Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
Lorenzo Regazzo (bass) Figaro Patrizia Ciofi (sop) Susanna Simon Keenlyside (bar) Count Almaviva Véronique Gens (sop) Countess Almaviva Angelika Kirchschlager (mez) Cherubino Marie McLaughlin (sop) Marcellina Antonio Abete (bass) Bartolo, Antonio Kobie van Rensburg (ten) Don Basilio, Don Curzio Nuria Rial (sop) Barbarina Ghent Collegium Vocale; Concerto Köln / René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1818/20 (172' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
René Jacobs always brings new ideas to the operas he conducts, and even to a work as familiar as Figaro he adds something of his own. First of all he offers an orchestral balance quite unlike what we are used to. Those who specially relish a Karajan or a Solti will hardly recognise the work, with its strongly wind-biased orchestral balance: you simply don’t hear the violins as the ‘main line’ of the music. An excellent corrective to a tradition that was untrue to Mozart, to be sure, but possibly the pendulum has swung a little too far.
Jacobs is freer over tempo than most conductors. The Count’s authoritarian pronouncements are given further weight by a faster tempo: it gives them extra decisiveness, though the music then has to slow down. There are other examples of such flexibility, sometimes a shade disconcerting, but always with good dramatic point. The Count’s Act 3 duet with Susanna is one example: the little hesitancies enhanced and pointed up, if perhaps with some loss in energy and momentum. Tempi are generally on the quick side of normal, notably in the earlier parts of the Act 2 finale; but Jacobs is willing to hold back, too, for example in the Susanna-Marcellina duet, in the fandango, and in the G major music at the denouement where the Count begs forgiveness.
The cast is excellent. Véronique Gens offers a beautifully natural, shapely ‘Porgi amor’ and a passionate and spirited ‘Dove sono’. The laughter in Patrizia Ciofi’s voice is delightful when she’s dressing up Cherubino, and she has space in ‘Deh vieni’ for a touchingly expressive performance. Then there’s Angelika Kirchschlager’s Cherubino, alive and urgent in ‘Non so più’, every little phrase neatly moulded. Lorenzo Regazzo offers a strong Figaro, with a wide range of voice – angry and determined in ‘Se vuol ballare’, nicely rhythmic with some softer colours in ‘Non più andrai’, and pain and bitterness in ‘Aprite’. The Count of Simon Keenlyside is powerful, menacing, lean and dark in tone. Marie McLaughlin sings Marcellina with unusual distinction. Strongly cast, imaginatively directed: it’s a Figaro well worth hearing.
Bryn Terfel (bass-bar) Figaro Alison Hagley (sop) Susanna Rodney Gilfry (bar) Count Almaviva Hillevi Martinpelto (sop) Countess Almaviva Pamela Helen Stephen (mez) Cherubino Susan McCulloch (sop) Marcellina Carlos Feller (bass) Bartolo Francis Egerton (ten) Don Basilio, Don Curzio Julian Clarkson (bass) Antonio Constanze Backes (sop) Barbarina Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv Produktion 439 871-2AH3 (179' · DDD · T/t) Recorded live 1993. Buy from Amazon
The catalogue of Figaro recordings is long, and the cast lists are full of famous names. In this version only one principal had more than half a dozen recordings behind him, and some had none at all. Yet this version can stand comparison with any, not only for its grasp of the drama but also for the quality of its singing. It’s more evidently a period-instrument recording than many under Gardiner. The string tone is pared down and makes modest use of vibrato, the woodwind is soft-toned. The voices are generally lighter and fresher-sounding than those on most recordings, and the balance permits more than usual to be heard of Mozart’s instrumental commentary on the action and the characters. The recitative is done with exceptional life and feeling for its meaning and dramatic import, with a real sense of lively, urgent conversation.
Bryn Terfel and Alison Hagley make an outstanding Figaro and Susanna. Terfel has enough darkness in his voice to sound menacing in ‘Se vuol ballare’ as well as bitter in ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’; it’s an alert, mettlesome performance – and he also brings off a superlative ‘Non più andrai’. Hagley offers a reading of spirit and allure. The interplay between her and the woodwind in ‘Venite inginocchiatevi’ is a delight, and her cool but heartfelt ‘Deh vieni’ is very beautiful. Once or twice her intonation seems marginally under stress but that’s the small price you pay for singing with so little vibrato. Hillevi Martinpelto’s unaffected, youthful-sounding Countess is enjoyable; both arias are quite lightly done, with a very lovely, warm, natural sound in ‘Dove sono’ especially. Some may prefer a more polished, sophisticated reading, of the traditional kind, but this is closer to what Mozart would have wanted and expected.
