Le Nozze di Figaro

Diana Damrau (The Countess), Golda Schultz (Susanna), Marianne Crebassa (Cherubino), Carlos Álvarez (The Count), Markus Werba (Figaro), Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano, Franz Welser-Möst

Nine years after his video from the Opernhaus Züich (SEE BELOW), Franz Welser-Möst seems to have learned to relax and let Mozart’s music speak for itself. In Milan, he proves to be a conductor not willing to call too much attention onto himself but rather to what is happening on stage, commenting the dramatic action and giving pride of place to his singers. There are occasional moments of creativity, such as the finale ultimo, with surprising tempo shifting that somehow make sense in terms of clarity and of theatre. Unfortunately, the recorded sound does not integrate the pit and the stage as the conducting does. Although the house band plays with an aptly clean and bright sound, almost period-instrument like, the microphones do not flatter it, making it sound dry and in clear disadvantage to singers, whose voices too are caught in somewhat unnatural perspective. You just have to compare the ideal balance found in Zurich to see the difference. Frederic Wake-Walker’s production is all over the place and, after a while, its hyperactivity looks like noise to Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto. There is an omnipresent group of stagehands dressed up as if in a fashion show doing all kinds of cute antics that involve tampering with the overchic sets which do not add any atmosphere to the story devised by Beaumarchais. Costumes too call too much attention to themselves in a way disconnected to these characters and their stories. I never thought I would think that Giorgio Strehler’s often documented staging could have had another go, but fifteen minutes of Mr. Wake-Walker’s production easily puts anyone in that nostalgic frame of mind. In 2006, Diana Damrau was a brilliant Susanna in the very same theatre where she would record ten years later the prima donna role (SEE BELOW). In 2016, her voice had lost a great deal of its purity and acquired a pronounced metallic squillo that compromised her Porgi, amor. However, this German soprano’s superior knowledge of the text and imaginative delivery of her lines are fascinating to hear. Even if one could wish for a little bit more spontaneity, her ease with high notes (in a part where most sopranos are afraid of them) is more than compensation. Golda Schultz’s velvety tonal quality and sense of style are great assets in terms of Mozartian singing, and yet her Susanna sounds too well-behaved. A voice that wants a little bit projection and lack of naturalness with the Italian language do not help much either. Marianne Crebassa is again a vivacious, fruity-toned Cherubino, in better voice than she was in Berlin (SEE BELOW). Carlos Álvarez famously scales down his Verdian baritone for the purpose of the role of the Count of Almaviva. He cannot help sounding commanding, but some nuance would not hurt. In this performance, the masters finally steal the show from their servants. Markus Werba is an energetic and charming Figaro and is really at ease singing in Italian, but his baritone is a on the light and high side for his part. The small roles are not truly ideally cast, and I still have to decide if a Basilio consistently too prominent in ensembles is an advantage or a disadvantage.

Anett Fritsch (The Countess), Martina Jankova (Susanna), Margarita Gritskova (Cherubino), Luca Pisaroni (The Count), Adam Plachetka (Figaro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Dan Ettinger

While the Salzburg  2015 production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is arguably the most complex among staging of the Da Ponte operas devised by Sven-Eric Bechtolf for the Festival, it is definitely the most lacklustre in terms of singing and conducting. With its realistic two-story sets allowing the audience to follow parallel actions, the staging has an almost distracting effect. One is often tempted to look away from the action as devised by Lorenzo da Ponte to peep at what other characters are doing when they are not supposed to be on stage and discover, for instance, that Basilio has a secret passion for Cherubino, among other dirty secrets. The fidgety Personenregie tends to boost overacting from almost everyone involved, but nobody could in good conscience call this boring. On the other hand, that is precisely the word one feels tempted to use to describe Dan Ettinger’s 100%-on-the-safe-side conducting. If there is a prevailing sense that things would benefit from a little bit of forward movement, the Vienna Philharmonic offers at least playing of surpassing quality, transparence and balance. Anett Fritsch is a stylish and unproblematic Countess, but her soprano is monochrome and still the one color available is not really vivid. Once an ideal Susanna, Martina Jankova¡’s soprano lacks here a bit juice in her high notes. She seems curiously unengaged, but seems to plug in for a charming Deh vieni, non tardar. Margarita Gritskova is an all-purpose, efficient Cherubino who probably sounds more appealing in the last seat of the theatre than for repeated listenings at home. The most often recorded Figaro in the discography, Luca Pisaroni is finally recorded as the Count. It is sad that he was not at his best voice in the occasion – his high register is unfocused and many notes grate a bit – for he has the right attitude and tonal quality for the role. Adam Plachetka’s grainy bass-baritone is not the most mellifluous sound in the history of recorded opera, but it is generously produced. If only his singing were less emphatic and his delivery less pointed, maybe his Figaro would achieve the congeniality this role really needs. Act IV is shorn of Basilio’s and Marcellina’s arias.

Dorothea Röschmann (The Countess), Anna Prohaska (Susanna), Marianne Crebassa (Cherubino), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (The Count), Lauri Vasar (Figaro), Deutsche Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Berlin, Gustavo Dudamel

As much as Thomas Langhoff’s production was recorded on video during its first season in 1999, so was Jürgen Flimm’s new production when it was seen in the Schiller-Theater in 2015. The new production may be a little bit more colorful than the older one (and certainly busier and even heavier in its slapstick approach), but the sets are quite similar in their gloominess and lack of appeal. At least, the old production tried to show Beaumarchais’s characters are real people and not as soulless clowns as the new one. The silliness and superficiality is doubly regrettable, for there is no shortage in acting skills in this cast. The prevailing impression of cuteness is reinforced by Gustavo Dudamel’s face-value conducting, clear yet vacuous, one-dimensional in its lack of theatricality and spirit. Once again, one regrets the fact that the Staatskapelle Berlin’s nimble and alert playing is wasted in the absence of genuine musical intelligence to guide it. In her prime, Dorothea Röschmann never featured the poise and flowing legato that the part of the Countess Almaviva requires. Here, past her best, she holds on for dear life whenever she has to sing above a high g.  When the phrase is congenial, she still works her magic on her expert word pointing and velvetiness of tone, but that is not as often as it should. Anna Prohaska, on the other hand, is a fresh-toned Susanna who never misses an opportunity to show her understanding of Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s text. Her silvery soprano is a bit short in tonal variety, but that is all one could find fault with in a stylistically and musically adept performance. Marianne Crebassa too is ideally cast as Cherubino – both in terms of singing and acting. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is a firm-toned idiomatic Count Almaviva, more comfortable with high notes than one would expect from a bass. Lauri Vasar’s monochromatic baritone pales in comparison to the rest of the cast and places his Figaro a bit away from the epicentre of events. As expected, the Countess does not sing her high c’s in act 2, but Marcellina gets to sing her aria.

