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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro - opera buffa in four acts.
appendix of two alternative arias
Figaro, Renata Girolami (bass); Susanna, Judith Halász (sop); Count Almaviva, Bo Skovhus (bar); Countess Almaviva, Marina Mescheriakova (sop); Cherubino, Michelle Breedt (m. sop); Marcellina, Gabriele Sima, (sop); Basilio, Michael Roider (ten); Dr. Bartolo, Janusz Monarcha (bass); Barbarina, Orsolya Sáfár (sop);
Hungarian National Chorus
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia/Michael Halász
Rec. Phoenix Studio, Budapest, from 26th October to 4th November 2002
NAXOS 8.6600102-04 (3CDs: 71.54 + 61.58 + 52.48]

Mozart’s life wasn’t an easy one. His was a hand-to-mouth existence, constantly having to depend on friends to provide the daily bread for his family. This stressful existence, and periods of ill health with kidney and other problems, doubtless contributed to his premature death in 1791. He died six weeks short of his 36th birthday, leaving debts that presented his wife with many problems. However, Mozart’s life had its moments of good fortune too, for which we must now be grateful. In particular were the circumstances of his meeting with Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of three of his greatest operatic compositions. In 1781 during a visit to Vienna in the entourage of the Archbishop of Salzburg, his employer, Mozart went freelance in that city determined to compose more opera. His ‘Idomeneo’ had just been staged in Munich whilst in Austria the accession, as sole ruler, of Joseph II, heralded a more liberal era in terms of censorship and support for music. It was this ‘perestroika’ that drew Lorenzo da Ponte to the city. Libertine and failed priest he might have been, but he had considerable intellect and was extremely personable, soon gaining the ear of the Emperor. Da Ponte met Mozart at the home of Baron Wetzler and soon after proposed an operatic collaboration on the subject of Beaumarchais’s comedy play ‘Le Mariage de Figaro’. This was despite the fact that the play itself was considered too licentious and socially revolutionary, even for Vienna. However, Da Ponte, with his access to the Emperor worked the necessary miracles, although this necessitated the more political and revolutionary aspects of the play being toned down, and the inflammatory Act 5 monologue being replaced by Figaro’s Act 4 warning about women. In between Da Ponte’s ‘toing and froing’ to the Emperor to overcome these procedural worries, Mozart composed the music in six weeks which included a flare-up of the kidney condition that was to kill him five years later. Despite opposition from some conservative sections of the Court, the work was presented on May 1st 1786 to an audience somewhat bemused by the work’s novelty. At the second performance five numbers had to be repeated and at the third seven, with the duet ‘Aprite presto’ (CD 1 tr. 31) performed three times. This success led directly to further collaborations between composer and librettist that have given us ‘Don Giovanni’ (1787) and ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ (1790) and which, with ‘Figaro’, are recognised as being three of the greatest of all operatic compositions. ‘Figaro’ was a triumph in Prague, and at its revival in Vienna in 1789, Susanna was sung by Da Ponte’s mistress for whom Mozart composed alternatives to score nos. 13 (Act 2) and 28 (Act 4). These alternatives are included as an appendix (CD 3 trs. 17-18). In recent years Cecilia Bartoli’s wish to sing the 1789 Act 4 rondo, rather than the traditional ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar’ (CD 3 tr. 10) at the ‘Met’, caused ructions and the premature departure of the producer Dr Jonathan Miller!

