Some thoughts on thirty years of life with Mozart's opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
|A piano score for The Marriage of Figaro featuring |
Cherubino in the chair, discovered by the Count.
The Marriage of Figaro and I have been through a lot together. I first saw Mozart's opera at the New York City Opera with my parents and while my young self may have snoozed through some of its four hour length (I think I was ten years old at the time) what I remembered of the show was engrossing, the madcap household and its goings-on, with the supremely confident and nimble Figaro at its center had immediate appeal.
A few years later, my Mom bought me a cassette (remember those?) of highlights from the Erich Kleiber recording, the one made for Decca in Vienna. I learned the Overture, "Se vuol bailare," "Non pui andrai," etc. and those tunes were further reinforced in my young psyche by their appearences in the movie Amadeus, my early window into the world of Mozart and the music of the 18th century.
Still later, (at this point I was 14!) I went on my first date with a girl from my geometry class. Our destination: the New York City Opera for that same production of Figaro. My Mom bought the tickets, and we managed to arrive late during the first act, being shown by a kind usher to emergency seats for "Non si piu, cosa son, cosa faccio." Romance with her was not in the future...but as she said to me last year, "we were 14." (Yes, we're friends.) A few years later, my Mom and I watched the Channel 13 telecast of the Met production by Jean-Pierre Ponelle, one interrupted by a phone call from an irate high school drafting teacher.
Teachers and love interests aside, that cassette stood me in good stead until the CD era arrived. My first was a JVC two-disc player (it was so cool! It had an unreliable mechanism arm that moved between player trays that eventually broke!) that replaced my sturdy old Sony dual cassette boombox in my Fordham dorm room. I was more into Wagner at that point (my first CD set was Parsifal) but still found Mozart a relaxing escape. It wasn't until grad school that I got my first complete Nozze di Figaro, when I fell in love with the opera all over again.
At that point, my Sony bookshelf stereo (the one with the rotating disc trays, a mechanism that eventually was destroyed when it got jammed by the second disc of the James Levine Das Rheingold filled the air of my squalid Beacon Street "starter" apartment with the sound of Sir Colin Davis' Philips recording, featuring old-school singers like Ingvar Wixell. Vladimiro Ganzarolli and Jessye Norman as the Countess. (It had to be good! It was part of a complete Mozart edition!) Better things were yet to come.
Hanging out at the Boston Tower Records, I became obsessed with period instruments, and wanted to hear what Mozart sounded like on the oboes, flutes and violins of the 18th century. I traded that Davis recording in along with a few other things and soon my little flat was filled with thesound of the English Baroque Soloists under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner. That recording (on DG Archiv) that featured Bryn Terfel as Figaro, Rod Gilfry as the Count, and a slew of young, fine singers filling out the hectic Almaviva household. Armed with my trusty English National Opera guide, I played that Figaro over and over. When I tired of it, I eventually traded it in for another...the Karl Böhm recording on DG with Hermann Prey and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Today, I still turn to this opera, whenever I'm blue or down or needing solace or a good laugh. I can always go see it, and do often. My music library (I'm talking actual CDs though I still rip them to MP3 for portability) has a vast variety of Figaros. I don't own the Davis anymore, but I have complete CDs of recordings conducted by: (deep breath) Abbado, Böhm, Gardiner, Jacobs, Karajan, Kleiber (the same one mentioned earlier) Klemperer (slow but rewarding, the singing's great!) Kuijken (part of the Brilliant Classics "Complete Mozart Edition" maga-box) Mackerras, Muti, Östman and (recently) Solti. They all give joy in their own way, as have recordings I've owned in the past by Levine and Marriner.
The other night, I finished a particularly serious phone call standing up on the Sunset Park hill that overlooks the city, located just across from my current apartment. As the lights of the new World Trade Center twinkled in the distance, I opened "Music" on my iPhone 5. I put in my earbuds. And I was rewarded with Cecilia Bartoli singing "Voi chi sapete" on the excellent (and underrated) Claudio Abbado recording. And it cheered me instantly as I walked back home.