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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze Di Figaro, Opera buffa in four acts (1786)
Susanna – Huang Ying (soprano); Figaro - Li Ao (bass-baritone); Count Almaviva, Zhou Zhengzhong (baritone); Countess Almaviva, Yu Guanqun (soprano); Cherubino – Xu Lei (mezzo-soprano); Marcellina – Zhang Zhuo (soprano). Don Basilio – Li Xiang (tenor). Don Bartolo, Guan Zhijing (bass). Barbarina, Li Xintong (soprano). Antonio – Zhao Curzio (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the China National centre for the Arts/Lü Jia
Stage direction by José Luis Castro. Set Designer, Giuliano Spinelli. Costume designer, Irene Monti
Recorded live January 2014.
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio. Picture Format 16:9.
Subtitle Languages: Italian (Original Language), English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese
ACCENTUS ACC20207 [2 DVDs: 193 mins]

Whilst opera was not the staple diet of the masses at the time of the composition of Le Nozze di Figaro it was certainly enjoyed by a wide sector of the European populace. In Rossini’s lifetime this was represented in each major city by two or even three opera houses presenting opera, often for the different strata of society. Importantly, the content of any opera being written and performed was closely monitored by the local censors, a state of affairs in Italy, for example, that lasted until after the unification of the country. It explains why composers tended to write about historical events or biblical stories rather than contemporary matters. The straight theatre was also subject to similar restriction, but more often seemed able to push the boundaries, addressing contemporary issues and particularly the goings on in what was called higher society, that is among the aristocracy. The author Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799) wrote his trilogy of plays about the Almaviva household, but found his play, on which Mozart’s opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, is based banned by the censors in France and also in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Hapsburg Empire, based in Vienna, was as restrictive as the French, albeit their aristocracy was more open to influence, particularly when that came from the Emperor himself. The more liberal Emperor Joseph II had come to power on the death of his mother. In 1782 he restored Italian Opera to the Imperial Theatre, the Burgtheater, and appointed Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) as Poet to the Imperial Theatres. Da Ponte was something of a libertine having been defrocked as a priest because of adultery. When Mozart was commissioned to write an opera he knew the Emperor had banned Beaumarchais’ play from the National Theatre. However, the composer was enamoured by the play and the prospect of an opera based on it. Da Ponte had the regular ear of the Emperor and succeeded in persuading him that, with appropriate excisions, which he himself would carry out, a Mozart’s opera on the subject was feasible. This did necessitate some of the more political and revolutionary aspects of the play being toned down, particularly the inflammatory Act Five monologue. This was replaced by Figaro’s Act Four warning about women which greatly pleased the Emperor.

Designated opera buffa, Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro is based on the second of Beaumarchais’ trilogy of plays set around Count Almaviva. It is a superb collaboration between composer and librettist and was a great success. In the present day it is widely regarded as among one of the greatest operas ever penned and is one of the most often performed.

I give the above background because I feel that, above all else, any production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro should be set in the European milieu of the period. This production, by a Spaniard from Seville, fits the bill and sets the opera in appropriate period and costumes. There are idiosyncrasies such as the Count entering Figaro and Susanna’s new apartment by a trapdoor, and a rather gauche stetting and acting in the last act. Questions arise in my mind as to the performance of the musicians, under the conductor’s guidance, and the singers in their appearance and acting as well as vocal strengths and appropriateness. I think we have all got used to Asiatic singers on the international scene, so I make no criticism of the Chinese appearance of the cast. However, less acceptable, in my view, is having a Marcellina who looks as if she could be this particular Figaro’s daughter! Similar miscasting sees Zhou Zhengzhong as Count Almaviva looking too young, and the Cherubino of Xu Lei much too feminine, albeit the latter is sometimes the case with performances in Europe. However, whilst I look forward to watching and hearing any new production of Figaro I found myself distinctly frustrated and unimpressed by the acting and interpersonal reactions between the participants. I felt as though the conductor and cast were going through the motions at a superficial level that even a student performance that Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music bettered, albeit the production was updated to Spain in the 1920s (review). What the singers and conductor lack, I feel, is a much longer appreciation of and immersion in the Europeanness of the work, and what was behind it within that cultural milieu of its time. As such it was not to my personal liking. Was it co-incidental that my review found the same theatre’s performance and production of Puccini’s Turandot so successful? In that instance the singers clearly identified with the happenings on stage and understood the inner work. Maybe that understanding was also connected with familiarity with an earlier, outstanding production that many of the participants would have seen. In this instance my feeling was of music making by numbers and, given the recorded competition, it would not cut the mustard in the competitive marketplace, nor be an enjoyable evening’s entertainment to a European, or even American audience or viewer.

Robert J Farr



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