathalie Chalkley, Adam Tunnicliffe and Gavan Ring were full of energy as the star-crossed lovers, Robert Anthony Gardiner was a hilariously foolish Polidoro and the ever-reliable Bampton orchestra played impeccably under the baton of Andrew Griffiths.


Nicola Lisle


an uplifting and energised evening
Opera Now, September 2013


an uplifting and energised evening

Opera Now, September 2013

Few British companies are cannier than Bampton in capturing the flair and the fizz of operas that have tumbled out of the repertoire. Amid Paisiello, Gazzaniga, Portugal, Stirace and Henneberg they find time for rare operas by recognised greats: regular forays into Gluck, Haydn and Salieri, and – as here – early Mozart.

The prodigious scamp was 12 when he turned out La finta semplice, three full acts of amazingly pukka material. True, it’s not Figaro, but it’s far from negligible.

In their beautiful garden setting in Oxfordshire, with a punchy if not period orchestra under a top-drawer young conductor, Andrew Griffiths, Bampton didn’t always equal the Buxton Festival’s classic perspective-exploring Finta; yet Jeremy Gray’s surreal, Magritte-spoofing production often came near.

Spinning operatic yarns is one of Bampton’s specialities, making classical opera endless fun. Aoife O’Sullivan’s Rosina, the feigned simpleton of this ditty (actually a feisty Hungarian countess) proved to be the production’s plum. Tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner, splendid at recitative, was cast as the real goon. Gray and his wife Gilly French provided their usual knockout, highly singable rhyming translation.

Nicholas Merryweather, a baritone who can out-Terfel Bryn on a good day, sounded a little muted in Bampton’s rural surroundings; but he was very funny nevertheless. Nathalie Chalkley’s Ninetta is the other obviously superlative voice in a tip-top team. This was an uplifting and energised evening – all in the best traditions of Bampton.


Roderic Dunnett



Pride and Pretence
Julian Rushton


Pride and Pretence


Pride and Pretence

The title is probably best left without translation. ‘Finta’ and its parallel male form ‘finto’ have no neat English equivalent, but both, and their plural form, often crop up in opera buffatitles. ‘Pretended’ is favoured by the New Grove Dictionary, but seems cumbersome; the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopediaoffers ‘The Feigned Simpleton’. The person described is acting a part, in order to be taken for a different person, or a person of different character. So ‘Finta/o’ might be rendered as ‘fake’ or ‘false’, so long as these are not taken to imply disapproval; in most cases as the imposture is undertaken for a good reason, and by a virtuous character. The point of the pretence, of course, is that the other characters, or some of them, are in the dark, while the audience knows who the person really is – even when, as in Mozart’s La finta giardiniera(1775), the lady herself (a countess pretending to be a gardener) becomes confused about her identity.

The Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni, the most influential librettist in the formation of an increasingly sophisticated type of opera buffa, wrote Il finto principe(the fake prince) in 1749; a later setting is listed among ‘doubtful’ works of the great master of opera buffa, Giovanni Paisiello. His confirmed output includes Le finte contesse(the fake countesses) and La finta amante(one –female – pretending to be a lover). Thus it isn’t too surprising that Mozart’s relatively modest output of opera buffa(just five finished works: Paisiello had written over 30 before his delightful Barbiere di Siviglia  of 1782, with many more to follow) should include two ‘fintas’.

