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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Le nozze di Figaro - Opera in four acts

Figaro - Erich Kunz (Baritone)
Susanna - Irmgard Seefried (Soprano)
Il Conte d’Almaviva - George London (Baritone)
La Contessa d’Almaviva - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Soprano)
Cherubino - Sena Jurinac (Soprano)
With Martin Rus, Elisabeth Höngen, Erich Majkut, Rosl Schwaiger, Welhelm Felden, Anny Felbermayer and Hilde Czeska
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan
Recorded 17-21 June and 23-27 and 31 October 1950 Musikvereinssaal, Wein
Digitally remastered at Abbey Road Studios 1999 ADD
EMI Classics CMS 5 67068 2 [CD1: 62.50; CD2: 56.53]

There are many points at which one can commence a study of an opera recording. Some obvious ones are the story on which it is based, the libretto, and the score. With a recording by von Karajan in the 1950s where Walter Legge was the producer another point is the producer's statement about the performance. The notes in the accompanying booklet are by the distinguished Richard Osborne. In 1998 Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music was published. Of this performance Osborne tells us that Legge insisted on the omission of the secco recitatives. He opines that such recitatives are "damaging to our larger sense of Le nozze di Figaro as music theatre" and their absence "throw(s) into sharp relief Karajan’s fierce brilliant almost symphonic approach".

Here is a taut orchestral performance with Karajan in firm control. With one or two exceptions when the orchestra threatens to overwhelm the singers, the tight rein provides an orchestra supporting them and enabling them to respond with singing of the highest quality. Sadly occasional harshness creeps in – particularly with the strings at forte. That is a small reservation on a recording such as this.

‘Incomparable’ is the only word to describe the Schwarzkopf performance. In both Porgi, amor… and Dove sono… we hear every word and note with tone quality that has wistfulness dripping out of the speakers. Breath control appears an irrelevant consideration such that we do not notice it. This is the perfectly transformed Rosina, from the ward (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) to Countess, giving a noble performance.

George London sings her ignoble husband. His plotting and scheming is doomed to deserved failure. He is not intelligent enough to keep up with those around him. Thus his role is best played ‘straight’. London carries this off well. In the discovery of Cherubino he acts vocally so well that you can almost see him peering under the cloth.

While Figaro may be a ‘fading’ role (Osborne) Erich Kunz seems subdued throughout. He allows himself some vocal emotion in Se vuol ballare… but it is nothing like the conventional force of that aria of which Kunz is eminently capable. Nor is there much sound of satisfaction in Non più andrai…. Only when addressing Susanna (dressed as the Countess with the Count known to overhear) is Kunz’ vocal magic allowed expression. Whilst this is a faded Figaro nevertheless there are glimpses, particularly in the ensembles, when his distinctive timbre makes its important contribution.

Irmgard Seefried is Susanna and this is an intriguing performance. It starts disappointingly in the opening phrases of her duet with Figaro when her voice seems lost – but that does not recur. She sings the role with a delightful mixture of almost breathless notes and beautifully toned and contrasted sounds. When in ‘breathless’ mode it is almost as if she ‘air-kisses’ the notes rather than embracing them. Compare that with her simplicity of voice on emergence from the dressing room. She provides us with some splendid sound when singing with Schwarzkopf.

Cherubino has no control of his response in the company of women. In this recording tradition is allowed sway and the role is sung by the usually very feminine Sena Jurinac. She depicts the youth to perfection. Non so più reveals the true inner confusion. Voi, che sapete… hears a choirboy-like voice expressing his emotions and charming Susanna and the Countess who are trying to shield him from the Count. This is a quite excellent performance of youthful, poorly self-controlled, self-doubting exuberance.

The Bartolo of Marjan Rus is a powerfully projected voice. La vendetta…sounds truly vengeful. This is a strongly enunciated round sound which is then held back to provide some excellent vocal balance with others – particularly in the sextet at the beginning of Act III. Similarly with Eric Majkut’s double role of Don Basilio and Don Curzio. Here we have the distinct timbre of Majkut used to excellent effect in these supporting roles.

So where does that leave us in the grand scheme of things? Certainly there are symphonic moments but Karajan does not let them have pride of place. That he graciously accords to the singers who produce some brilliance, some fire and many excellent contrasts.

Was it really necessary to omit all the secco recitatives? Yes you can concentrate on the music but one thing is certain: you cannot understand the plot; and what is an opera without a comprehendable plot? A concession is made in the booklet because as well as a translation of the libretto we are provided with a synopsis, which includes a synopsis of the omitted recitatives. Does that not demonstrate the point more forcefully than any observations which I may make.

Let us not detract from the music. This is a great recording of (parts) of a great opera. But it is not the whole story.

Robert McKechnie


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