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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Recordings Review: Crazy Days, Lazy Nights

Yannick Nézet-Séguin records Le Nozze di Figaro.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cover art for the new DG recording of Le Nozze di Figaro.
© 2016 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics.
Le Nozze di Figaro is one of the most frequently performed and recorded Mozart operas. It's the one with everything: meaty roles for two baritones and two very different leading ladies, a plum comic part for a bass worth his salt and an opportunity for a star conductor to prove himself by keeping the action moving and the many ensembles rolling along. It also helps a listener learn much about a conductor's style in general, thanks to the many different demands this four-hour opera makes.

The latest maestro to throw his hat in the Figaro ring is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, pressing doggedly ahead with his ambitious recording project for Deutsche Grammophon: a survay of the seven major Mozart operas made as live concert recordings at the Baden-Baden Festival in Germany. As this is a concert recording (made in July of 2015) there is a lack of onstage movement, and the audience is only audible with careful listening to the background noise between notes. The orchestra here is the London-based Chamber Orchestra of Europe, no strangers to Mozart.

The opera gets off to a strong start with a vibrant Overture that introduces Luca Pisaroni's Figaro. He is funny and dynamic, capturing the character's mix of situational frustration and wry humor. His delivery of the two big Act I numbers has sizzle, as does his interplay with Christiane Karg's caustic Susanna. However, the big recognition scene in Act III falls short of hilarity, with  Susanna's famous face-slap making itself felt by its absence. The two lovers sing with too much restraint in the fourth act, and "Deh vieni, non tardar" lacks the last degree of sensual need.

Angela Brower has plenty of comic energy as Cherubino, the continually cross-dressing page whose sexual desire never quite knows where to aim. Her performance of the page's two arias is underlined by a quirky little upward scale in the pianoforte continuo, as if to tell the listener "Hey, this is going to be funny, listen to this." After a few listens, the verdict is that this ultimately undermines the delivery of Mozart's great music and should have been policed by Mr. Nézet-Séguin.

The Countess does not appear until the second act, but Sonya Yoncheva's entry makes her worth the wait. Both of her arias are sung with tender feeling and poignance, but it her "Porgi, amor" drips with the same hopeless despair that made last year's Desdemona at the Met so memorable. "Dove sono" brings one back to the same emotional state. It a cutting moment in the middle of the Act III wedding festivities, delivered with superb control and pacing by conductor and singer.

Thomas Hampson returns to the role of Almaviva, here giving a sly and stuffy Count. He is too warm-toned throughout, seemingly preoccupied with singing the correct notes to really let himself go. As a result,  his outbursts at the Countess are careful and genteel, and quite fail to suggest the true, abusive nature of their domestic relationship. The Count is aided and abetted by Maurizio Muraro, a bumptuous and full-throated Dr. Bartolo and Rolando Villazon, (here in his fourth Nézet-Séguin Mozart recording) as Don Basilio. The appearance of this leading man in this small and sleazy role is at once the ultimate in luxe</> casting and a good inside joke. 

Perhaps Mr. Villazon's presence and the appearance of former Cherubino Anne Sofie von Otter in the small role of Marcellina accounts for the presence of both characters' arias, inserted into their proper places early in the fourth Act. While these are wonderful numbers in their own right, they do little to advance the action. At least Mr. Villazon seems to be having fun as Basilio, a role that is usually sung by a character tenor of advancing age and not a traditional leading man. The star tenor does not double the role of Don Curzio: the notary is sung by one Jean-Paul Fouencourt to great comic effect.

Watch a trailer for this Le Nozze di Figaro here. 
Footage © 2016 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG

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