Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro – the best recording

The Marriage of FigaroThe Marriage of Figaro from Glyndebourne conducted by Bernard Haitink

(First published as the 'Gramophone Collection' in 2011 Awards issue.) The recommendations and discography can be found at the end of the article.

Un peu d’histoire. The Marriage of Figaro, like the play by Beaumarchais on which it is based, is a sequel to The Barber of Seville: not Rossini’s, which lay far in the future, but the setting by Giovanni Paisiello. Premiered in St Petersburg in 1782, The Barber was staged in Vienna the following year. The story of Figaro shows the dashing young Count of the Barber being outwitted by his servants: heady stuff, but Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, was careful to tone down anything that might offend Emperor Joseph II and his court. Mozart’s Figaro and Susanna had sung in the Barber, as Bartolo and Rosina; and there are many musical links, most obviously the resemblance of Cherubino’s 'Voi che spate' to the Count’s 'Saper bramate' in the earlier opera. In a city dominated by Italian composers, Figaro racked up a respectable 38 performances in Mozart’s lifetime; but Paisiello’s Barber achieved 61 over a similar five-year period.

Let me mention some things to be taken here as read, whether or not I refer to them in specific cases. I look askance at modern recordings that omit appoggiaturas, which are a matter of grammar, not of taste (embellishing the vocal line is another matter). I am irritated by cadences leading from recitative to ensemble that are begun but not completed by the continuo player. I am biased against recordings that interrupt the flow of the great Act 2 Finale by spreading it across two discs. Then there is the theory, advanced in 1965 by RB Moberly and Christopher Raeburn, that the Sextet in Act 3 was originally intended to come after the Countess’s 'Dove sono'. This is a great improvement dramatically, but unfortunately the evidence is against it. The versions that adopt this 'solution' are: Colin Davis in 1971 (but not in 1990), Karajan in 1974 and 1978, GardinerMalgloire and Parry; and, on DVD, PritchardBöhm in 1975, Haitink and Pappano.

Glyndebourne

Any survey of Figaro on record has to start with Glyndebourne: four versions on CD and two (which I shall come to later) on DVD. The Fritz Busch recording was the first ever of a Mozart opera: it’s not quite complete, and the secco recitatives are omitted, but it shows how Glyndebourne’s high standards prevailed from the very start. I remember Sir Jack Westrup, then a music critic, saying that, for the first time in his experience of staged Mozart in England, the orchestra’s chords at a cadence were actually synchronised. The only thing that jars is Busch’s literal interpretation of Mozart’s Molto andante when Susanna emerges from the closet: it drags unconscionably.

Twenty years later, the pseudonymous Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra had changed from the LSO to the RPO, and the conductor was Vittorio Gui. This is an early stereo recording and it sounds very fine. Graziella Sciutti, who had not at the time sung the part at Glyndebourne itself, makes an effervescent Susanna. Gui’s steady tempo enables Sesto Bruscantini to articulate Figaro’s anti-women diatribe without the usual scramble. Franco Calabrese avoids the top F sharp in the Count’s aria (as does Heinz Rehfuss for Hans Rosbaud the same year). Risë Stevens sounds too mature for Cherubino, but Sena Jurinac makes a believably young Countess. If you want to enjoy Hugues Cuénod’s characterful account of Basilio’s aria, you must buy the three-disc version.

Cuénod and his aria can be heard again in 1962 under Silvio Varviso. Recorded 'live' in the old theatre, it sounds rather dry; but the ear soon adjusts. The early 1960s were a golden age for Glyndebourne and this is a true ensemble performance. In a perfect world, Figaro would have been sung by Geraint Evans; but Heinz Blankenburg is nearly as good and with Mirella Freni’s delightful Susanna and Edith Mathis’s coltish Cherubino – how much better it is to have a soprano, not a mezzo, in the part! – there are no grounds for complaint. As the Countess, the underrated Leyla Gencer produces a nice pianissimo in the reprise of 'Dove sono'.

The LPO took over from the RPO in 1964, so were well ensconced by the time of Bernard Haitink’s studio recording, made some two-and-a-half years after its latest Glyndebourne staging. It’s a good, slightly stolid account, with a dangerous Figaro from Claudio Desderi and a Bartolo in Artur Korn who is formidable rather than pompous. Felicity Lott’s 'Dove sono' is as beautiful as Gencer’s, without the latter’s tendency to sing slightly flat.