Sonya Yoncheva (The Countess), Christiane Karg (Susanna), Angela Brower (Cherubino), Thomas Hampson (The Count), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Vocalensemble Rastatt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

The last Da Ponte opera to be released in Deutsche Grammophon’s series of Mozart operas recorded live in Baden-Baden, Le Nozze di Figaro benefits from crystal-clear recording and conducting. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is determined to show every phrase in the score in microscopic detail. As much as this is sometimes revelatory, Â the fact that every element in the structure is highlighted can have an almost psychedelic effect on the listener. Tempi too are thought in order to allow hyperrealistic clarity, sometimes at the expense of rhythmic flow, and this challenges structural coherence even more. As the orchestra accents veer on the heavy-handed, the performance may leave an emphatic impression. Fortunately, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe copes admirably with the extreme demands in terms of articulation and balance, woodwind ideally placed in the sound picture. The extraordinary clarity seems to have something to do with an extravagant amount of microphones – in some complex ensembles, one can hear every singer in marked separation and sometimes one feels that their voices may have sounded more integrated in the concert hall than in the CDs. To sum it up, although the performance is highly enjoyable and most instructive in its clarity, it is also alienating in terms of music-dramatic understanding. Just compare the finale II here with either Abbado’s or Mehta’s. Even in their live recordings, where the level of precision and transparence cannot rival Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra, one feels – even if one HEARS  less – that what you actually hear ultimately makes MORE SENSE.  Sonya Yoncheva is a stylish and intelligent Countess Almaviva, but the metallic scintillation in her high notes prevents her from truly making something of Porgi, amor. Christiane Karg’s reedy soprano is a bit on the monochromatic side and spreads a bit on top. She works hard for earthiness and spirit and is very much in control, but she hardly is the Schwerpunkt of this performance, as a true Susanna should be. I actually find it confusing that Angela Brower’s soprano-ish Cherubino sounds more appealing and vulnerable than this performance’s Susanna. The effect is increased by the fact that her low register here lacks colour throughout. Thomas Hampson is a veteran and often recorded Count Almaviva. This recording does not truly add to his reputation. Although he is very much in character and sounds patrician and ill-humoured as he should, he is also rough-toned, resorts too often to parlando and has many moments of dubious intonation. Luca Pisaroni is far younger but can rival Mr. Hampson in number of appearances in this discography. It is hard to believe that there are not other baritones that could add their worthy contribution to the performance history of this role, but the truth is nobody is going to complain of a performance as fully as satisfying as this Italian baritone’s. Minor roles are all of them glamorously cast: Anne Sofie von Otter’s mezzo is not as juicy as it used to be, but she never lets go the opportunity of making something of her Marcellina, especially in her aria; Rolando Villazón’s hearty singing is a bit problematic in terms of balance in ensembles, but his is without any doubt the less boring performance of Basilio’s aria. Maurizio Muraro, Regula Mühlemann, Philippe Sly and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt are also praiseworthy.

Christine Schäfer (The Countess), Mari Eriksmoen (Susanna), Elisabeth Kulman (Cherubino), Boje Skovhus (The Count), André Schuen (Figaro), Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Recorded live in semi-staged performances in the Theater an der Wien, this is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s only officially released account of Le Nozze di Figaro in period instruments. Although the orchestral sound is far from smooth – wiry strings, squawky brass, to start with – it has clarity aplenty with almost ideal balance between stage and pit. That said, the performance lacks rhythmic coherence, with predictable eccentric shifts of tempo, stodgy pace and many distracting conductorial mannerisms. It is a charmless, unfunny experience, entirely lacking in naturalness. The deterioration in Christine Schäfer’s soprano is too evident in the hollowness of her middle register, shortness of breath and wayward intonation. She is the most enthusiastic member of the cast of the conductor’s suggestion of dealing with recitatives in a Sprechgesang approach too. If Porgi, amor is far from ingratiating, she does make something of the stretta of Dove sono. Mari Eriksmoen’s fondness for squeezing her high notes is a little bit more disturbing here than in the other items in this Da Ponte opera series. Her Susanna is prettily and stylishly sung, but faceless in term of interpretation. Elisabeth Kulman’s high register is a bit constricted and yet she offers elegant, musicianly accounts of both Cherubino’s arias. Boje Skovhus’s low register is mostly left to imagination and he has more than one awkward moments as the Count Almaviva, but still his is a pleasant voice with the right tonal quality for the role. André Schuen is a young-sounding, vocally unproblematic congenial Figaro. The performance retains all the arias in the last act, and Mauro Peter’s In quegli’anni is probably the best in the discography.

Simone Kermes (The Countess), Fanie Antonelou (Susanna), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Cherubino), Andrei Bondarenko (The Count), Christian Van Horn (Figaro), Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre (Musicaeterna), Toedor Currentzis

In his studio recording, made in studio in Perm, Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis promises to show things “caught properly for the first time”, based on “a new level of understanding of the score”. This is the kind of ungracious bravado that usually creates unfavorable disposition towards any project. In the accompanying booklet to these CDs, he gives example of his accuracy that can be easily found elsewhere in this discography. That said, he is not wrong in considering his own recording of special importance. If you don’t have any CD of this opera, I would hardly recommend these, but if you already have one Nozze di Figaro and you would like to keep your mind open to new possibilities, you wouldn’t regret at all buying this one. First of all, Currentzis did not lie when he said he had combed the score in order to understand the role each note plays in the structure of each number and the whole opera. As recorded here, the performance is a model of structural clarity, both in terms of texture and of formal coherence. More than that: the score is dealt with as theatrical discourse – here the orchestra does not “comment” the action, but rather embodies it. Of course, there is a great deal of subjectivity in how one “reads” this discourse. I have often said that many conductors miss the fact that this “folle journée” is no jolly comedy and that Susanna and the Countess are exposed to real perils in the course of the opera: every step has a risk and must be carefully negotiated. Therefore, the atmosphere should not seem relaxed in the sense of leisured: there is laughter here, but rather nervous laughter. In this recording, however, the atmosphere is often tense as if these characters were dealing with the Cuban missile crisis rather than a lecherous lord of the manor. This often involves some aggressive sounds from a period-instrument orchestra which – truth be said – deals more than adeptly with the extreme demands made by their conductor. This might seem to imply that tempi are invariably fast, what is not true. Some tempi are as slow as in good old Karl Böhm’s recording, but – with expressionistic tonal coloring and almost exaggerated dynamic shifts – the impression could not be more different. For instance, Riconosci in questo amplesso sounds for once as a family reunion as the beautiful and touching music Mozart wrote for that scene has always suggested. What might arouse some controversy is that, for a conductor who is so keen on accuracy, there is a great deal of notes not devised by Mozart here. First, there is a very creative fortepianist during numbers. I have always found that practice in René Jacobs’s recordings very bothersome, but I have to confess that what has been done here is surprisingly effective: it almost sounds as if Mozart himself had written down what Maxim Emelyanychev is playing here. The occasional use of the hurdy gurdy requires more of a suspension of disbelief, but it usually is discretely employed. Then there is the matter of ornamentation. Here singers are far more adventurous in this particular than in any other recording – and the effect is often rather distracting than illuminating. In the case of Sull’aria, I would say disfiguring.

