The Mozart celebrations in 1956 lead to an outpouring of recordings
hitherto never beheld. In the field of opera Decca issued four
luxuriously cast sets with the Vienna Philharmonic: Figaro
under Erich Kleiber, Don Giovanni under Josef Krips,
and Così and Zauberflöte, both under Karl Böhm.
Philips were active in the same city but with the somewhat less
prestigious Vienna Symphony Orchestra: Figaro under Böhm,
Don Giovanni and Così under Rudolf Moralt. Deutsche
Grammophon set down Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte
in Berlin under Ferenc Fricsay. The EMI catalogue could boast
a masterly Così fan tutte under Karajan and the Nozze
di Figaro, now under consideration. There may have been others.
Thomas Beecham’s Entführung (see Colin Clarke’s review)
was in fact recorded during the autumn of 1956 but was only issued
a year later.
That Beecham set
was recorded in stereo – as were all the Deccas – and so was
this Figaro. EMI were late-starters in the stereo field
and the reason was reportedly Walter Legge’s scepticism about
the then new technique. The veteran Lawrance Collingwood, who
produced Figaro, was obviously more far-seeing - thus
we have this lively and theatrical production in two-dimensional
sound. I could even say three-dimensional, since there are scenes
where the singers are positioned at varying distances from the
microphones. The Almaviva–Susanna encounter that opens the third
act is one such instance. Collingwood has included some extra-musical
sound-effects – in agreement with Carl Ebert, the director of
the Glyndebourne production on which this performance was based.
Thus the hot-tempered Susanna smacks Figaro’s face with smarting
realism during the third act sextet and again so insistently
in the final garden scene that one feels sorry for poor Figaro.
The flow of the action is enhanced by the fact that recitatives
hook on preceding musical numbers without delay. The recording
is warm and acceptably clear but ensemble numbers – especially
the sextet – tend to sound congested.
Festival Orchestra – which was in fact the Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra – play well under Vittorio Gui, whose Mozart and Rossini
readings at Glyndebourne were a well-known quantity for many
seasons. Springy rhythms and a rather light touch are two of
his hallmarks. These can be heard to the full in the rousing
overture. Tempos throughout are sensitive and musical and the
best judgement I can give on his reading is that there is nothing
that stands out and draws the listener’s attention to this accent
or that ritardando – everything feels completely natural. Having
worked so intimately with singers for so long, Maestro Gui knows
exactly how to pace the music for the best vocal and dramatic
At his disposal
he has an eminent cast of international and British singers,
some of whom were obviously imposed upon the production by the
record company for commercial reasons. Centre-stage in several
respects is Sesto Bruscantini’s mercurial and many-faceted Figaro,
always singing with vocal ‘face’. He was one of the great character
singers of the post-war era. In addition he was the possessor
of one of the finest bass-baritone voices in the business. He
liked to be classified as a bass but his basic timbre is decidedly
baritonal. In his act 4 aria, Aprite un po, when he is
seriously upset – this is no buffo aria! – he darkens the timbre
to true bass tones. His singing of the set pieces as well as
the opening duets with Susanna has no superiors among recorded
competitors and few equals. Cesare Siepi on the contemporaneous
Decca recording is in the same league.
The young Graziella
Sciutti is a sparkling Susanna, also one of the best on any
vintage recording. She is more genuinely uproarious in a charming
way than Hilde Güden on the Decca set. There are few readings
of Susanna’s aria in the last act to complement her emotional
The other couple,
the Count and Countess Almaviva, are also well matched: beautiful,
rounded voices and noble utterances. It is a pleasure to hear
Franco Calabrese’s assured and steady singing. Even in his more
dramatic outbursts – far from inexpressive – he retains both
nobility and warmth. There is no hectoring in his third act
aria. His Contessa, Sena Jurinac – at the time married to Sesto
Bruscantini – had recently been upgraded from Cherubino and
was singing her first Countess in 1955. Her creamy, slightly
occluded tone and exquisite phrasing places her on a par with
Decca’s Lisa Della Casa, who has been my favourite Countess
since I bought the Kleiber set in the 1960s. Her two arias are
lovely and the Letter duet in act 3 with Sciutti is truly enchanting.
The American mezzo-soprano
Risë Stevens, then in her early forties, was one of the imports
to the 1955 season for this recording. She had been very successful
as Cherubino at the Metropolitan, which was her home-stage for
many years. She sings well but sounds somewhat matronly and
would have been a better choice for Marcellina. On the other
hand Monica Sinclair is a splendid housekeeper and it’s a pity
she wasn’t granted her aria in the last act, even though musically
it isn’t a very inspired piece. It’s often cut even today and
so is sometimes Don Basilio’s aria in the same act. But this
is a fine character piece and with the inimitable Hugues Cuénod
in the role it would have been a shame to exclude it. He is
superb in the role with his thin, reedy tone and exquisite word-pointing.
Ian Wallace is an uncommonly genial and noble Bartolo and sings
a sonorous La vendetta. Gwyn Griffiths is a less boisterous
– and presumably more sober – gardener than one often hears
and Jeannette Sinclair a suitably naïve Barbarina.
For anyone wanting
a vintage recording of Le nozze di Figaro the choice
is between this Gui recording and the Erich Kleiber on Decca.
Both suffer from recordings that may have been state-of-the-art
in their time but today sound undernourished. In most other
respects they also run each other close. Risë Stevens’s Cherubino
is probably the weakest point of casting on the Gui set but
Susanne Danco for Kleiber also lacks the teenage boy’s anxiety
and overheated rut. Alfred Poell’s Count on Decca is well sung
but rather one-dimensional while Fernando Corena on that set
is a booming Bartolo, whose La vendetta is spine-tingling.
The two conductors are each other’s equals and honestly I can’t
recommend one of the readings over the other. Suffice to say
that if you buy the present one you will probably be tempted
to have Kleiber as well for comparison. You won’t be disappointed
If there is a deciding
factor for the budget-minded it is the ‘fillers’ on the Gui
set. And no mean ones either: two full symphonies, Nos. 38 and
39, recorded a couple of years earlier with the same orchestra.
The sound is mono but the recordings are clean and the playing
expert. No one buys this set on account of the symphonies, but
since they were available and there was space on the discs it
was a clever idea to issue them. Otherwise they might have continued
to collect dust in the EMI vaults. They are ingeniously placed,
No. 38 on CD 1 after act one of Figaro and No. 39 on
CD 2 after act 2. This means that all four acts can be heard
unbroken. Naturally, there is no need to listen to the symphonies
just because they are there.
Synopsis and libretto
with translations can be found on the EMI
classics website and they are also available on CD 1 in
pdf form. I still think this is a bit inconvenient since you
either have to listen through your computer and read the text
on the screen or print it out which isn’t free and your shelves
will be even more weighed down than they already are.
Whatever the objections
may be: this is a classic set that is worth anyone’s money.