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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Le nozze di Figaro K492 (1786)
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass) – Figaro; Anna Netrebko (soprano) – Susanna; Bo Skovhus (baritone) – Il Conte di Almaviva; Dorothea Röschmann (soprano) – La Contessa di Almaviva; Christine Schäfer (soprano) – Cherubino; Marie McLaughlin (soprano) – Marcellina; Franz-Josef Selig (bass) – Bartolo; Patrick Henckens (tenor) – Basilio; Oliver Ringelhahn (tenor) – Don Curzio; Florian Boesch (bass) – Antonio; Eva Liebau (soprano) – Barbarina; Uli Kirsch (mime) – Cherub;
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Nicolaus Harnoncourt
Stage Director: Claus Guth; Stage and Costume Design: Christian Schmidt; Choreography: Ramses Sigl; Video Director: Brian Large
Picture format: NTSC Colour 16:9; Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DRS 5.1
rec. live, 2006 Salzburg Festival, Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 17 July–6 August 2006
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 4245 [2 DVDs: 202:00]
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6558 [3 CDs: 50:22 + 64:26 + 75:08]
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Highlights 477 6544 [78:18]


 

This is the first time in my experience that an opera production has been released simultaneously on DVD, CD and a well-filled highlights disc. Filmed and recorded live during last year’s Salzburg Festival these are obviously not absolutely identical performances, even though I can’t quite put my finger on the differences. What is clear is that the DVD is more ‘live’: it is longer and includes applause whereas the CD version has all the stage noises and some audience reactions – neither very disturbing – and no applause. There are a couple of instances on the DVD where applause start before an aria is completely finished and since there is no corresponding situation on the CDs I suspect there may have been some tidying up without an audience. The recording period indicated in the heading concerns the CD version. The DVDs were recorded during a much shorter period: 22–26 July. Interpretatively and vocally the differences are minimal.

Claus Guth’s staging transports the action from Mozart’s days to modern times. All four acts are set in a spacious hall with an enormous staircase. There are doors on several levels and also an open window for Cherubino to jump through. Guth introduces an extra character, a mute cherub, very much a projection of Cherubino but with real angel’s wings. This Cherub appears from time to time and acts as a kind of director who guides the characters, sometimes by force, sometimes as puppet-master with invisible strings. The last act is set not in the park as the libretto says, but in the same hall as before though we can see the park through the open doors. There is a slightly absurdist feeling about the whole performance but it is almost constantly entertaining and filled with interesting and amusing details. With a cast of excellent singing actors who do their very best to fulfil Guth’s intentions, this is as attractive a production as any I have seen. I can’t believe that anyone will feel offended by the approach, unless one is absolutely against any kind of liberties in relation to the original libretto.

With the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit the orchestral backing is everything one could wish with lush string playing and admirable wind. As always when Nicolaus Harnoncourt is in charge one can expect unorthodox things to happen. The overture is leisurely. Sir Thomas Beecham once said that the Figaro overture should be as long as it takes to boil an egg. It seems that Harnoncourt likes his eggs rather hardboiled, since he clocks in at over five minutes, where the average is a minute shorter – but this gives him opportunities to accentuate certain phrases and make us listen with fresh ears to the well-known music. At first I suspected that he was going to out-Klemperer Otto Klemperer’s infamous recording from the early 1970s. Certainly he is often slower than most competitors but even though the stop-watch tells us this in absolute figures, the experience is of a fairly slow but far from lethargic performance. It has weight but is not heavy. He also adds importance to the recitatives by employing a cello beside the harpsichord for the continuo. There are some eccentric interpretative devices. One is in Cherubino’s first act aria Non so più where the basic tempo is the expected one but the end becomes gradually so slow that it almost comes to a stand-still. It feels un-Mozartean but in practice it is very effective, magical even, and Christine Schäfer’s singing leaves the listener breathless. In the middle part of Figaro’s Non più andrai at the end of the same act, where Figaro tells Cherubino about his future life as a soldier ‘with musket on your shoulder, sabre at your side, head erect and bold expression’, the orchestra comments on every phrase with a warlike fanfare. According to the score – and that’s the way it is always done – the fanfare and the singing should overlap but Harnoncourt inserts a caesura every time and exposes the fanfare. It’s a bit idiosyncratic but Harnoncourt may have his reasons. I think it disrupts the flow of the music and the forward movement. In the bonus documentary Anna Netrebko says of Susanna’s aria in act 4, Deh vieni, non tardar, that Harnoncourt wanted it much faster than usual, like a barcarolle. It is well paced but at circa 4½ minutes this is more or less the standard tempo nowadays. I found half a dozen recordings with almost identical timings, the most recent being Miah Persson on BIS. For a really fast version one has to go to Netrebko’s own recording with Abbado on “The Mozart Album” where she beats herself by a whole minute and that is quite a difference in so short a piece. I think the more relaxed tempo on the present recording is preferable.

There isn’t a weak member in the cast and it is good to find a native Italian in the title role. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has the perfect voice for Figaro. Searching my memory for comparisons I finally settled for Cesare Siepi on the more than 50-year-old Decca recording under Erich Kleiber. It was through that recording that I learnt to love this opera. It is Siepi’s voice I hear when I hum Figaro’s arias. Dark, voluminous and flexible D’Arcangelo comes as close to his older compatriot as is possible. He is a splendid actor and his interplay with Susanna, Netrebko, is a pleasure to watch and hear. Ms Netrebko is possibly the loveliest Susanna imaginable and besides her nuanced singing she is a superb actor. To watch her face in the act 3 scene, going through all kinds of emotions when she tries to understand that Marcellina and Bartolo are Figaro’s parents and thus are going to be her own parents-in-law, is almost worth the price of the set. Bo Skovhus, who recorded Almaviva for Mackerras in the mid-1990s and again, in 2002, for Halasz on Naxos, is a little drier of tone than before but he is as intense and expressive as ever. He is slightly too hectoring sometimes in the manner of Fischer-Dieskau, but this is part and parcel of the character. His Contessa is Dorothea Röschmann, who is certainly one of the best Mozart sopranos at the moment; she is especially impressive in her third act aria Dove sono. The one who steals the show every time he/she appears, is Christine Schäfer as Cherubino. She makes a wonderful portrait of the young boy and no one in my experience has looked better in the role. She was Cherubino also on the Cambreling-conducted Paris version appearing about a year ago.

Marie McLaughlin is a both bitchy and charming Marcellina and she sings well. The rubber-faced and boomy-voiced Franz-Josef Selig grabs every opportunity to make his mark as Bartolo. On his first entrance he is in a wheelchair, but he recovers quickly; soon he walks with a crutch and towards the end of the opera he limps along with no means of assistance at all. The smaller parts are all well taken and as soon as one has accepted the Cherub – on DVD only, of course – one has to admire Uli Kirsch’s eloquent body-language.

There are good essays in the booklets – different for DVD and CD since they naturally focus on different aspects – and the sound is excellent in both formats. The highlights CD with 78 minutes playing time finds room for practically all the well-known arias, even Barbarina’s little cavatina in act 4, and there are also some ensembles and the overture.

I can’t imagine many readers wanting both complete sets, but since I now have both I will surely play them, since invariably the CD version focuses more on the music. Perhaps an ideal solution for those on a tight budget is to buy the DVD and the highlights CD as a complement.

As always with Harnoncourt there are some idiosyncratic touches but the general impression is that this set belongs in the top-tier of Figaro recordings.

Göran Forsling

 

 

 


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