1930s-1940s

After the pioneering Busch, it seems that Figaro had to wait until 1950 for its next commercial recording. In recent years, though, several earlier 'live' performances have appeared. Two are from the Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic. Bruno Walteris fleet, in the main, as is Clemens Krauss in his German-language account. Both recordings suffer from poor sound and pitch wobbles. Easier on the ear is Karl Böhm’s studio broadcast from Stuttgart (also in German, with singers from his Dresden company), despite Margarete Teschemacher’s Countess sliding around alarmingly in her arias. From New York, Busch’s Overture must be the fastest on record, brilliantly played. As often with 'live' performances, the prompters for the Walter, Krauss and Busch are all too audible.

1950s

There are good things to be found in Herbert von Karajan’s first recording in 1950, including Erich Kunz – he sang Figaro for Krauss in 1942 and was still in good shape when I saw him in the role in 1964 – and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; but it’s very hard-driven and the extraordinary omission of the secco recitatives rules it out of court. 

For Rosbaud, 'live' in Aix-en-Provence, Teresa Stich-Randall’s slow 'Dove sono' is in the Schwarzkopf class and there’s a nicely fresh Cherubino from (soprano!) Pilar Lorengar. The sound is excellent.

With Erich Kleiber, we come to the first incontestably great recording. Everything about his conducting is just right. In the Act 1 Trio, he brings out the second violins’ sly anticipation and echo of Basilio’s 'Così fan tutte le belle' and, when Susanna is dressing Cherubino in women’s clothes, he lets us hear Mozart’s quasi-symphonic writing in the woodwind. When the Count challenges Figaro about Cherubino’s commission, the build-up of the obsessive nine-note phrase is judged perfectly; and there’s no hanging about in Susanna’s 'Deh, vieni', which after all is meant to be a tease. Murray Dickie as Don Curzio stammers convincingly in the Sextet as well as in the recitative (something that Michael Kelly, the first Basilio and Curzio, claims he persuaded Mozart to sanction). Ticked boxes for the bass Figaro and soprano Cherubino (Suzanne Danco), but not for the Marcellina: the inclusion of her aria (for the first time on record) is welcome, but to cast a mezzo in the part and have the aria sung by Susanna makes no sense. 

The last Figaro of the decade is Carlo Maria Giulini’s. It was recorded at the same time as his magnificent Don Giovanni, with some of the same singers; but for some reason it’s earthbound, the whole remaining resolutely less than the sum of its parts. The best performance comes from Eberhard Wächter, who sings the Count’s aria with steely passion, articulating the triplets – and this is rare – with precision.

1960s-1980s

In the attention he pays to orchestral detail, Böhm in 1968 is the equal of Kleiber. Listen to the sharp accents on the horns in the second Figaro-Susanna duet and the off-beat sforzandi for the second violins in Figaro’s rant in Act 4. Listen, too, to the chattering of strings and woodwind when the Count is seeking his wife’s forgiveness in Act 2 and to the prominence given to flute, oboe and bassoon when they take up Marcellina’s tune in the Sextet. As with many conductors of his generation, Böhm had a now-unfashionable liking for a rallentando at the end of an aria, but that pales into insignificance alongside the many virtues of his conducting. The cast is splendid; there are even some appoggiaturas.

Colin Davis’s 1971 recording, the first to adopt the Moberly-Raeburn theory for Act 3, is nearly as good. I find Jessye Norman too generously full-toned for the young Countess, but the rest of the cast is admirable. Davis’s love of the opera shines through and this version is in all respects superior to his 1990 remake from Munich.

Freni, the Susanna for Varviso and Davis, pops up again in Karajan’s 1974 performance from Salzburg. José van Dam and Tom Krause are powerful antagonists, but the stars here are Frederica von Stade, an ardent Cherubino, and Elizabeth Harwood’s dignified Countess. Van Dam, von Stade and Krause are also on Karajan’s 1978 studio recording. Von Stade is as winning as before, but van Dam’s secretive whispering when plotting with Susanna and the Countess in Act 2 becomes irritating on repeated hearings. In between came Daniel Barenboim’s first recording, derived from a production at the Edinburgh Festival. Its chief merit lies in its preserving the Figaro of Geraint Evans; on my HMV Classics set, the recitatives in Act 1 are omitted, with hardly any pause between the numbers.