In Goldoni’s La finta semplice(1764), the person pretending to be a simpleton (Rosina) is known from the start to be acting, her role-play being directed specifically at Cassandro whom, rather surprisingly given what we see of him, she finally decides to marry. This allows the other characters to pair off, except for his brother Polidoro. He is somewhat cruelly deceived into believing that Rosina will marry him, but is left on the shelf, like the Mayor at the end of La finta giardiniera. Such rejection seems to be the fate of the second tenor, whereas the first tenor (Fracasso) and his servant (Simone) have successfully manipulated the brothers to gain their consent to marry, respectively, Giacinta and Ninetta. The essence of the plot is typical of opera buffa, flowing even into the masterpiece of the genre, Le nozze di Figaro, though more obviously in its prequel, Il barbiere: obstacles to young love are raised by an older man, and are overcome through the ingenuity of the lovers, with a little help from their friends. The story is capable of infinite variation. In this case the novelty is that the foolish older man is split into the brothers Cassandro and Polidoro, each described in the cast-list as ‘gentiluomo sciocco’: foolish gentleman. But their stupidity takes different forms, reflected in their music: Cassandro choleric and domineering, Polidoro weakly amorous. It is mainly for Cassandro’s benefit that Rosina, to help her brother Fracasso win his bride, pretends to be simple-minded. One is left feeling that their marriage will be more equal than if she wed the ineffectual Polidoro, or even that she will prove the dominant partner.

The other members of the cast are also formed from the pool of types expected this genre, drawn from the popular commedia dell’arte, with its Harlequin, Pantaloon, and Columbine. Ninetta is the ingenious maid who gets her way, a well-established type in Italian comedy, represented in Mozart’s opera buffeby Sandrina (La finta giardiniera) and of course Susanna. Her musical style is simpler than Rosina’s, who is given most opportunities for vocal display, and Giacinta’s, whose Act III aria in a minor key reflects her fear of her brothers; they have dominated her life so far, and she has just run off with their money and is about to marry a young man they disapprove of, despite his military bearing and engaging personality.

The great difference between the ‘finta’ operas and Mozart’s Da Ponte masterpieces is the use, in the latter, of ensembles: the duets, trios, and larger groupings that drive the action forward in parallel with the expansion of the musical form. In the form established by Goldoni and imitated by other librettists, the solo aria predominated just as it did in serious opera of the time. Only in the short ‘chorus’ (of soloists) that begins the opera, and in the three finales, do several voices come together, and even there much of the music is rapid exchange rather than the complicated textures Mozart was to master in the 1780s. There is one entertaining duet as Fracasso and Cassandro offer to fight a duel; and the arias are separated by simple recitatives, intended to be delivered at the speed of speech.

Within this somewhat rigid formula, one can only admire the 12-year-old composer’s ability to pattern his arias differently according to the character and situation. They vary in length, with Rosina and Fracasso allowed the greatest expansion for singing that touches on the style of serious opera; Goldoni’s librettos promoted this mixture of serious and comic idioms, in which he was followed by Da Ponte. The arias are varied in form, some maintaining a single tempo, others presenting contrasted speeds and metres. Giacinta’s minor-key aria is never finished, as Fracasso interrupts and persuades her that she has nothing to fear, before setting off on the longest aria with the usually modest orchestra enlarged by flutes. As a military man, he might have had trumpets, but Mozart was no doubt working within the limitations of the theatre. The importance of Rosina (clearly the prima donna, and a baroness to boot) is enhanced when one of her arias is enriched by the sound of two cors anglais as well as a solo oboe and horns: at this point, she is in her true character, as the foolish brothers are not present.

* * * * *

The Mozart family visited Vienna in 1767, only a few months after returning home to Salzburg at the end of their Grand Tour through Western Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands. Their plan to conquer the Austrian capital was interrupted by a smallpox epidemic, in which one of the Habsburg Archduchesses died. The Mozarts were offered hospitality out of harm’s way, in Moravia, but both children nevertheless contracted the disease (which was not always fatal). The family returned to Vienna shortly before Wolfgang’s twelfth birthday, and were graciously received by the widowed empress Maria Theresia. At this royal audience her eldest son, recently promoted to being joint ruler as emperor Joseph II, idly remarked that it would be interesting to see the young genius write an opera buffa. Leopold Mozart, ever eager to show off his son, took this as the promise of a commission from the court theatre; the impresario was informed and probably agreed to provide a suitable libretto. La finta semplicewas chosen. It had been set four years earlier, and in another city, by a wholly forgotten composer named Perillo. For Mozart, it was touched up by a local poet and librettist, Marco Coltellini, who strengthened the piece by adding a more elaborate finale to the third act. So far so good …

