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Friday, February 27, 2009

Recording Recommendations: Five Fabulous Figaros

Hermann Prey as Figaro. Album cover © 1968 Deutsche Grammophon.
As I am slowly working my way through Brilliant Classics' Complete Mozart Edition, I thought this would be a good time to talk about one of the greatest comic operas ever written, Le Nozze di Figaro. With many recording on the market, it can be confusing for the consumer, especially since those great havens of wisdom--record stores--are disappearing from our urban landscape faster than Kathleen Battle from the Metropolitan Opera roster. Better yet, none of these are full price recordings, except for the Gardiner, which is due for a cheap-o DG Collector's Edition reissue one of these days.

Anyway, to launch a new semi-regular feature here at the blog, we are going to look at five recommended recordings of this great opera, in chronological order. Next week, we'll do another. And so on. Enjoy!

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Erich Leinsdorf. (Decca 1955)
Studio recording.
The heavyweight champion. Finally given a proper CD mastering in 1999, this effervescent performance by the senior Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic is anchored by a phenomenal cast, which includes Hilde Gueden, Cesare Siepi and Fernando Corena. And did we mention the Goddess of Vienna, Lisa della Casa, radiant yet mournful as Mozart's Countess.

Chor und Orchester der Deutsches Oper Berlin cond. Karl Böhm (DG, 1968)
Studio recording.
With Hermann Prey as Figaro and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Almaviva, this German-flavored recording has a pair of very strong leads. Rich comic timing, crisp, nimble performances and a great Mozartean at the helm. A loveable Figaro and the first one I reach for. And with a cast that includes Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis and Tatiana Troyanos, can you blame me?

Drottingholm Court Orchestra and Chorus cond. Arnold Östman. (L'oiseau-lyre 1988, now Decca)
Live recording.
Originally pressed on Decca's now-defunct period label L'oiseau-lyre this was the first Figaro on period instruments. Östman is a sure hand at the podium, leading his radically reduced orchestra and a fresh cast (featuring future superstar Barbara Bonney) through a complete performance of this opera. Includes an appendix with the often cut arias for Basilio and Marcellina in the final act. A marathon Figaro but a satisfying experience. Currently available (with three of Östman's other Mozart recordings) as a super-bargan box set from Decca.

1994: English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner. (DG Archiv 1994)
Live recording.
Gardiner's fussy, quicksilver conducting dominates this live recording made at the Theatre du Chatelet and filmed for release on VHS and DVD. In fact, this was one of the first opera DVDs released by DG back in 2000. The recorded debut of Bryn Terfel as Figaro, alongside a strong cast of future stars that includes Rodney Gilfrey and Alison Hagley. Pamela Helen Stephen is an excellent Cherubino. Hillevi Martinpelto gives an emotional, carefully weighted portrait of the Countess, the perfect, irresistible compliment to the macho bluster of the two male leads.

La Petit Bande cond. Sigiswald Kukijen. (Brilliant, recorded 1998)
Currently available in the Complete Mozart Edition, Brilliant Classics
This is a finely-balanced recording that is currently available as part of the mammoth Complete Mozart Edition from Brilliant Classics. Recorded in Belgium, it features period playing of exceptional clarity and beauty from Le Petit Bande, and a cast of mostly unknown singers that excel in the opera's complicated ensembles. Well-recorded and well performed, with excellent choral singing. When the audience applauds at the end of Act I, it's a pleasant shock as there is little stage noise.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.