Christopher Raeburn produced the 1974 Karajan; he was also the producer of Georg Solti’s recording which, amusingly, doesn’t follow his Act 3 'solution'. Kiri Te Kanawa sings the Countess’s arias with meltingly beautiful tone, seemingly unfazed in 'Porgi amor' by Solti’s desperately slow tempo. The discreet flirtation with Cherubino (von Stade again) is done with some feeling. Samuel Ramey, a bass as round-toned as Ezio Pinza was for Bruno Walter, delivers a forceful 'Se vuol ballare'; and Thomas Allen is quite simply superb as the Count. Yvonne Kenny is touchingly worried in Barbarina’s little Cavatina. But despite a glittering cast this, like the Giulini, doesn’t quite come off. And why, I wonder, with the critical edition readily available, did Raeburn allow Solti to have the horns play an octave too low – B flat basso rather than alto – in Basilio’s aria?

Riccardo Muti’s recording suffers from a continuo player who indulges in knowing references to the arias. More seriously, Muti fails to pace the Act 2 Finale convincingly, taking much of it too fast. With Allen as Figaro and Jorma Hynninen as his antagonist, it feels as though two Counts are doing battle, pun not intended (Susanna is sung by Kathleen Battle).

1990s-2000s

Since the arrival of recordings on period instruments, the flow of conventional performances on CD has lessened. It’s easy to overlook Zubin Mehta’s account, but there’s a lot going for it. Monica Bacelli’s passionate 'Voi che sapete' has a suggestion of heartbreak and Karita Mattila is gloriously full-throated in the Allegro of 'Dove sono'. An alternative, high version of the Count’s aria is included in an appendix: it would have been sensible to put it on the second disc, so it could be programmed to be heard in the right place. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the first of Susanna’s two alternative arias on the Claudio Abbado set. This is as rewarding as Mehta’s: a little on the plush side, perhaps, but with a good cast including a nicely tremulous Cherubino from Cecilia Bartoli.

It was Charles Mackerras who pioneered a production at Sadler’s Wells in 1965 that was laden with appogiaturas and embellishments. Here, as there, he has a modern instrument orchestra. I love the crescendos in the bass line at the start of 'Cinque…dieci' and the dark sound of the violas when the Count discovers Cherubino hiding in the chair. Alastair Miles makes a convincing bass Figaro and Alessandro Corbelli, more familiar in buffo roles, is no slouch when it comes to showing the Count’s vicious side. There’s an appendix of variants and alternatives too numerous to detail here. Mackerras’s Barbarina, Rebecca Evans, is promoted to Susanna on David Parry’s recording in English: a useful, straightforward reading omitting the arias for Marcellina and Basilio and with tiresome, snatched continuo chords on a heavyweight Steinway.

Period instruments

Arnold Östman’s is the earliest recording here on period instruments. The alternatives and variants are all on the right disc, but programming the second version of the Count’s aria makes you lose the following recitative. Östman’s tempos are brisk: sometimes too much so, but it means that Arleen Auger’s beautifully sung 'Dove sono' is appropriately wistful, rather than would-be tragic. You get no help from DG in how to avoid the rearrangement of Act 4 on John Eliot Gardiner’s 'live' recording (on the third disc, programme tracks 1-5, 18, 19, 7-9, 20, 13-17). That apart, the set is well worth acquiring, as is its DVD equivalent from Paris, for a cast with no weak links and an inspiring conductor.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s version can safely be ignored: too fast, too slow, and with gaps between tracks that undermine the drama: an effect that Jean-Claude Malgloire also manages by pulling the music about in the Act 2 Finale. Now for René Jacobs, a conductor to whom I am normally allergic: there’s a monstrous speeding-up in the Act 1 Trio, the fortepiano continuo is as usual hyperactive, tension is lost in the Count’s duet with Susanna, the Sextet is strangely nervy, Basilio sings falsetto at one point: the list of irritations is endless, but the playing of Concerto Köln and a first-rate cast including Simon Keenlyside as the Count make for compulsive listening.