At the age of twelve, Mozart was best known as a keyboard prodigy, but in addition to instrumental works he had already composed a fair amount of dramatic music. In London he had improvised arias to the astonishment of Daines Barrington, who reported formally on his precocity to the Royal Society. Aged nine and ten, he had composed several separate arias; aged eleven, he wrote part of a German oratorio, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebotes, and a short opera in Latin, Apollo et Hyacinthus. These were performed in Salzburg in 1767, giving Mozart the chance to gauge the effect of his musical choices in form, instrumentation, and style. La finta semplicewas his first comedy, but for a boy with a sense of humour (which Mozart certainly had in abundance) it surely suited his talents no less than serious topics.

But the Viennese knew nothing of his previous efforts; the boy’s abilities in dramatic music were publicly questioned; and since he was only twelve, it was his father Leopold Mozart, not always a model of tact, who had to take on the fight. It is difficult to be certain of the facts here, since the only account we have comes from Leopold, decidedly an interested party. At best, there was misunderstanding; at worst, chicanery of a kind Leopold was only too readily inclined to expect from the Italians who formed the opera buffatroupe.

The problem may have arisen because Leopold should not have taken the emperor’s casual remark – ‘would the boy like to compose an opera and direct the performance?’ – as a formal invitation. But Joseph II had not yet assumed command of the imperial theatres. The opera buffacompany was run by an Italian crook, Giuseppe Affligio, who some years later came to a bad end in the galleys. Affligio may have acted on what he assumed was an imperial diktat, and so at first he agreed to put on the opera and pay the usual fee. But he seems to have developed cold feet; putting on a work by a child was too great a financial risk; he could well have lost his money. It is thus plausible that it was he who rumours that the opera was actually or largely by Leopold, and that the singers would refuse to sing it – although in fact some of them rehearsed their arias and (according to Leopold) were perfectly happy. (The canard that his music was badly written for voices pursued Mozart to the end of his life, affecting the reception of Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito).

The greater calumny, that the boy couldn’t have composed such an elaborate score, was easily refuted. Leopold gathered the great and the good as eye-witnesses and Wolfgang composed an aria to a text he hadn’t previously seen. But Leopold’s letters, no doubt coloured by his tendency to paranoia, suggest that rumours were not so easily suppressed; moreover, Joseph declined to exert force majeure, and was probably not impressed by Leopold’s whinging. In the 1780s, when the adult Mozart lived in Vienna, Joseph (by then sole ruler) was generally supportive, but in 1773 Maria Theresia instructed one of his brothers, then governing in Milan, not to employ ‘useless people’ like Mozart; besides, added this mother of ten, ‘he has a large family’.

Thus in the end La finta semplicewas not given in Vienna. By way of consolation, Mozart had his short German opera Bastien und Bastienneperformed during autumn 1768, and on 7 December, just before the family returned to Salzburg, his large-scale mass known as the Waisenhausmessewas performed in the presence of Habsburg royalty. Finally, in May 1769, the Salzburg singers, although not accustomed to opera buffa, performed La finta semplicejust once, in the Archbishop’s palace. A printed libretto survives from this occasion, with a list of the cast, singers ‘all currently in the service of His Highness the Most Reverend etc.’. This formula refers back to the previous page, which is filled with the titles of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, who commanded the performance. The librettist isn’t named, and small letters beneath the ‘etc.’ tell us ‘The music is by Signor Wolfgango Mozart, in his twelfth year’ (actually his thirteenth). As we now realise, the boy had proved yet again, as he had to Daines Barrington in London, that he was an ape of genius; he could imitate to perfection any dramatic style that was required. But there is nothing to tell us how the opera was received, and it wasn’t heard again until 1921 – translated into German.



Julian Rushton

Julian Rushton is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and has published extensively on opera and on Mozart.


Production Photos