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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro, K492 (1786)
Audrey Mildmay (Susanna)
Luise Helletsgruber (Cherubino)
Aulikki Rautavaara (The Countess)
Constance Willis (Marcellina)
Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder (Figaro)
Roy Henderson (The Count)
Heddle Nash (Basilio)
Norman Allin/Italo Tajo (Bartolo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Glyndebourne Festival conducted by Fritz Busch
Recorded in 1934 and 1935 at the Glyndebourne Theatre, Sussex, UK
Le Nozze di Figaro Ė extracts:

- Non so più
- Voi, che sapete
Conchita Supervia
Recorded 1928; orchestra, conductor and place of recording not specified
- Porgi, amor
- Dove sono
Eleanor Steber
Date and place of recording, orchestra and conductor not specified
- Deh, vieni
Lina Pagliughi
Recorded 1939; orchestra, conductor and place of recording not specified
NAXOS 8.110186/7 (two discs) [62.19] [74.28]


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When I opened the parcel I thought this was the celebrated Glyndebourne Figaro which has been widely recommended for generations and which is currently available on Classics for Pleasure. I confess to never having heard that version, conducted by Vittorio Gui and recorded at Abbey Road in 1956. The present reading was recorded at Glyndebourne in two sessions a year apart. Paul Campion, in his excellent introductory notes, recalls that Figaro was one of the operas featured in Glyndebourneís very first season, and that John Christie, the owner of Glyndebourne, and Fred Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company, were keen to record it. Sessions were arranged and in 1934 sizeable portions of the opera were recorded as a sort of trial run. It was immediately clear that the experiment had been successful, and the rest of the opera was recorded the following year. The cast was substantially the same for the 1935 season, though a member of the chorus, Italo Tajo, was conscripted to sing Bartoloís aria as Norman Allin, who had sung and recorded the rest of the role the previous year, was no longer present and the 1935 Bartolo was, as Campion rather mysteriously tells us, "considered unsuitable".

Though billed as the first complete Mozart opera recording, this is not, in fact, the case. Almost the only recitatives are the accompanied ones which introduce certain arias. Only one short passage of recitativo secco is included, just after the Act 3 "letter" duet. These few bars are given with piano accompaniment. The chorus is excised completely from Act 1 and in Act 4, Barbarinaís little Cavatina, where she despairingly looks for the lost pin, is also cut, as are Marcellinaís and Basilioís arias. The absence of recitative takes away much of the sense of theatre, Figaro becoming a series of set pieces, and this is certainly a pity. Act 3 starts directly with Susannaís duet with the Count, which is very strange for those who know the opera.

But perhaps you donít know it. Well, you have a treat in store, as Figaro must be numbered amongst the very greatest of works. It has a deeply subversive story, in which Susanna and Figaro, both "below-stairs", are constantly thwarted in their preparations for marriage by the Count, who wants to exercise his noble rights (with Susanna, naturally). A complicated tale of trickery, disguise and mistaken identity ensues in which the long-suffering Countess plays an active role. The pin, already mentioned, features largely, and he who understands the meaning of the pin may fairly be said to hold the key to the convoluted plot. In the end the Count is thoroughly beaten at his own game, outwitted by the others. But only for now, we feel. The way in which the characters are portrayed in music is miraculous and, even in the most hilarious passages, profoundly moving.

The operaís overture sets the performance off at a fizzing pace. Busch was clearly a deeply sympathetic Mozartian, and his reading is full of striking insights. Time and again a little detail of phrasing or dynamic is used to make us hear the music afresh. The London Symphony Orchestra, by another name, play magnificently. The recorded sound is remarkable, the only pity being that the voices are forward and much of the orchestral material, so carefully nurtured by the conductor, is covered by them.

As the Countess Aulikki Rautavaara sings beautifully, but some might think an element of the Countessís character is missing when the singer emphasises the sadness of her situation with little attempt to portray her determination and strength of character. This comes out particularly clearly in the two contrasting sections of her big aria Dove sono. Yet she does manage to bring out the lighter side of the character sometimes, and when the Countess forgives her philandering husband a final time (shortly before the end of the opera, CD2, track 13, 1í42"), the resignation in her voice is very touching indeed. By her singing she tells us how well she knows that, forgiven or not, he will never change. Roy Henderson as the Count is the only piece of miscasting in the set. His sings as if his interest in Susanna is more true love than carnal desire; indeed, he expresses himself much like the adolescent Cherubino does. There are some things he does marvellously well, though. The mixture of mystification and speculation in his voice when his wifeís dressing room door opens to reveal, not Cherubino, as he suspected, but Susanna, is quite masterly (CD1, track 16, 0í58"). But of the terrifying tyrant, the bully, the cold-hearted, deceitful predator, there is nothing, and this is a serious flaw. Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder (Brigitte Fassbänderís father) is a manly, capable Figaro who would hold his own against all but the most powerful Counts, and as Susanna, Audrey Mildmay, who was John Christieís wife, plays the role exceptionally well, even if she wasnít vocally the strongest member of the cast. Her murmur of admiration of Cherubino as she and the Countess dress him up (CD1, track 12, 1í57") is delicious. Cherubino is the Countessís page, a teenage boy coping as best he can with the tempestuous emotions flowing through him. Luise Helletsgruber communicates his character exceptionally well, but remains totally and stubbornly female. The other parts are all very well taken, with a special mention for Heddle Nash, marvellous in the tiny role of Don Basilio.

This is a detailed reading of Figaro which should be in every Mozart or opera loverís collection. Itís not the best place to start if you donít already know the work, firstly because without the recitatives the piece isnít there in its entirety in any case. There is an excellent synopsis (in English) but you really need the words to understand this work, if only for the ensemble numbers. I love Colin Davisís first recording on Philips, with Jessye Norman, at the beginning of her career, a wonderful Countess, and Clifford Grant giving quite simply the finest performance of Bartoloís "vengeance" aria Iíve ever heard.

Naxos find room at the end of the second disc for five historical recordings of Figaro arias. I listened to these blind, and found Conchita Supervia languid and urbane rather than impetuous in Cherubinoís two arias, with a fast vibrato and a tight, rather querulous tone. Lina Pagliughiís singing gave much more pleasure, simple and unaffected, the voice itself controlled and well suited to Susannaís character. And then Eleanor Steber as the Countess is quite simply a wonder. Words are inadequate to convey the sheer beauty of this voice, though the word exquisite represents a fair bash at describing her legato singing. The same word might be pressed into service for her high G shortly before the end of Porgi amor, though the same (and adjacent) notes at the end of Dove sono are perhaps a little hard. But this is great singing: stoical, noble, desperately sad. It would be ridiculous to say that itís worth buying the set for these two arias alone. All the sameÖ

William Hedley

 


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