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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro – opera in four acts
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after Beaumarchais
Count Almaviva – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Countess – Kiri te Kanawa (soprano)
Susanna – Mirella Freni (soprano)
Figaro – Hermann Prey (baritone)
Cherubino – Maria Ewing (soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
Staged and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, Dec. 1975;
filming Shepperton Studios, London, June 1976.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON UNITEL 00440 073 4034 [2 DVDs: 181:00]

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Everything about this production proclaims quality. The cast, orchestra and conductor are all beyond reproach. Collectively they bring a wealth of experience and affection to Mozart’s eternal masterpiece.

I could end there, and you would have sufficient reason to invest in one of the greatest Mozart opera films ever made. But stay a while – for it takes a while consciously to absorb just how right this production is, not just in the broad sweep, but also in the details. A few days after watching this, I turned to Vittorio Gui’s classic Glyndebourne account (EMI Classics for Pleasure CD-CFPD 4724), an amazing bargain-priced recording every Mozart lover should own. Not wishing to say I found things missing from Gui’s account, rather I found extra facets of characterisation in the Böhm, and largely because of the visual interaction on-screen.

As was the case during the era in which this production was made, filming took place separately from the audio recording, with the cast miming to the final edited version of the tape. The audio dates from December 1975, the film was shot at Shepperton Studios some seven months later. Those that know other productions made in this way (the Böhm Salome with Teresa Stratas springs to mind) will know that any tiny imperfections are greatly outweighed by the musicality of the whole. Both sound and visuals are in a crisp state, and wear their age lightly.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Count plays all with an observant eye, truly master of his household in more ways than one. He steers that fine line between aristocrat and philanderer, superbly acted, with words telling as only they can from the lieder singer sans pareil. As his wife, Kiri Te Kanawa gives one of her most touching portrayals, luxuriantly voiced and absolutely believable.

Likewise the pairing of Hermann Prey and Mirella Freni as Figaro and Susanna provides a wonderful reminder of two treasured artists captured in their prime. Watching them, I could think of no other assumption of these roles, vocally or in terms of acted performance. Pure delight! And what a masterclass of interaction: more outward maybe than Fischer-Dieskau and Te Kanawa – but a perfect foil, illustrating contrasting circles of society. Cherubino in the hands of a young Maria Ewing is fully hot-headed and emotional.

Under Böhm the Vienna Philharmonic play like angels; affection and vitality in every bar. But then the Maestro would not have expected otherwise. I don’t know how many times they played this score - between them a fair few times - but it feels like the first. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production might be roundly termed traditional - he mercifully tries no interpretation that is outside what is inherent in the libretto and score – and in doing so he allows a crumbling ancien régime to be adroitly captured.

The presentation serves the purpose, with two acts to a DVD, copious cueing points and documentation including a synopsis and a short interview with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle about making films of opera.

If you are not convinced now, the chances are you may never be. For my part, I would not want to be without it. It really is that simple.

Evan Dickerson

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