When Currentzis starts to boast the paramount accomplishment of his cast, one is entitled to roll his or her eyes. First (and this is a big first), if someone wants to truly dig into fidelity to Mozart and Da Ponte’s operas in what regards drama, one ought to be talking about a cast truly imbued with the complexities of Italian theatrical tradition. Although the singers here gathered have correct pronunciation and are engaged in the proceedings, ‘idiomatic’ is not the word one could use for them and there are many moments when their recitatives sound everything but spontaneous. Second, most Mozartian singers have fared extremely well without being acquainted with Goldoni, Gozzi or Alfieri, but the power of expression of their singing made that entirely irrelevant. This cast unfortunately does not really feature singers who could be thus described. Finally, some of the “operatic” voices that Currentzis denounces in his booklet tackle some of the vocal difficulties written by Mozart more nimbly than here. I would say, for instance, that Kiri Te Kanawa is more accomplished in her trills than the prima donna in this recording. On paper, Simone Kermes is a plausible name for the role of the Countess. Although she operates on a very restricted tonal palette, she tackles her lines with instrumental poise and is never daunted by what she has to sing. However, she seems overwhelmed by her own facility and indulges in crooning, parlando effects and aspiration in a way that ultimately sounds very affected. Fanie Antonelou’s Susanna too comes in one single color – fortunately, a pleasant one. Her soprano is well contrasted to Kermes’s in its floating pellucidness. There is, however, more than a splash of boy treble in her voice and, for all her animation, the result is ultimately too coy. If there is a performance here that escapes the general comments above, this is Mary-Ellen Nesi’s Cherubino, fully satisfying in every aspect, one of the best in a while. Andrei Bondarenko’s very commendable Count is similarly praiseworthy. His voice has interesting reserves of warmth and he handles both suavity and forcefulness aptly. Christian Van Horn’s Figaro is a bit lugubrious and somewhat ill-at-ease trying to be light on his foot.

Sally Matthews (The Countess), Lydia Teuscher (Susanna), Isabel Leonard (Cherubino), Audun Iversen (The Count), Vito Priante (Figaro), The Glyndebourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robin Ticciati

Recorded in Glyndebourne, Michael Grandage’s staging takes Figaro and Susanna to the 1970’s in full Pucci pattern/bouffant hair splendor. The Count smokes a joint before he launches Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro but the Countess still has a very traditional view on what marriage should be about. Also, the Almavivas must be the King and Queen of Spain, for – in the set designer’s strife for local color – they seem to be the owners of the Alhambra. Although it is unclear the gain we should find in our understanding of Da Ponte and Mozart’s opera by the superposition of the Moorish decors and the roaring 70’s, Grandage has done a very good work with his cast – particularly the convincingly oversexed teenager Cherubino and the macho-and-loving-it Figaro. I have heard Robin Ticciati conduct this opera in Salzburg with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and my impression then was confirmed by the performance on video: differently from many conductors who endorse historically informed practices, Ticciati gives Mozart’s score time to breath and prefers clarity over effect. His orchestra, however, has a very narrow tonal palette, offering very little variety given the expressive possibilities allowed by the sensible beat and the intention of reflecting the dramatic action. Sally Matthews’ grainy, somewhat thick soprano is not immediately pleasant and her approach is not truly patrician, alluring or vulnerable, but rather healthily dependable, especially in her rich and easy top notes. The obviously pregnant (in real life) Susanna, Lydia Teuscher, has very artificial Italian, is not 100% reliable in what regards intonation (especially during recitatives) and her silvery soprano has more than a splash of vinegar. Her best moment is, not surprisingly, Deh vieni, non tardar, sang in a rounder and more relaxed voice than elsewhere. Although Isabel Leonard has not the Mozartian poise of a Frederica Von Stade, her mezzo is warm enough and her dramatic alertness are sufficiently persuasive to make you overlook the occasional awkward turn of phrase. Audun Iversen, very unflatteringly costumed and bewigged, has everything a baritone needs for the role of the Count, but for spontaneous Italian (in any case, he is far more acceptable than the Basilio and the wholly unidiomatic Bartolo). Vito Priante’s light, firm-toned and vivacious Figaro is congeniality itself.

Barbara Frittoli (The Countess), Ekaterina Siurina (Susanna), Karine Deshayes (Cherubino), Ludovic Tézier (The Count), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Choeur et Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, Philippe Jordan

In 1973, Giorgio Strehler premièred his production of Le Nozze di Figaro in the Opéra de Paris, a production which would be revived many and many times, especially in 1980, when it was filmed with an all-star cast including Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Frederica von Stade, Gabriel Bacquier, José van Dam and Kurt Moll under the baton of Georg Solti. The only reason why the 2010 revival was deemed worthy of commercial release can only be the fact that the superior 1980 set is not currently available. The acoustics of the Opéra Bastille are essentially Mozart-unfriendly and, although Philippe Jordan’s conducting is all right animated and reasonably stylish, the orchestra has a colorless sound and is poorly balanced with singers on stage, who have a bad time trying to cope with the requirements of Mozartian singing and projecting in the large auditorium. Here gentry has a clear advantage, for both singers cast as the Count and the Countess are those better cast for these circumstances. Although the texture of Barbara Frittoli’s soprano is starting to loosen and there are moments dangerously close to wobbling, it is essentially a creamy, rich and patrician voice up to its higher reaches (she sings her own high notes in act II). Her approach to the role is less passive than usual: one can clearly see that she is the mistress of the house, even when the events are not truly in her favor. Ludovic Tézier relishes the opportunity of singing it in large format, offering firm, warm and full sounds throughout. It is quite refreshing to hear a baritone who is not afraid of his big aria. The bell-toned Ekaterina Siurina is a bouncy, charming Susanna, albeit one with very little tonal variety and not really adept in softening her tone. Karine Deshayes too would be comfortable in a more intimate auditorium. Her Non so più is a bit tense, but Voi che sapete leaves nothing to be desired. In his nth recorded performance as Figaro, Luca Pisaroni starts to sound a bit mannered, but his well-focused light bass-baritone pierces through without much trouble. Maria Savastano’s Barbarina is extremely spirited and three-dimensional – pity that she does not sound sweet enough in her aria. The group of veteran Britons taking the roles of Marcellina, Basilio and Bartolo are shrewd enough to get things going, but are sometimes hard on the ear. Although we are made to understand that this staging is somehow special, it is hard to see why in this video. It is not particularly beautiful, insightful or revelatory in any way. Even in 1980, it did not seem exceptional except by the fact that it was then inhabited by the lovely personalities of singers like Popp or Von Stade.

