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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Le nozze di Figaro (K 492)
Thomas Hampson (baritone) – Il Conte di Almaviva; Sonya Yoncheva (soprano) – La contessa di Almaviva; Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone) – Figaro; Christiane Karg (soprano) – Susanna; Angela Brower (mezzo) – Cherubino; Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo) – Marcellina; Maurizio Muraro (bass) – Bartolo; Rolando Villazon (tenor) – Basilio; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor) – Don Curzio; Philippe Sly (bass) – Antonio; Regula Mühlemann (soprano) – Barbarina; Vocalensemble Rastatt
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, July 2015
Italian libretto and translations in French, German and English enclosed
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5945 [3 CDs: 61:11 + 72:11 + 40:12]

This is the fourth instalment in Deutsche Grammophon’s new Mozart cycle. In the end this will encompass the seven great operas, from Idomeneo forwards. I haven’t heard the previous three, but from the reviews I have seen the reception has been rather mixed. Concerning this latest issue I am also in two minds. The problem, as I see it, is that Nézet-Séguin hasn’t quite decided what he is up to. He has the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe at his disposal. They are a modest-sized band, they play on modern instruments but they have adopted period practice insofar as they play with little or no vibrato. Small band Mozart is no novelty, and we have at least three cycles that go the whole way and play on period instruments as well: Arnold Östman’s Drottningholm series was first out, followed by John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s and recently René Jacobs. Others, like Nézet-Séguin, have employed modern instruments, most notably Charles Mackerras on Telarc with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I have enjoyed all these and a lot of other recordings, from the 1950s onwards, often with full-size orchestras. I went back to some of my favourite Figaros to refresh my memory, starting with Vittorio Gui’s Glyndebourne-based recording from 1955 with the mercurial Sesto Bruscantini in the title role. It is swift, light-footed, boiling with energy. Erich Kleiber on Decca, from the same year, a longstanding favourite since the early 1960s: vital, fastish and with a superb cast, crowned by Cesare Siepi’s dark Figaro. Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1959 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra fizzes along with elegance and gusto and has Giuseppe Taddei’s ebullient valet. Karl Böhm’s DG recording from 1968 is slightly more relaxed but is still full of life and has the inimitable Hermann Prey as a jovial Figaro. Colin Davis, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, James Levine all have good things to offer.

Where does this latest offering stand? It is well played, tempos are swift in general but no more so than Gui’s or Kleiber’s or Giulini’s. Nézet-Séguin has a tendency to over-accentuate rhythms with, in my opinion, exaggerated sforzandi – the overture is a prime example. This is a matter of personal taste and so, in a way, is his employment of rubato. I have to admit though, that when in the act IV finale everybody asks the Count for forgiveness and he refuses, until the Countess steps forward, singing “Almena io loro perdono otterrò” time stands still, almost literally. When everybody, gasping, hears his “Contessa, perdono” (My Countess, forgive me) at the most drawn out ritardando on any recording, and with long pauses between the words, there is true magic created – idiosyncratic or not. If I remember nothing else from this recording that scene will forever be etched into my memory.

Vocally there is a lot to remember here: the glittering Susanna of Christiane Karg, the marvellously detailed and expressive Marcellina of Anne Sofie von Otter (she was a great Cherubino on the Levine recording 25 years earlier), Maurizio Muraro’s elderly-sounding but wholly appropriate Bartolo, Angela Brower’s creamy-voiced Cherubino, Rolando Villazon’s youthful and ingratiating Basilio (no wonder he gets information), the noble and beautiful Countess of Sonya Yoncheva and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s caricature of the judge. Nor should we forget Regula Mühlemann’s cute and innocent Barbarina and Philippe Sly’s sturdy Antonio, the gardener.

I have left the two male main characters to the last. They are not only rivals, sort of, but they also represent politically the conflicting parties of the revolution. Luca Pisaroni, Figaro, has a fine voice and is expressive with words but still feels a bit non-committal in the first act. He grows towards the end and delivers his recitative and aria in the last act with deep involvement and biting anger. Thomas Hampson was the Count for Levine 25 years ago and repeated it a few years later for Harnoncourt. Here, at sixty, he has retained much of his marvellous voice, though it is obvious that this is a slightly elderly Count. Verbally and expressively he is masterly, though. The scene with Susanna at the beginning of act III and his big aria that follows constitute a high-spot in this recording.

Recorded live at concert performances in Baden-Baden last summer (2015), the balance of the sound is excellent and the presence of an audience is noticeable only in the shape of some laughter in the first act at a perfectly timed cue by Villazon. There is no applause and not even the sound of Susanna slapping Figaro’s face in the act III sextet and the act IV finale. The secco recitatives are accompanied on a fortepiano and Jory Vinikour indulges in some discreet extemporizations.

Even though there are no revelatory discoveries in this recording it is still attractive with some very good singing from a cast where a couple of well-preserved veterans encounter a younger generation.

Those wanting more period flavour are advised to search out Östman’s, Gardiner’s or Jacobs’ recordings. For those satisfied with a more middle-of-the-road approach, I would still suggest Kleiber, Giulini, Böhm, Davis or Solti even if they are 30 to 60 years old. Levine and Harnoncourt are slightly more recent and then we have Halász – praised by CH at MusicWeb International – and Harnoncourt II, recorded live at Salzburg for DG, of which I had a rather high opinion nine years ago.

There are no revelatory discoveries in this latest DG version but it is still attractive with some very good singing from a cast where well-preserved veterans encounter the younger generation.

Göran Forsling



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