Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze Di Figaro - Opera buffa in four acts (1786)
Susanna, maid to the Countess – Reri Grist (soprano); Figaro, manservant to the Count - Walter Berry (bass-baritone); Count Almaviva - Ingvar Wixell (baritone); Countess Almaviva - Claire Watson (soprano); Cherubino, a young buck around the palace – Edith Mathis (soprano); Marcellina, a mature lady owed a debt by Figaro – Margarethe Bence (mezzo); Don Basilio, a music master and schemer – David Thaw (tenor); Don Bartolo - Zoltan Keleman (bass); Barbarina - Deirdre Aselford (soprano).
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
rec. live, Salzburg Festival, 1966
Stage direction - Günther Rennert
Set and Costume Design - Ludwig Heinrich
Video Director - Herman Lanske
Sound Format: PCM Mono, DD 5.1. Picture Format: 4:3. DVD Format NTSC 2 x DVD 9
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107 057 [2 DVDs: 180:00]

Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro is widely regarded as among the greatest operas ever penned. Designated opera buffa, it is based on the second of Beaumarchais’s trilogy of plays set around Count Almaviva. It is a superb marriage of composer and librettist, in this case Lorenzo Da Ponte, a man surely unique in the annals of music. Propitiously, he arrived in Vienna at the turn of 1781-82. This was a year before the Emperor restored Italian Opera to the Imperial Theatre, the Burgtheater. He was appointed Poet to the Imperial Theatres by the Emperor and thus had easy access to his august and all powerful employer.

In relatively liberal Paris, Beaumarchais’s play was, for many years, considered too licentious and socially revolutionary for the stage. It was viewed similarly in Vienna even after the more liberal Emperor Joseph II had come to power on the death of his mother. Da Ponte, used his access to the Emperor and managed to get his permission for Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro to go ahead on the basis of it being an opera and not the already banned play. This necessitated the more political and revolutionary aspects of the play being toned down. This had consequences for an inflammatory Act 5 monologue which was replaced with Figaro’s Act 4 warning about women which greatly pleased the Emperor. Mozart composed the music in six weeks despite a flare-up of the kidney condition that was to kill him five years later at the very young age of thirty-five.

Opera festivals abound in what might be called the closed season for the great theatre addresses for the genre. None come bigger, or more expensive, than the Salzburg Festival that runs for five weeks from the end of July each year with an earlier Whitsun or Easter offspring. Salzburg was the birthplace of Mozart and since the inception of the Festival, around 1920 by Richard Strauss, his librettist Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt, the great native composer’s operatic works have never been less than a regular feature. None of those operatic works has clocked up more productions and performances than Le Nozze Di Figaro. The Festival and the work tempt the most prestigious producers and conductors. Famous conductors associated with the Festival include Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Karajan. Karl Böhm stands alongside these giants with a claim to having a particular empathy with Mozart’s music. Certainly his Le nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan Tutte at Salzburg are renowned. Böhm’s conducting, alongside Günther Rennert’s production, Ludwig Heinrich sets and opulent costumes as presented in this film, even in the limitations of mono sound and black and white presentation, show why that is so.

In 1966, as now, the Salzburg Festival drew the cream of singers, and this cast includes some of the all time great Mozart interpreters. In no order, Reri Grist’s Susanna, petite and pert in manner, true in vocal characterisation and excellent in diction, is a particular delight. Her act four recit and aria is a wonderful postlude to an outstanding contribution (DVD 2 CH. 27). As her eponymous paramour, Walter Berry is quite some revolutionary. It would take a very strong count Almaviva to master him. His singing is full-toned with his rounded bass baritone flexible and expressive in Figaro’s arias (e.g. DVD 1 CH.6 and 17). His acting is convincing. This is particularly so in the concluding act in the garden (DVD 2 CHs.18031) where the various confusions bring Figaro and his bride and the put-upon Countess full justification for the plotting that has gone before.

Of the Almavivas and their entourage, Claire Watson’s warm-toned and womanly Countess comes over well. She finds no difficulty with the tessitura of her two big arias whilst bringing expression and feeling to the emotions they convey (DVD 1 CH.18 and DVD 2 CH.10). Ingvar Wixell sings strongly as the Count, albeit overshadowed a little by his servant in terms of vocal strength. That lovely Mozartian Edith Mathis, as the young buck Cherubino, looks a little too feminine of face. She sings her two arias with great beauty and acts the role convincingly, particularly after entering Susanna’s room via a window (DVD 1 CH 11-17) and then having to hide herself as the Count arrives. She graces both arias with tonal beauty and phrasing too rarely heard these days. Zoltan Keleman is a rather cocky Don Bartolo, but sings his aria adequately (DVD 1 CH.8). Margarethe Bence is a rather fusty-looking Marcellina and like David Thaw’s adequately acted music-master she does not get their act four aria. Deirdre Aselford is vocally a little thin as Barbarina but acts her role well, especially in act four.

Ludwig Heinrich’s classic sets and costumes made me regret the lack of colour. Karl Böhm’s phrasing and gently sprung rhythms allow the composer’s music to flow whilst giving the singers adequate time to phrase with delicacy and character. A little matter of changing styles is evidenced in the return of a singer to the stage after exiting at the end of an aria, to take a bow, or even two. Thankfully this practise has now died out with soloists criticised for even showing the hint of a smile as they maintain role during the enthusiastic reception following a bravura aria. All one would wish nowadays is for audiences to follow suit and restrict their applause to the end of acts and at final curtain.

Robert J Farr

This classy and classic performance from another era well deserves to be seen despite its technical limitations.