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Monday, February 22, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Le Nozze di Figaro

Mozart's comedy of sex and class struggle returns to the Met stage.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Isabel Leonard (center) stars as Cherubino in the Met's revival of Le Nozze di Figaro.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Look, this is just a good opera. In fact it's one of the best. Mozart's Figaro is a four-act, four-hour feast of the composer's best and most memorable tunes, and a story that features one memorable day in a very peculiar household. This run offers a new cast in the Met's production by Sir Richard Eyre, which opened the 2014 season.
The plot of Figaro is complex. The title character, valet (and former barber) to the Count Almaviva wants to marry the housemaid Susanna. However, the Count (who has recently abolished the droit de seignur that allowed him first night privileges with any new bride under his rule) wants to have his way with Susanna before the wedding anyway. Adding to the merriment: a May-December romance between the Countess and Cherubino (the excessively virile young page who continually finds himself in the most awkward situations) and a plot by Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina to take revenge on Figaro for his actions in the earlier Barber of Seville.

Figaro is a long opera but it is packed end to end with Mozart's most inspired writing for the voice. From the title character's challenging "Se vuol bailare" and "Non più andrai" to the twenty minute add-a-voice ensemble that ends the second act, this score never fails to please the ear. The finale of Act IV ("Contessa perdono") is the loveliest part, a moving plea for reconciliation between the major characters as the comic doings finally come to a serious consequence..

This revival of the 2014 season-opening production by Sir Richard Eyre features Mikhail Petrenko singing the title role at the Met for the first time. The wily valet's schemes inspire the everyman to rise up against his aristocratic oppressors. Whether leaping out of windows or helping his fiancée Susanna avoid the unwanted attentions of Count Almaviva, (Luca Pisaroni) Figaro is an operatic trickster with great music to sing.

The real heroes of this show, however are women. The unhappy, tormented Countess Almaviva  and Susanna  (who has more music to sing than any other character in the opera) are an odd pairing but their Act III duet "Sull'aria is the gorgeous heart of their relationship. Le Nozze di Figaro returns to the Met on February 25, 2016.

Recording Recommendations:

Like its titular barber, Figaro gets around on disc. Here are three excellent recordings of Mozart's beloved comedy.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Erich Leinsdorf. (Decca 1955)
Figaro:  Cesare Siepi
Susanna: Hilde Gueden
Count Almaviva: Alfred Poell
Countess Rosina: Lisa della Casa
Cherubino: Suzanne Danco
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)
Figaro: Hermann Prey
Susanna: Edith Mathis
Count Almaviva: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Countess Rosina: Gundula Janowitz
Cherubino: Tatiana Troyanos
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?

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner. (DG Archiv 1994)

Figaro: Bryn Terfel
Susanna: Alison Hagley
Count Almaviva: Rod Gilfry
Countess Rosina: Hillevi Martenpelto
Cherubino: Pamela Helen Stephen

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!) This set marks 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. Tickets for Le Nozze di Figaro are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.

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