Barbara Frittoli (The Countess), Isabel Rey (Susanna), Marina Comparato (Cherubino), Ludovic Tézier (The Count), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Coro y Orquestra del Teatro Real de Madrid, Jesús López-Cobos

It is curious to find a cast very similar to the one featured in Paris one year later in this recording of Emilio Sagi’s production from the Teatro Real, more visually appealing and subtler and more efficient in Personenregie. It is a traditional staging scoring many points in little details that reveal a great deal about these well known characters. Considering that the story is originally set in Spain, the audience in Madrid must have found particularly reassuring to see something sets that have a Spanish feel. In the smaller venue, all singers who would appear in the Opéra Bastille the next year sound more at ease here. Barbara Frittoli, especially, is in smoother voice and, even if some may find it too vibrant, it is an appealing and persuasive performance. Those who have heard Isabel Rey from Harnoncourt’s video from Zurich 13 years before will have a hard time to recognise the silvery soprano behind the rusty, nasal tonal quality she has acquired since then. She still has a trick or two under her sleeve and tackles the text intelligently in an artless way. Pity that her wig, make-up and costume sabotage her here. Marina Comparato has developed her Cherubino into something more varied and interesting since Florence 2003, but her voice has too many tremulous moments here. Curiously, she is far more accomplished in her first aria than in warhorse Voi che sapete. Ludovic Tézier is again very well cast as the Count, allowing himself a little bit more spontaneity here. Luca Pisaroni, as usual, is a likeable, winsome Figaro. Jeanette Fischer and Raúl Giménez are allowed their act IV arias here, which they dispatch with above-average skill. What makes this set hard to recommend is Jesus López-Cobos’s conducting: the thin-toned orchestra operates in safety mode within somewhat arthritic tempi and the level of mismatch between the stage and the pit is alarmingly high.

Malin Hartelius (The Countess), Martina Janková (Susanna), Judith Schmid (Cherubino), Michael Volle (The Count), Erwin Schrott (Figaro), Chor des Opernhauses Zürich, Orchester der Oper Zürich, Franz Welser-Möst

As much as his Don Giovanni from the same venue, Franz Welser-Möst’s Nozze from the Oper Zürich eludes labels. Limited employment of vibrato in string instruments, rough playing by brass instruments, somewhat abrupt phrasing and some sudden and inexplicable shift in tempi in the middle of numbers may suggest that Harnoncourt was hidden in the pit, but it would be a gross exaggeration to call this performance historically informed – it is certainly ambitious. Although the orchestral sound is not really pleasant, it is transparent enough. Artificial recording might account for that: the sound picture suggests rather a large number of microphones, sometimes one would wish for more space around singers too. It is clear that the conductor wants to highlight the many hidden jewels in Mozart’s score – but that could be achieved in the context of a rhythmically consistent, forward-moving performance – Claudio Abbado was able to do that in Vienna, for example. And it is important to stress one point: Welser-Möst’s tempi are not slow, on the contrary – Cherubino has a hard time with a breathlessly fast Non so più, for example – but they seem staid, rather pointless as if the speed were altogether unrelated to animation or excitement. Malin Hartelius is a light, elegant and absolutely stylish Countess. Both Porgi, Amor and Dove sono are elegantly and immaculately sung. She also finds more playfulness in the role than we are used to see. Martina Janková is a delightful Susanna, who uses Da Ponte’s words with mastery. It is most fortunate that she not only stands her Figaro’s fondness for ad lib, but also responds to that with comparable wit. Judith Schmid is an efficient Cherubino, but her high mezzo is far from the most individual and memorable around. Michael Volle is rather rough and awkward as the Count – he has poor legato, sketchy Italian, unsupported low notes and his high register is not really smooth either. On the other hand, Erwin Schrott’s velvety rich bass is always easy on the ear. Actually, I find this his best Figaro recorded so far – although he still indulges himself too much, he is less “feisty” here than in London. His Aprite un po is indeed imaginatively and beautifully sung. Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production sets the action around the 1940’s in what seems to be a ballroom, the aspect of which does not seem to suggest that it belongs to Count Almaviva’s house. The director scores many points in making the Count and the Countess behave as if they were actually married – they seem to know each other’s irritating mannerisms, they kiss, argue and make peace like every other couple – but I have some trouble to accept the Count portrayed as such a daft, clownish fellow. Why people would fear so much a guy who is entirely harmless, wearing bear costumes and carrying around his magician’s wallet and doing stupid tricks during the whole length of the opera? But then silliness seems to increase as the plot develops: Don Curzio jumps a lot making bunny ears with his hands, Marzellina strips to her bra while singing Il capro e la capretta etc etc. At least, Irène Friedli does a good job with it, as much as Martin Zysset with his act IV aria.

Cellia Costea (The Countess), Danielle de Niese (Susanna), Maité Beaumont (Cherubino), Garry Magee (The Count), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Niederländische Kammerorchester, Ingo Metzmacher

Although these DVDs share more or less the same faults of the other items in the Nederlandse Opera series of Mozart/Da Ponte opera, it still finds room to surpass them in pretentiousness and ineptitude. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito stage it in a car showroom and it is supposed to be in the 60’s, but it suffers from so much anachronism from the following decades that is is finally hard to tell. Although the sets are beautiful, its absence of doors and its open mezzanine make it hard for the audience to believe that characters do not hear or see each other in the plot’s various farcical situations. Worse: since singers are often all over the place in the vault-like structure, ensemble is often unclear in the resonant acoustics. Ingo Metzmacher definitely has not Mozartian genes in his DNA – the performance is heavy, lacks forward-movement and is often unsubtle. Since the cast is mostly inadequate, some foolproof numbers fail to produce the right effect as in no other entry in this discography. Sample Sull’aria – the orchestra is lugubriously heavy and both sopranos compete in unloveliness. One can see that Cellia Costea knows Mozartian style, but her voice seems to refuse to follow what she has in mind: it has its hooty, impure and edgy moments and her sense of intonation leaves something to be desired. Her Countess lacks any hint of nobility and grace and there is nothing really original to replace the basic requirements. In that sense, her Susanna, Danielle de Niese, offers a vivid imagination in recitatives and employs her usual sitcom-vamp acting tools expertly. Unfortunately, she is an unconvincing Mozartian. A metallic tonal quality and an emphatic, unflowing way of dealing with both extremes ends of her range are self-defeating in this repertoire. Garry Magee is a reliable Count, but lacks imagination and animation, making very little of the text, while Luca Pisaroni, even not in his best voice, is an intelligent, light Figaro. Maité Beaumont goes beyond the routine, offering an ideal account of the role of Cherubino, pleasant on the ear, spirited and charming. The edition involves both Basilio and Marcellina arias, well sung by Marcel Reijans and Charlotte Margiono. Recitatives are accompanied by an electric keyboard, but, differently from what you see in the video from Paris (see below), the idea here sounds just misinformed.