Rodney Gilfry provides a Count with plenty of fire and authority, firmly focused in tone; the outburst at the Allegro assai in ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’ is formidable. Pamela Helen Stephen’s Cherubino sounds charmingly youthful and impetuous. There’s no want of dramatic life in Gardiner’s direction. His tempi are marginally quicker than most, and the orchestra often speaks eloquently of the drama.
Siepi Figaro Gueden Susanna Poell Count Almaviva della Casa Countess Almaviva Danco Cherubino Rössl-Majdan Marcellina Corena Bartolo Dickie Don Basilio Meyer-Welfing Don Curzio Pröglhöf Antonio Felbermayer Barbarina Vienna State Opera Chor; VPO / E Kleiber
Decca Heritage Masters 478 1720DC (172' · ADD). Recorded 1955. Buy from Amazon
Kleiber’s Figaro is a classic of the classics of the gramophone: beautifully played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted with poise and vitality and a real sense of the drama unfolding through the music. It’s very much a Viennese performance, not perhaps as graceful or as effervescent as some but warm, sensuous and alive to the interplay of character. The true star is Erich Kleiber. The beginning of the opera sets your spine tingling with theatrical expectation. Act 1 goes at pretty smart tempi, but all through he insists on full musical value. There’s no rushing in the confrontations at the end of Act 2 – all is measured and properly argued through. The sound is satisfactory, for a set of this vintage, and no lover of this opera should be without it.
Blankenburg Figaro Freni Susanna Bacquier Count Almaviva Gencer Countess Mathis Cherubino Cava Bartolo Peters Marcellina Cuénod Don Basilio Kentish Don Curzio Davies Antonio Zeri Barbarina McCarry Bridesmaid Glyndebourne Chorus; RPO / Varviso
Glyndebourne GFOCD001-62 (162’ · ADD · S/T/t). Recorded live 1962. Buy from Amazon
Everything takes its place with a delightful combination of freshness and assurance, and the audience clearly (and more audibly after the interval) responds appreciatively. The recording seems to catch the stage action almost as well as if it were a DVD, though the women’s voices are apt to acquire that bright hard edge which is the accursed associate of digital remastering: still, not as badly as some. Gencer’s vibrant, almost tragic tone distinguishes her Countess and, as (nearly) always at Glyndebourne, the ensemble work is a model of stylish efficiency.
Knut Skram (bass) Figaro Ileana Cotrubas (sop) Susanna Benjamin Luxon (bar) Count Almaviva Kiri Te Kanawa (sop) Countess Almaviva Frederica von Stade (mez) Cherubino Nucci Condò (sop) Marcellina Marius Rintzler (bass) Bartolo Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra / John Pritchard
Stage director Peter Hall
Video director Dave Heather
ArtHaus Musik 101 089 (3h 5’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo · 0). Recorded live 1973. Buy from Amazon
Peter Hall’s Glyndebourne Figaro of 1973 was his memorable first effort at staging Mozart, and was much praised at the time. His unfussy production is set in John Bury’s lived-in, warmly coloured decor and combines well with John Pritchard’s unassumingly stylish conducting. Dave Heather’s TV direction is worthy of the original, and the picture looks as if it might have been filmed yesterday. The sound, however, lacks a little in clarity and range.
The cast that season was choice. Kiri Te Kanawa, youthful of mien, glowing of voice, sings the Countess. It is a wonderful memento of her great promise and appreciable achievement at the time. Her admirably priapic Count is Benjamin Luxon, singing with firm, velvet tone and a fine line. The participants below stairs are of equal stature. Ileana Cotrubas is an alert, cool-headed and warm-hearted Susanna, and she sings faultlessly. Knut Skram, her Figaro, isn’t such a definite character, but is unobtrusively right. The young Frederica von Stade’s Cherubino is sparky and wide-eyed if vocally a little thin. It’s a cast welded into a true and rewarding ensemble.