Nov. 17 2010 12:00 AM

Opera gets a screwball spin in "Giardiniera'

The hallowed pomp and circumstance of Mozart collides with the screwball tone of Preston Sturges’ comedies when the opera “La Finta Giardiniera” weaves its lusty and ribald tale of star-crossed lovers and class struggles at Michigan State University’s Fairchild Theatre.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the comic opera when he was just 18 but producer and stage director Melanie Helton and her team have updated the 17th-century piece to the 1930s, a choice she’s excited about.

“It works out amazingly well,” Helton said. “It’s pretty slapsticky as a comedy, just like those old Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart pictures, with the fast dialogue and improbable situations.”

“La Finta” tells the tale of the arrogant Count Belfiore and his lover Violante, who split prior to the beginning of the action, with Violante disappearing following the spat. When Violante resurfaces disguised as a gardener and calling herself Sandrina, she has revenge on her mind: She has found out Belfiore is intending to take another wife.  What ensues is a high-strung mix of passion and jealousy, as various love triangles play a game of relationship-shifting musical chairs.

“Basically everyone has the hots for someone they shouldn’t and the people they have the hots for are never the ones who have the hots for them,” Helton explains.

Music director Raphael Jiminez and costume-designer and MSU grad Marla Fogderud are two of the forces helping bring the production to life.

Helton is quick to admit an annoyance at the traditional “breastplate-and-horns image of opera that’s so outdated” and that sometimes keeps audiences away.

“There’s so much physical comedy,” Helton said. “It’s snappy, it’s fun and it moves along quickly. Whenever first-timers come, they’re always blown away and they always come back.

"People are going to be so surprised at how much fun they’re going to have and how much they are going to laugh.”

'La Finta Giardiniera'

8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19 and Saturday, Nov. 20; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21. Michigan State University, Fairchld Theatre
$20; $18 seniors; $10 students and children. (800) WHARTON.