Dorothea Röschmann (The Countess), Miah Persson (Susanna), Rinat Shaham (Cherubino), Gerald Finley (The Count), Erwin Schrott (Figaro), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano

Antonio Pappano’s performance at the Royal Opera House, released on DVD, is a pleasing entry in the videography. David McVicar’s staging is elegant and intelligent and his stage direction is unobtrusive and creative, benefiting from the cast’s outstanding acting skills – it only falls in the usual trap of not knowing what to do with act IV. Accordingly, Pappano’s conducting is supple and agile – if only his strings could tackle fast divisions with a little more sense of abandon, the performance could go a bit beyond correctness. As it is, it is hardly worth the purchase of another Figaro DVD for purely musical terms. Dorothea Röschmann still finds difficult to produce seamless legato, but is otherwise far more comfortable than in Salzburg (see below). From the interpretative point-of-view, her assertive and energetic approach to a role often portrayed in a passive manner is quite rewarding. I am afraid that the quicksilvery Miah Persson is hardly legato’s best friend neither – there is a mechanical sense of one-note-after-the-other in her singing as Susanna that simply goes against any kind of spontaneity. Her high register also lacks flowing quality, what impairs some lyrical passages. Her careful study of how to seem natural could be self-defeating, but her Figaro’s fondness for ad lib does help her to offer some natural interaction. Rinat Shaham is extremely well cast as Cherubino – she has the voice, the looks and the sense of style. It is hardly her fault if there are more exquisite-toned Cherubinos elsewhere. Other than this, this is a faultless performance. Gerald Finley somehow comes off too hard-pressed – although the role is tailor-made for his firm, high baritone, it seems that he feels that the Count’s petty-tyranny cannot live together with patrician vocal production. The final effect is tense and abrupt at times. Although Erwin Schrott has been recorded elsewhere in more exuberant vocal form, this is still a very commendable piece of singing. He has a natural talent for savoring the text, generally respects the limits of style for his theatrical effects and has plenty of personality. However, his attitude is somehow too formidable for Figaro. The minor roles are cast with veteran experienced singers who know how to turn their vocal inadequacies to dramatic purpose, especially the bête-de-scène Graciela Araya (Marcellina), together with Basilio grant their act four arias.

Dorothea Röschmann (The Countess), Anna Netrebko (Susanna), Christine Schäfer (Cherubino), Bo Skovhus (The Count), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Figaro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nobody can accuse Harnoncourt of capriciousness. Thirteen years since his studio recording have not changed a speck in his cubistic approach to Le Nozze di Figaro, in which the attempt to show different angles in this score at the same time makes for a rather distorted view of Mozart and Beaumarchais’s comedy. As before, tempi are unflowing and whimsical accelerando and ritardando effects are a central element to the performance. The nimble playing of the Vienna Philharmonic does add extra zest to the proceedings and a touch of lightness not entirely redeeming of this bizarrerie offered in the Salzburg Mozart 250th Anniversary Festival. Claus Guth’s heavy-handed staging shoots the coup de grâce in any attempt of comedy and subtleness. In this production, the Count is a neurotic wimp, the Countess desperately needs Prozac, Cherubino is charmless, Figaro is rather ill-humoured and – worst of all – Susanna is a double-faced skank whose infatuation with the Count makes the whole story entirely pointless. Ah, there is an omnipresent Cupid dressed in student outfit jumping and blowing white feathers all over the place while singers try to sing their arias unbothered. If the concept were to offer a cynical and realistic view of Beaumarchais’s play, why making these characters act as mentally challenged singing their ensembles while performing silly choreographices? Promoted to the role of the Countess, Dorothea Röschmann offers an intense and generally stylish performance, but the smooth legato required by this role eludes her entirely. The fact that Anna Netrebko’s velvety homogeneous soprano sounds nobler than her mistress’s makes it all more confusing. No wonder the Russian diva chops her phrasing when she has to imitate the Countess in the “garden” scene (here staged in a staircase). This could be counted as her isolated example of sense of humor during the whole performance, since her Susanna is everything but playful, indifferent delivery of the text largely to blame. Although Christine Schäfer looks believably boyish, her crystalline high soprano is hardly the Cherubino-type and the low end of the part’s range is left to imagination. Once praised for his elegant and subtle performances, Bo Skovhus does not live to his reputation anymore. His phrasing is rough-edged, his Italian is embarrassing and his acting is exaggerated in an almost burlesque manner. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is on an entirely different level from the rest of the cast, offering a pleasant and intelligent performance, sung in his dark firm-toned basso cantante. With the exception of a healthy-voiced Basilio (Patrick Henckens), minor roles are bureaucratically handled.

Marcella Orsatti Talamanca (The Countess), Diana Damrau (Susanna), Monica Bacelli (Cherubino), Pietro Spagnoli (The Count), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Figaro), Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano, Gérard Korsten

If you want to sample Giorgio Strehler’s staging of Le Nozze di Figaro, you cannot do better than watching it in this video from La Scala. Marina Bianchi has learned this production from Strehler himself and, in her intent to show the master’s staging in all fidelity, makes it shine at its brightest by the help of a cast very strong in the acting department. The richness of details that make every character three-dimensional is a reward in itself. Gérard Korsten’s conducting does not try to call too much attention to itself. It is kappellmeisterlich in the good sense of the word and his orchestra is transparent and flexible enough. Also, the recorded sound is natural, pleasant and clear. This performance’s brightest feature is, however, Diana Damrau’s ideal Susanna, her best recorded performance and one of the best in this discography. Her voice is at its most beautiful, she is technically flawless and  inhabits the text with extraordinary intelligence and her histrionic skills are admirable. Even if I sound really enthusiastic, you’ll realize that it is even better than my description once you have seen her here. Marcella Orsatti Talamanca’s rich soprano has the elements of a great voice, but her technique is too erratic for her to accomplish her great potential. As it is, the slightly veiled tone veers easily into lack of focus and many phrases that start really well end up quite ungainly. Nevertheless, she delivers Lorenzo da Ponte’s lines with such savoir faire and sincerity that you cannot help believing in what she is doing. Moreover, this Countess clearly is the same Rosina from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The pertness, the snappishnness, the shrewdness are still here, thinly covered by a layer of disillusion and bossiness. And the less-than-angelic singing matches this approach, which, vocally flawed, is not less efficient. Unfortunately, Monica Bacelli’s matte mezzo soprano does not suggest anything remotely close to youthfulness. And close-up angles only reinforce this. Pietro Spagnoli’s clear-toned and refreshingly direct Count is an improvement on his performance for René Jacobs (see below), but Ildebrando d’Arcangelo was unfortunately not in his best voice here. He is, as usual, a not truly congenial Figaro, but this does not spoil the fun in any way. Jeannette Fischer is in fresher voice than she would later be in Madrid and gets to sing her act IV aria, as much as the extremely funny Gregory Bonfatti (Basilio).