This recording of ‘Figaro’ is the third Mozart opera that Michael Halász has conducted for Naxos. It follows his ‘Don Giovanni’ with the same orchestral and choral forces, male leads, producer and engineer, and was recorded at the same venue. In my review of the ‘Don Giovanni’ I found the recording to be clear, well-balanced and with plenty of air around the voices. The same applies here with the taut playing of a smallish band never overwhelming the singers. However, whilst taut playing and dramatic thrust are suitable for the ‘Dramma giocoso’ of ‘Don Giovanni’, ‘Figaro’ is, despite its revolutionary overtones, designated ‘Opera buffa’. In this performance I miss the lightness of touch and turn of the wrist that should illuminate the humorous core of the work, despite the drama and travails along the way. This heaviness of touch extends to the two male principals in particular. Bo Skovhus as Count Almaviva is full-toned and biting in enunciation, but the Count is a persuasive seducer not a rapist; he might humiliate his wife, but he is too much a gentleman to hit her. Skovhus’s Count comes over as rather too inflexible in characterisation and determined in his carnal pursuits. Even in the finale when he has to plead forgiveness from his wife (CD 3 tr. 16) one tends to feel that it won’t be long before he is up to his tricks again. The other big name in the cast is Marina Mescheriakova as Countess Almaviva. It is a part that requires a firm and even tone and a smooth legato in just the part of a lyric soprano voice that takes the strain in Verdi and Puccini. Frankly, I find Mescheriakova’s Countess seriously miscast. Her ‘Porgi amor’ (CD 1 tr. 21) is uneven and unsteady; weaknesses also evident elsewhere. She is unable to float the phrases in ‘Dove sono’ (CD 2 tr. 15) in the manner of the best recorded Countesses. The intended newly-weds, Renata Girolami as Figaro and Judith Halász as Susanna, are an ill-assorted couple. I admired Girolami’s Leporello in ‘Don Giovanni’ for his way with his native Italian words. I do so here also, his clarity of diction and enunciation are strengths. This Figaro is no subservient factotum, quite a revolutionary in fact as he realises the Counts plans (CD 1 tr. 6). The part requires humour as well as dominance, particularly when he despatches Cherubino to the army (CD1 tr.20) and this is lacking in his characterisation, not helped by the odd patch of raw tone. Given Girolami’s portrayal it would take a formidable Susanna to match him as lover and wife, and after all it is she who does the planning and manoeuvres the Count into eventual humiliation. The young Judith Halász (b. 1977) has a mature voice for her age, but it is not an ideal Susanna voice, lacking evenness and the ideal young spunky and sparky quality. Above all characterisation is seriously lacking. Characterisation and vocal skills are what Michelle Breedt brings to the trousers part of the young buck, Cherubino. Her ‘Non so piu’ (CD 1 tr. 12) and ‘Voi, che sapete’ (CD 1 tr. 24) leave a vivid impression and I hope to hear more of her vibrant singing in the future. She is a great strength in the interplay of the duets, trios and ensembles that constitute such an important part of the great work. Of the other singers, the Marcellina of Gabriele Sima is noteworthy. Although sounding somewhat young for Figaro’s mother, she brings evenness and tonal distinction to her scenes and aria (CD 3 tr. 5) and I note from the welcome singer biographies that her ‘fach’ lies towards the lyric mezzo range.

The three discs are generously tracked - 33 for the 75min. of CD 1. There is a very brief essay and an excellent track-related synopsis by Keith Anderson, which, like the artist profiles, are given in English and German. Unlike the earlier Naxos ‘Don Giovanni’ the full libretto is not given. Normally, for Naxos issues there is a critical tendency to forgive limitations in presentation or casting in view of the price. However, there is competition at this price level from Michael Halász’s 2001 recording on ‘Art Nova’ which includes a full libretto with translation in English and German. In my review of that recording I found it rather studio-bound and lacking Italian singers with the capacity of interplay on and with the words - a weakness here too. I regret that this ‘Figaro’, unlike Michael Halász’s Naxos recordings of ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Fidelio’, will not find a place on my shelves together with chosen versions of what is one of my two most favourite operas.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Chris Howell who had a high regard for this recording and it was chosen as a BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Le Nozze di Figaro (Two discarded arias for Susanna, Un moto di gioia and Al desio di chi t’adora are added as an appendix) Bo Skovhus (Count Almaviva), Marina Mescheriakova (Countess Almaviva), Judith Halász (Susanna), Renato Girolami (Figaro), Michelle Breedt (Cherubino), Gabriele Sima (Marcellina), Janusz Monarcha (Bartolo), Michael Roider (Basilio), Alexander Klinger (Don Curzio), Orsolya Sáfár (Barbarina), Peter Köves (Antonio), Hungarian National Chorus, Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia, David Aronson (continuo)/Michael Halász Recorded 26th October to 4th novembre 2002 at the Phoenix Studio, Budapest, Hungary NAXOS 8.660102-04 [3CDs: 71:54 + 61:58 + 52:48] [CH]

This is an unassailable bargain, and I wonder how many of the more expensive alternatives are really worth the extra money. ... see Full Review

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