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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Le Nozze di Figaro

Mozart's high-speed comedy of domestic chaos yields infinite rewards.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The measuring tape and bonnet from the opening scene of The Marriage of Figaro.
Image collage by the author.
It was really hard to start writing this newest Superconductor Audio Guide devoted to five great recordings of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. It is an opera that (for this writer anyway) cures all ills. Not only does this mix of genuine pathos and knockabout comedy have some of Mozart's most sublime writing for the voice, but its message that the little guy can have his day and defeat the evils of patriarchy and patronage still resounds, inspired and comforts listeners today.

Some background, first. The play The Marriage of Figaro by Pierre Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais caused a firestorm when it premiered in Paris. In the first of their three collaborations, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte did their best to tone down the play's political content and make the plot move smoothly, helped along by lovely and memorable tunes and a pell-mell Act II finale that involved almost every major character in the opera on stage at once. The great sublimity comes in the fourth act, where nocturnal intrigue veers from French farce to genuine human emotion as the Count gets his comeuppance.

The plot chronicles one day's events in the household of Count Almaviva and Rosina (the same couple who met and married in Beaumarchais' earlier The Barber of Seville.) Figaro features the titular former barber, now in service to his Lordship as valet. He is engaged to Susanna, the Countess' maid. Almaviva is hoping to bed Susanna, and is colluding with Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina to block the wedding. Meanwhile, Figaro and Susanna plot with the young page Cherubino to embarrass the Count, repair the Countess' marriage a and thus allow their wedding to go forward.

As the four acts unfold, Mozart gives his characters a flood of memorable tunes to sing. These have entered Western popular conscience, such as the sprightly military march "Non piu andrai", the breathless aria "Non piu su, cosa son cosa faccio" (featured in the wedding scene of The Godfather and the "Sull'aria" duet from Act III, itself a metaphor for freedom played in the middle of the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption. All this pop culture exposure just makes a listener love Figaro more. Its score is demanding, marvelous, memorable and evergreen, sounding fresh with each hearing for its four-hour length.

It should be noted that while the film Amadeus shows Figaro closing in Vienna after just nine performance, the actual history is very different. This opera was one of Mozart's runaway successes, playing over and over in the nearby city of Prague and making his music beloved all over Europe. It is a core part of the operatic repertory and has been for over three hundred years. No opera company of any respectable size can do without it, and every artist worth their salt wants to record it, sometimes more than once. Which brings us to...the recordings.

There are many recordings of Le Nozze di Figaro to sift through. There are live recordings, period instrument versions, and versions with classic opera singers of the days gone by. That said, I own a dozen different versions. I picked these five because they are the ones I keep coming back to, year after year.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Erich Kleiber (Decca, 1955)
This is a touchstone recording and one that I grew up with, wearing out a cheap "highlights" cassette in my Walkman on the way to school in Manhattan. It still holds up, with exuberant performances from Cesare Siepi and Hilde Gueden as Figaro and Susanna. The early stereo sound holds up well and at a lower price, this is a safe addition to any collection.

Deutschen Oper Chor. und Orchester cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon, 1968)
The Germanic Figaro with lieder kings Hermann Prey and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau squaring off as the valet and his master. The former puts wry humor into the role which is sometimes missed. Edith Mathis and Gundula Janowitz are excellent as their romantic counterparts. The recording is absolutely uncut, with all the Act IV arias for the minor characters in their rightful place. And yes, this is the recording of "Sull'aria" mentioned earlier, the one that was used in The Shawshank Redemption.

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1981)
From the bright, atmospheric acoustics to the big-name cast, this studio recording represents the height of '80s excess. Georg Solti conducts a hard-driving performance with an experienced cast, with highlights being the genuine chemistry between Sam Ramey's Figaro and Lucia Popp's Susanna. Kiri Te Kanawa is a creamy and aristocratic Countess, well matched with Thomas Allen's Count. Also Frederica von Stade is a perfect Cherubino, inside the part's trousers from start to finish.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv, 1993)
There are a number of period recordings of Figaro but this live recording made with a young Bryn Terfel in the title role still takes the cake. He is well matched with Alison Hagley as a mezzo Susanna. An enthusiastic cast of English and American singers are his support in a live recording that simply leaps out of the speakers. Rod Gilfry is a scuzzy Count and Hillevi Martinpelto captures the tragic grandeur of his neglected wife with just the right hint of irony.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 1994)
Released a year after the Gardiner recording, this exemplary and almost completely forgotten Figaro shows the fruits of the brief recording association between Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. Lucio Gallo and Sylvia McNair are the main attractions here, with the latter singer showing her early mastery as Susanna. Bo Skovhus is a pompous and funny Count. But the real jewel here is Cecilia Bartoli in an early star turn as Cherubino, maybe the best on record.

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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.