Christiane Oelze (The Countess), Heidi Grant Murphy (Susanna), Christine Schäfer (Cherubino), Peter Mattei (The Count), Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro), Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Paris, Sylvain Cambreling

Christoph Marthaler’s 2001 production for the Salzburg Festival is notorious for its turbulent première and the ensuing discussion around it. Some called it revelatory, others deemed it disgraceful. Five years later, when it was revived in Paris, it proved to be far less sensational than it promised to be. As it is, the Swiss director sets the story in some sort of bridal hall in a small town city hall at some point between the 1960’s and 1970’s and the count seems to be something like the mayor. Differently from one might expect today, he does not mess with the overall storyline. Here the devil is in the details. Whenever Da Ponte’s stage instructions interfere with Marthaler’s plans, they are duly ignored and overwritten by action that is sometimes completely unrelated to what is being said. For instance, characters demand things they already have in their hands; they say they are leaving, but they remain; they state that they are not seeing something that is right in front of them etc. The whole episode involving Cherubino hidden in the Countess’s closet is disregarded to such extent that it seems that the Countess, the Count and Susanna are reading lines from another play. Then there is a dangerously high level of silliness here – characters often behave as if they were mentally impaired, doing cute little steps, bouncing around and grimacing in a way that you feel a bit sorry that these singers had to do that for the money. All that said, I couldn’t in good conscience say that it is poorly directed. The concept is all right flawed, but it is executed with great skill – the cast acts and interacts convincingly, it rarely feels boring and characters are sharply defined. Actually, some characters are extremely well defined – Cherubino here is everything but coy or sweet (as he usually is portrayed), Marcellina is truly three-dimensional (and the solution found for her aria is very effective) and Basilio is rather creepy in a way that makes sense why his aria has such a bizarre text. Also, the clumsy-tango-approach to Crudel, perchè finora? is truly funny. However, the core of the controversy are the recitatives. The fact that performer Jörg Kienberger plays them on stage on a very basic Casio keyboard and occasionally on a glass harmonica and also by blowing on beer bottles (actually, it is quite impressive that he has to drink from them to get the right pitches) and that he also sings in falsetto a song (by Mozart anyway) made members of the audience back in Salzburg shout at the stage things like “lamentable”, “Keep to the score!” etc. Truth be said, Mr. Kienberger plays most of the time in the “harpsichord” sound option and without great fits of embellishment. Actually, he is mostly far more discrete than Nicolau de Figueiredo on the fortepiano in René Jacobs’s recording (see below). In any case, he occasionally produces weird sounds and makes some moments inexplicably slow in order to make time for his tricks. I am no medium, but I have the impression that Mozart would find it altogether entertaining. Conductor Sylvain Cambreling has his share of buffoonery, taking pictures from the stage at moments. His conducting is nonetheless very lively, clear and dramatically alert, in spite of a not terribly characterful orchestral sound. It benefits a lot from the fact that the recording is very natural and well-balanced, thanks to the choice of the Palais Garnier over the Opéra Bastille for this repertoire. Christiane Oelze, who sang the role of Susanna back in Salzburg, is here promoted to that of the Countess (originally cast with Angela Denoke). Her singing is straightforward and unproblematic, but rarely ingratiating or vocally alluring. The new Susanna, Heidi Grant Murphy, is probably the older-looking Susanna in the videography, but, once one settles to her saccharine tonal quality and overcareful diction, is not devoid of congeniality. Christine Schäfer is here even less at ease than for Harnoncourt, but her Cherubino is so convincing in the acting department that you are ready to forgive her a great deal. Peter Mattei offers here a noteworthy performance as the Count, wide-ranging in expression and vocally very adept. Lorenzo Regazzo’s stage antics can be testing and it often pervade his singing in a way that makes you think that Susanna is marrying Dr. Dulcamara, but it is a resonant, healthy voice – and the fact that he is Italian is always welcome when recitatives are involved. It must be said that Cassandre Berthon offers a particularly sensitive account of Barbarina’s aria.

Annette Dasch (The Countess), Rosemary Joshua (Susanna), Angelika Kirchschlager (Cherubino), Pietro Spagnoli (The Count), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Choeur du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Concerto Köln, René Jacobs

Live performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées found René Jacobs more relaxed and flexible than in his audio recording (see below), but some of his playing with tempo still catches his soloists by surprise, especially in ensembles. The recorded sound is a bit problematic. Although his orchestra sounds less dry and the fortepiano is far less intruding live than in studio, singers on stage are caught by the microphones in surprisingly artificial perspective, especially whenever more than one of them is in action. Then, the sound seems congested as if someone had recorded the broadcast in their home stereo. The stage production is unfortunately a bit lackadaisical, especially Hans Schavernoch’s rather provincial sets. Annette Dasch not only has a bit of Scarlett Johannsen about her, but also displays a pleasant golden-toned soprano, younger-sounding than we are used to hear in this role. Her phrasing could be a bit more flowing and varied, though. Although the youthful attitude “susannifies” a bit her Countess, she is well contrasted to Rosemary Joshua, whose shimmering creamy soprano is tailor-made for Mozart. Nevertheless, she can be small-scaled when part of an ensemble. Angelika Kirchschlager here finds no problems in producing a boyish impression, but could be more imaginative. A singer of her rank should try to make an impression in a star-crowded discography. Pietro Spagnoli is a solid firm-toned Count. As an Italian, he delivers his lines with crisp pronunciation, but one could wish for a tiny bit more legato now and then. Luca Pisaroni is a light, pleasant and likable Figaro. The edition is complete and both Enrico Facini and Sophie Pondjiclis offer positive version of Basilio’s and Marcellina’s aria.

Véronique Gens (The Countess), Patrizia Ciofi (Susanna), Angelika Kirchschlager (Cherubino), Simon Keenlyside (The Count), Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro), Collegium Vocale Gent, Concerto Köln, René Jacobs

René Jacobs leads an unsettling performance of Nozze di Figaro in his Harmonia Mundi recording. To start with, his orchestra has a peculiar sound, slightly metallic and glassy. Although there is clarity aplenty, the articulation is a bit confuse, as if effects – instead of phrases – were being played. Also, the overall impression is that the orchestra is playing for nervousness – and most of the charm and sensuousness is lost. There are rare examples of eccentric tempi, but phrasing tends to be fussy and Jacobs’s purpose of revealing interesting things here and there ends on impairing forward movement and naturalness. The fortepiano continuo is creative if a bit overpresent. The cast is quite appealing. Although some top notes are a bit tense, Véronique Gens’s creamy warm soprano fills out the Countess’s music beautifully and she really means what she sings – a theatrical and beguiling performance. Patrizia Ciofi similarly makes beautiful use of the text, more so being a native Italian speaker – but her middle register is a bit smoky as if her basically seductive voice was experimenting some wear during the recording sessons. Angelika Kirchschlager is too feminine but entirely musicianly and ingratiating Cherubino. Simon Keelyside has the necessary patricianship as the Count – a forceful performance – and Lorenzo Regazzo is a winning Figaro, sung in firm voice.

