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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Le nozze di Figaro – Opera buffa in four acts, K492 (1786)
Peter Mattei (baritone) – Il conte di Almaviva; Christiane Oelze (soprano) – La contessa di Almaviva; Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano) – Susanna; Lorenzo Regazzo (bass) – Figaro; Christine Schäfer (soprano) – Cherubino; Helene Schneiderman (mezzo) – Marcellina; Roland Bracht (bass) – Bartolo; Burkhard Ulrich (tenor) – Don Basilio; Eberhard Francesco Lorenz (tenor) – Don Curzio; Cassandre Berthon (soprano) – Barbarina; Frédéric Caton (bass) – Antonio; Elisa Cenni (soprano) – Donna I; Marie-Adeline Henri (soprano) – Donna II Marie; Jürg Kienberger (“recitativist”);
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris/Sylvain Cambreling
Stage director: Christoph Marthaler; Co-stage director: Corinna von Rad; Set and Costume design: Anna Viebrock; Lighting designer: Olaf Winter; Choreography: Thomas Stache; Dramaturge: Stefanie Carp; TV director: Thomas Grimm
rec. live, Palais Garnier, Paris, 2006
Audio formats: LPCM Stereo; 16:9 anamorphic
OPUS ARTE OA0960D [2 DVDs: 260:00]

The worn metaphor about the London buses is applicable here too. After a wake of some weeks I happened to watch two Mozart operas on consecutive evenings and, like the buses, they had both been modernized past recognition. Transportation is the main object of the buses and transportation in time seems to be the overriding purpose with opera direction at the moment. I don’t like to be an old Grumpy but I can’t avoid feeling that some directors struggle at all costs to transport their productions in all directions except the most obvious one: to the time where they belong. I have enjoyed many productions of this kind, both live and on DVD, many have been very inventive, entertaining and – in some cases at least – perspective building. Still, one serious objection remains: more often than not one loses the purpose and intention of the original. I am sure that it is all done with the aim of making a mossy story comprehensible to today’s audiences since the music is of a calibre that would make it a shame if it sank into oblivion. Naturally this intention is laudable but the question remains: how much more intelligible will the story and the conflicts become by transporting it to the present time? Certainly it clarifies eternal questions by putting them into the context of our own times and society … but I still have my doubts.
Take the opera under consideration, Le nozze di Figaro, written in 1786 and supposed to have some part in the outbreak of the French Revolution a few years later. Beaumarchais’s play, which was the basis for da Ponte’s libretto, was political hot-stuff. Da Ponte removed much of its revolutionary tendency. However the core conflict of the opera is that Count Almaviva wants to reintroduce the ancient right of the feudal lord to lie with the bride on the wedding night of his servants. Enacted in modern times this will jar with most viewers, who are well aware of promiscuity across the social layers but would not normally associate this with historic tradition. Played in 18th century setting this could serve as a history lesson coupled with hearing the music alongside sets and costumes that belong together. For jaded opera-goers who have seen dozens of different production and know the pre-conditions it poses no problems and it can be refreshing once in a while. I don’t object to the practice in general – if there is a rationale behind it.
This Figaro is sometimes heavily laboured in an over-the-top way. It is also full of amusing details and we had many good laughs, my wife and I, even though at the end we said almost unanimously: “I can’t imagine this as the only version in the DVD collection”. Many illogical somersaults rub shoulders with brilliant ideas, crystal clear fresh observations mingle with hard-to-understand “quick-wittedness”. Director Christoph Marthaler sets the action in what I only afterwards realised was “a somewhat surreal marriage bureau in which there are weddings almost continually”.  There are myriads of ideas that make you wonder: Don Basilio seems to be a nervous wreck from the beginning. This must be contagious because both Marcellina and Bartolo are seriously affected towards the end. There is a rostrum where some solos are performed like lectures – an interesting contradiction since these solos are in effect personal utterances, even internal monologues; here they become public speeches. A miniature staircase is placed on the floor and the actors frequently walk over it, like hens.
A stroke of genius is undoubtedly the introduction of a “recitativist”. The director and the conductor considered it impossible to retain the traditional harpsichordist or forte-pianist for the dry recitatives. Instead they employed Jürg Kienberger to be almost omnipresent on stage, accompanying or sometimes only faintly indicating chords or just a single note. He plays synth or any of a variety of instruments, including in one recitative two bottles, partly filled with water, in which he blew the requisite tone and then drank some of the contents to achieve a new tone. Skilful in the bargain! He also played a glass harmonica on two occasions as interludes. In both cases these relate to Mozart songs roughly contemporaneous with the opera. In one of them he also sang in tremendously surefooted high falsetto.
Instead of making grievous cuts, which happens far too often in “adapted” productions, Marthaler and Cambreling have opted for the complete score. They have included all the recitatives and have also inserted the often rejected fourth act arias for Marcellina and Basilio. Sylvain Cambreling, an experienced opera conductor, secures fine playing from his orchestra. All through the performance he chooses adroit tempos. There are no eccentricities here, only an ideal basis for the singers to make the most of their arias and ensembles. And they do. Just as on the other Mozart DVD I mentioned initially, (Harnoncourt’s La finta giardiniera) (see review), this production has a cast that both vocally and visually are ideal for their parts. And they are good actors! Lorenzo Regazzo as Figaro is a find: lively, young-looking and equipped with a strong, steady bass-voice, full of expression. All his arias are vocal high-points. Peter Mattei’s lanky figure and aristocratic bearing make him an ideal Count Almaviva. There are few baritones around on the international circuit today who can equal his singing. His baritone possesses great beauty and power when needed and it is so well-equalized. It is also well contrasted with Figaro’s blacker bass, which matters less on DVD than on CD, where casting similar voices can sometimes cause problems. Roland Bracht’s magnificently booming voice and expressive acting also makes him a Bartolo to reckon with.
On the distaff side Christiane Oelze sings The Countess’s two arias with dignity and great beauty and she is suitably sad for most of the time. Heidi Grant Murphy is a glittering Susanna, singing a lovely fourth act aria. Cherubino is notoriously difficult to cast, requiring a gloriously-voiced singer who must also be able to pass reasonably well as a teenage boy. Christine Schäfer is definitely the most boyish Cherubino I have ever encountered and it is indeed difficult to believe that this isn’t a boy. To underline this wizardry in role-identification she/he looks like Harry Potter – but sings like an angel.
The minor parts are also excellently cast with Helene Schneiderman grabbing her few opportunities to show off. This she does most conspicuously in her aria, where she bathes in the spotlight. Burkhard Ulrich the Don Basilio, on the other hand, sings his aria with microphone. The rest of the cast are also well into their characters.
On musical grounds then there is no cause for complaint. The production was also fresh and entertaining, but some of the questions of principle that I have posed still remain. I don’t mind new thinking and fresh ideas but I don’t buy everything just because it is new or fashionable.
I hope this review has whet the appetite or deterred readers, depending on attitudes. Those who feel they can stomach a production along these lines can safely invest. Sound and pictures are first class, as is almost always the case nowadays.
Göran Forsling


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