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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791) The Marriage of Figaro
English translation by Jeremy Sams
Count Almaviva – William Dazely (baritone)
Countess Almaviva – Yvonne Kenny (soprano)
Susanna – Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Figaro – Christopher Purves (baritone)
Cherubino – Diana Montague (mezzo-soprano)
Bartolo – Jonathan Vieira (bass-baritone)
Marcellina – Frances McCafferty (mezzo-soprano)
Don Basilio – John Graham-Hall (tenor)
Don Curzio – Stuart Kale (tenor)
Antonio – Graeme Danby (bass)
Barbarina – Sarah Tynan (soprano)
Girls – Yvette Bonner, Victoria Joyce (soprano)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry
CHANDOS CHAN 3113(3) [45.14 + 46.21 + 72.22]

 

It is remarkable how the basic outline of the plot of The Marriage of Figaro resembles, so closely, some of the ground-breaking operas written by Galuppi and Goldoni in the 1750s. But that, of course, is the sheer magic of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s collaboration; they have taken the form created by their predecessors and populated it with real people. The cast of The Marriage of Figaro are still stock figures but Mozart and Da Ponte know that comedy is very close to tragedy and by the end of the opera we have seen the reality behind the figures.

For the latest version of the opera, in their ‘Opera in English’ series, Chandos have come up with a fine cast conducted by David Parry. The version of the score used is very traditional; this Chandos series is rather patchy when it comes to using up to date editions. The translation is a very modern one by Jeremy Sams which was, I believe, written for the ENO.

The slogan of the Opera in English series is Opera that speaks your language. And for once it does exactly what it says on the box. Whatever else this performance is (and it is many things), it is first and foremost wonderfully credible and creditable as drama. The entire cast deliver their lines with clarity and conviction, the result is incredibly involving. The opera has a lot of plot and there is a great deal of recitative. One of the first professional operas that I saw was ‘Le Nozze de Figaro’ and I found the acres of recitative in Italian (no surtitles) rather perplexing. As delivered on this disc, the English dialogue draws you into the opera.

The question is: should we be judging the set purely as opera in English, sui generis, or can we compare it to other original language performances. The answer is that we must judge the musical performance but that our strictures should necessarily have less impact than they might on yet another Italian language recording.

Some of the studio-produced Chandos ‘Opera in English’ series have been very good performances indeed; strong enough to stand against the strongest competition. But quite a few of them have suffered from a tendency to be just creditable middle-of-the-road performances. And I think a little of this has rubbed off here.

David Parry’s account of the overture is perfectly acceptable. But if you compare it with Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Mackerras’s version is far more urgent and vital. On returning to Parry and the Philharmonia Orchestra I just wanted that little bit more.

I did wonder whether delivering all that recitative in careful English had had a slightly steadying effect on the cast. Certainly the pace of the recitatives is rather steadier than in some of the Italian versions. But they are accompanied by a piano rather than a harpsichord, which is a big plus point in my book.

William Dazely makes a young-sounding, well modulated Count Almaviva. It is easy to make the Count seem just an overbearing bully, but Dazely has gone a little too far in the other direction. His Count Almaviva is not imperious enough, just a little too well modulated. When he says to Susanna in Act 3, ‘With passion I am dying’, you never really believe him. He does have angry outbursts and by the end he is suitably humbled, but I’m not certain I could ever believe that he would force his attentions on anyone. He seems too modern.

That is another problem with the performance, one that stems directly from the performance in English. We notice more, the nuances in the language and here the Count and Countess seem to run a very egalitarian operation; the language and the dialogue convey little sense of the sheer power that someone like the Count had over his staff. The Marriage of Figaro is about the politics of power and how it can be defeated by subservient beings. The frisson of the Count’s humbling is far less if he is more or less on a par with his wife and servants, in the modern manner. This is not helped by Jeremy Sams’ very breezy translation. Sams uses rather obtrusive rhymed verse and seems determined to incorporate every colloquial saying possible. Do we really want the Count to say ‘let the cat out of the bag’?

As his Countess, Yvonne Kenny, is no downtrodden wife. Her Act 3 aria is impassioned rather than fragile; you feel that this is only a phase and that she will fight to get him back. Her Act 3 recitative and aria are full of power and passion and the moment when she forgives him is matchless. But I could not help feeling that her Countess has been caught just a little late in her career. Kenny still has all the technical equipment to bring off the Countess, but just occasionally I felt that the mechanism was starting to show rather. This applies a little to Diana Montague’s charmingly feckless Cherubino. But with neither artist would I want to be without their performance, so we must be grateful to Chandos for giving them the opportunity to record the opera.

As the servants, Christopher Purves and Rebecca Evans make a very personable pairing as Figaro and Susanna. Purves has a fine lyric baritone, which he uses rather well. But, he does seem to lose sight of the fact that Figaro starts out as a comic servant. We come to know him rather well, and Purves gives us real passion in Figaro’s outbursts in Acts 3 and 4. But I would have liked more of a smile in some of the lighter sections. Rebecca Evans makes a delightfully sparky, self-possessed Susanna; she is certainly going to give Figaro as good as she gets. Evans also contributes some of the loveliest singing on the disc in her Act 4 aria, supported by the fine woodwind of the Philharmonia.

The rather egalitarian nature of this performance rears its head in the ensembles as well. Whilst one would never really mistake the voices of Rebecca Evans and Yvonne Kenny or the voices of Christopher Purves and William Dazely, in the ensembles where people throw out odd lines it can sometimes become a little confusing. Generally I would have liked a greater sense of vocal characterisation in the leading roles.

The minor characters are all cast from strength. Sarah Tynan as Barberina sounds like a Susanna in the making. Frances McCafferty and John Graham-Hall are such good value as Marcellina and Don Basilio that you regret the cutting of their Act 4 arias. This is ostensibly done so that it does not hold up the action (surely all CD players have a ‘Next Track’ button?). But I could not help noticing that if they added these arias to Act 4, the rather careful layout of the acts on the CDs would be disturbed; at the moment Acts 1 and 2 each have their own CD and Acts 3 and 4 fit onto 1 CD, but only just.

For those interested in a version of the opera in English, this is highly recommendable. But in its own right it is a creditable performance which gives us the opportunity to hear a number of extremely fine artists who might not otherwise get the chance to record this opera.


Robert Hugill

 



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