Eteri Gvazava (The Countess), Patrizia Ciofi (Susanna), Marina Comparato (Cherubino), Lucio Gallo (The Count), Giorgio Surian (Figaro), Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Zubin Mehta

Mehta and his Florentine forces’s second visit to the Almavivas and his household was has been caught live on video at the Teatro Communale. Although the cast is downright unglamourous, Mehta’s understanding of Mozart’s musical-dramatic effects, sense of comic timing and absolute structural clarity are constant source of pleasure – under his conducting, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino orchestra offers polished and graceful sounds throughout. Even if one misses the impressive list of singers in his studio recording, I find the results here even more spontaneous and effective. Silly choreographies aside, Jonathan Miller’s production takes profit of the Italian cast’s talent for comedy. More than that, these singers offer more than idiomatic recitatives, they know from inside out the conventions of Italian comedy which are pretty much alive in Italian stages to our days. Because of that, Da Ponte’s recreation of Beaumarchais’s characters seem far more multidimensional than in many other videos. Although Peter J. Davison’s sceneries are noneventful, Sue Blane’s costumes are particularly exquisite. Patrizia Ciofi finds the role of Susanna a bit low and has her breathy moments, but she is a stylish and intelligent singer who alternates sweetness and playfulness with absolute mastery. Her supple and quickwitted stage performance would fit to perfection in any staging of a Goldoni play. In any case, if you want to sample her Susanna, this is far preferable to her studio performance for René Jacobs. On the other hand, Marina Comparato’s firm-toned Cherubino lacks some finish and variety. Lucio Gallo’s baritone has grown thicker and less flexible since his studio recording – although his stage persona is engaging and genuinely funny, his singing is often rough. Giorgio Surian’s Figaro unfortunately cannot stand the competition – even his acting is a bit clueless. However, it is precisely the non-Italian singer the less satisfying member of this cast. Siberian soprano Eteri Gvazava has the opposite of a golden touch for Mozart – her vocal production is not clean enough for the Countess, her phrasing is quite clumsy and her whole approach is amazingly inexpressive and unelegant. Other than easy top notes, there is little to praise. It is a pity, for she has the perfect looks for her role.

Marina Mescheriakova (The Countess), Judith Halász (Susanna), Michelle Breedt (Cherubino), Boje Skovhus (The Count), Renato Girolami (Figaro), Hungarian National Chorus, Nicolaus Esterházy, Michael Halász

Michael Halász’s recording for Naxos has been treated by reviewers as a “honest buy”: considering you’ve paid very little (for a studio recording in digital sound), you cannot complain that it is unexceptional. As a matter of fact, that would be quite it. Now if you think that treating this opera as polite entertainment is entirely pointless, you’d probably want to save the money and buy some ice cream instead. This performance is faceless to a fault: the orchestra playing is pleasant but clear exclusively in the sense that you can hear every instrument: phrasing here is understood as one-note-after-the-other. In this context, tempi seem to drag out of sheer uneventfulness even if they are not necessarily slow. Marina Mescheriakova is a singer capable of beautiful turns of phrasing, sometimes in passages where many other soprano fail, but so poor is her discipline that she is also capable of very sloppy work, often in passages when almost every other singer finds no difficulty. In the end, her Countess is just frustrating. Judith Halász is a charming Susanna, but the voice itself is undistinguished. In spite of her obvious vocal appeal, Michelle Breedt is essentially not a Mozartian singer and her Cherubino is just a torso. If you’d like to hear Boje Skovhus’s Count, then Claudio Abbado’s recording (SEE BELOW) is your recording. Here he is probably the most accomplished soloist, but some disfiguring mannerisms are already here: artificial pronunciation and a fondness for nasalisation as an interpretative “effect”, in particular. As much as his Susanna, Renato Girolami’s baritone is not especially remarkable and he can be blunt when things become difficult. His Figaro benefits from clear diction and native Italian, though.

Emily Magee (The Countess), Dorothea Röschmann (Susanna), Patricia Risley (Cherubino), Roman Trekel (The Count), René Pape (Figaro), Deutsche Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim

The video from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden features the most shining names in its roaster on their way of becoming stars in the international operatic scene. Thomas Langhoff has more than a splash of the design of the DDR period and the poor lightning and camerawork does not make it more appealing. Unfortunately, the recorded sound is not top quality either. Although Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is clear enough and mostly copes with Mozartian style, it is not particularly buoyant and spirited either. If there is something to be praised here, this is certainly the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, showing here more flexibility and lightness than German orchestras get credit for. Emily Magee days as a Mozart soprano did not last long and one can see here why. Even if she is very diligent about producing clean lines and poised phrasing, one soon realizes that scaling down to the proportions of classical style is an imposition on her true vocal nature. That said, she does it commendably and fares better than most sopranos of her Fach in this repertoire. Before she graduated to the role of the Countess, Dorothea Röschmann was a noted Susanna. Although she has multiple entries in this discography in the prima donna role, I am afraid that the buffa part is the most appropriate for her voice. Here she is at her youthful best, producing creamy tones, making the most of the text and dominating the stage as every Susanna should. Patricia Risley’s voice is a bit anonymous in terms of color, but other than this her Cherubino is stylishly and musicianly sung. René Pape’s stage persona is tailor-made to the role of Figaro. He is at once likeable, energetic and a bit goofy. There is nothing to criticise in his singing, and yet the voluminous, noble streams of sound he pours forth is somehow too grand and dominating for the part, especially in comparison to Roman Trekel’s blunt and hard-edged singing as the Count. The minor roles are taken by household names such as Peter Schreier as Basilio (and he gets to sing his aria), Rosemarie Lang as Marzellina and Kwanchul Youn as Bartolo.

Danielle Borst (The Countess), Sophie Marin-Degor (Susanna), Laura Polverelli (Cherubino), Nicolas Rivenq (The Count), Huub Claessens (Figaro), La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy, Jean-Claude Malgoire

Jean-Claude Malgoire’s conducting has the measure of the dramatic qualities of Beaumarchais’s play and the rough-edged sound of his orchestra adds a bit to the atmosphere, but he should have looked for a more responsive cast. Danielle Borst is charming and vulnerable as the Countess, but Dove Sono is a stretch for her. Sophie Marin-Degor is an unsubtle Susanna, but Laura Polverelli is pleasing as Cherubino. The remaining singers do not stand the competition in a starry discography.