Performances on DVD

The two black-and-white DVDs from Salzburg are interesting historical documents. As with Barenboim’s 1976 CD set, Lorin Maazel’s is particularly valuable as a reminder of Geraint Evans. For Böhm, Walter Berry is a chubby Figaro – like Schubert without spectacles – and Mathis acts well and phrases 'Voi che sapete' to perfection. For me, though, both productions are spoilt by the characters bowing – and, worse, re-entering and bowing – after their arias. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film – Böhm again – is a visual treat, but having some solos delivered as interior monologues is disconcerting. Fischer-Dieskau as the Count tends to grin amiably; and why is poor Maria Ewing made up to look like a gypsy?

David McVicar’s production at Covent Garden got a good press when it was staged in 2006. I find it sincere but wrong-headed, inappropriately updated to 1830. The end of 'La vendetta' is mishandled twice over: Bartolo fails to leave, and he has a grope with Marcellina, thereby ignoring the convention of the exit aria and also spoiling the revelation in Act 3 that they are former lovers. And Figaro would not have sat down in the presence of his master and mistress, even in 1830. All is well musically under Antonio Pappano, but there are more niggles: Erwin Schrott is far too inclined to talk, not sing, his recitatives; and you should not include Marcellina’s aria if you have to transpose it down.

It’s all too easy to imagine what the Salzburg audiences of the 1960s would have made of Claus Guth’s production. Harnoncourt’s conducting is much as before; the shocks come in the staging. There’s an extra character: Cupid, unaccountably omitted by both Beaumarchais and Da Ponte. The flirtation between Cherubino and the Countess is grossly overdone. But the production is reticence itself compared with Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s staging for Franz Welser-Möst, which is an absolute stinker. I will just say that Michael Volle’s dinner-jacketed Count spends much of the time performing conjuring tricks and leave it at that.

So we end, as we began, with Glyndebourne. Peter Hall’s production makes you aware of the characters’ inner feelings. When Figaro repeats his 'Se vuol ballare', for instance, Susanna looks nervously at her mistress, who turns away in disapproval (to be fair, McVicar treats the scene similarly); that the Countess feels her husband’s infidelity deeply is clear when, after the smiling 'Letter Duet', an expression of ineffable sadness crosses her face. Benjamin Luxon, a Count to be reckoned with, should have been persuaded to shave off his anachronistic beard and whiskers. It’s the women who are the glory of the performance: Te Kanawa, von Stade and, above all, Ileana Cotrubas, whose reactions of sympathetic delight to Cherubino’s 'Non so più' are enchanting. John Pritchard, a Mozartian of vast experience, conducts impeccably.

Even better, with a sharper picture, is the production by Stephen Medcalf for the opening of the new theatre at Glyndebourne in 1994. Gerald Finley and Alison Hagley are well-matched as the servant couple and Renée Fleming’s creamy Countess is a joy. Haitink gauges the build-up in the Act 2 Finale so well that I’m inclined not to mention the transposition of Marcellina’s aria. Both productions, Hall and Medcalf, will leave you pondering the follies of mankind and lost in wonder at what must surely be the prime operatic candidate for a desert island. 

The Top Choice: Glyndebourne / Bernard Haitink (NVC Arts 0630 14013-2)

Glyndebourne on DVD. Gerald Finley is a resourceful Figaro, partnered by Alison Hagley’s sparky Susanna. With Renée Fleming, Andreas Schmidt and Haitink too, you can’t go wrong. Buy from Amazon

The Karl Böhm Choice: Deutsche Oper Berlin / Karl Böhm (DG 449 728GOR3)

Of the four recordings by Karl Böhm mentioned here, on CD or DVD, the one to go for is the CD set from Berlin. The orchestra is on fizzing form and the cast led by Prey, Mathis, Janowitz and Fischer-Dieskau is exemplary. Buy from Amazon

The ‘Live’ Choice: Glyndebourne / Silvio Varviso (Glyndebourne GFOCD001-62)

Not issued till 2008, this recording – captured during a single performance on 9 June 1962 – is a wonderful reminder of one of Glyndebourne’s vintage years. This was Mirella Freni’s first outing as Susanna, a role that suits her perfectly. Buy from Amazon

The Historic Choice: VPO / Erich Kleiber (Decca 466 369-2DMO3)  

The Vienna Philharmonic have recorded Figaro umpteen times, but nowhere do they sound more idiomatic than here. Erich Kleiber is attentive to all the detail in the orchestra and you almost feel that youare in the opera house. Buy from Amazon

The discography

Date / ArtistsRecord company (review date)

1934-35    Glyndebourne Fest Op / Busch

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