Eva Mei (The Countess), Isabel Rey (Susanna), Liliana Nikiteanu (Cherubino), Rodney Gilfry (The Count), Carlos Chausson (Figaro), Chor und Orchester des Opernhauses Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

If you really want to sample Harnoncourt’s view on Le Nozze di Figaro, maybe you should check his DVD recorded live in Zürich. Although Jürgen Flimm’s staging is depressively ugly and often pointless, Harnoncourt is a fraction more spontaneous than in his studio recording (see below). Balance between orchestra and soloists is exemplary and one almost forgives the eccentric treatment of tempi. I say “almost” because the prevailing slow tempi entirely rob comedy scenes of any sense of timing – the act II finaly being this approach’s main victim. Eva Mei’s detached attitude and rather instrumental phrasing may sound at first  insensitive and small-scaled for the Countess. However, her naturalness with high tessitura, crystal-clear diction and aristocratic bearing make her a particularly elegant countess, well contrasted to the stylish and vivacious Isabel Rey, whose bell-toned soprano is tailor-made for the role of Susanna. The warm- and yet light-toned Liliana Nikiteanu is also a very good choice for Cherubino. Rodney Gilfry, on the other hand, was not in his best shape here – he often sounds rough and resorts to “acting with the voice” to get away in the most tricky passages. He is of course an intelligent singer who knows how to colour his recitative in a creative manner, it must be said. The first impression of Carlos Chausson’s Figaro is quite positive – his voice has a dark mellow quality, but after a while it sounds just monochrome and his self-conscious attitude makes Figaro seem quite foolish.

Cheryl Studer (The Countess), Sylvia McNair (Susanna), Cecilia Bartoli (Cherubino), Bo Skovhus (The Count), Lucio Gallo (Figaro), Konzertvereinigung der Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado’s CDs recorded in studio with the Vienna Philharmonic are a revelatory experience. This is the kind of recording in which one discovers many hidden treasures in the score. Abbado’s tempi are also very apt all of them and the recorded sound is well-balanced and clear. Cheryl Studer’s Countess lacks naturalness – she seems to be scaling down all the time, and the result is that there is a lot of singing below the note. Sylvia McNair is a rather faceless Susanna – her voice has no expression or colour in it, but Cecilia Bartoli is a charming and animated if not entirely boyish Cherubino. Bo Skovhus is an elegant Count and Lucio Gallo is a most sayisfying Figaro.

Renée Fleming (The Countess), Alison Hagley (Susanna), Marie-Ange Todorovich Cherubino), Andreas Schmidt (The Count), Gerald Finley (Figaro), Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink’s video from Glyndenbourne’s sets look like “opera on TV studios”, but the stage direction is utterly efficient – all the most with the responsive cast available, singing their recitatives con gusto and with understanding of dramatic situations.René Fleming’s Countess is dramatically alive, a believable touching impersonation – and she achieves it without resorting to her customary jazzy, scooping effects. She proves her ability to hold a pure creamy line – and colours her voice according to Mozartian style. Both arias are sung in the grand manner – a delicate Porgi, amor, filled with longing and sensuousness, and a wide-ranging Dove sono – the change of atmosphere in the stretta beautifully grasped. Alison Hagley’s Susanna counts with true theatrical talent and the right quicksilvery kind of singing. There is abuse of off-pitch effects and the tone may harden in the upper reachers, though. Marie-Ange Todorovich is very funny too, but her mezzo soprano is quite edgily produced. If Andreas Schmidt is an imposing Count, patrician and unexaggerated, he too often distorts his otherwise handsome baritone for effects. Gerald Finley is a light firm-toned and stylish Figaro, who knows how to produce the right effect without exaggerations too. A bit more animated than usual, Haitink is the reliable Mozartian of always, excelling in his rather traditional view of the score: elegant phrasing, comfortable tempi and concern for balance and beauty of sound. Although the London Philharmonic is not glamourous as the Vienna Philharmonic, it offers here clear articulation and transparent perspectives. Moreover, the recorded sound favours a rich orchestral sound.

Carol Vaness (The Countess), Nuccia Focile (Susanna), Suzanne Mentzer (Cherubino), Alessandro Corbelli (The Count), Alastair Miles (Figaro), Scottish Chamber Chorus and Orchestra, Charles Mackerras

Charles Mackerras’s recording is a disappointing affair. Compared to the other releases in his excellent Mozart opera series, this is a bit lacklustre and the cast does not offer great help. Carol Vaness is here a very unsatisfactory Countess, lacking tonal poise and imagination. Nuccia Focile is rough-toned as Susanna, Suzanne Mentzer is an unappealing Cherubino, Alessandro Corbelli does not seem comfortable with the “serious” role of Count Almaviva and Alastair Miles sounds too lugubrious for Figaro

Charlotte Margiono (The Countess), Barbara Bonney (Susanna), Petra Lang (Cherubino), Thomas Hampson (The Count), Anton Scharinger (Figaro), Nederlands Operakoor, Concertgebouw Orkest, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s studio recording is predictably an eccentric affair. I guess he took the “revolutionary” spirit too seriously and decided to unleash his wildest fantasies here. The tempi are generally slow and lack forward movement, except when it is extremely fast (Cherubino’s first aria, for example). It is particularly bothersome when the conductor suddenly slows down to show a detail that would sound really better in the frame of rhythmic consistence. Of course, there are niceties every now and then, especially with wonderfully upfront woodwind and some outstanding theatrical accents. The excellent playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra is a strong asset too. Charlotte Margiono’s smoky-toned Countess lacks focus in the upper range. Barbara Bonney is the best in the cast and her Susanna is as lovely as it was in Östman’s recording (see below). Petra Lang is a down-to-earth Cherubino, but one can feel she is uncomfortable in the format of a Mozartian singer. Thomas Hampson is a rather phlegmatic, nasal-toned Count and Anton Scharinger lacks finish as Figaro. On the other hand, small roles are competently taken by Ann Murray, Isabel Rey, Philip Langridge and Kurt Moll.

Hillevi Martinpelto (The Countess), Alison Hagley (Susanna), Pamela Helen Stephens (Cherubino), Rodney Gilfry (The Count), Bryn Terfel (Figaro), The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner’s video offers a semi-staged performance, quite creatively done. As much as in his Così, everything sounds right, if not particularly illuminating. Sometimes, the approach is a it is a bit on the cute and superficial side. For example, I dislike the idea of Cherubino singing the first verse of Voi che sapete off pitch. There are subtler ways of showing his anxiety when he is singing to the object of his fantasies. Hillevi Martinpelto has a lovely voice for the Countess, but her manners are a bit stiff. Alison Hagley is a treat to the eyes and the ears as Susanna. Sometimes, her pitch is not true and the low notes are not always there, but she compensates that with charm and spirit. Pamela Helen Stephen is a decent Cherubino. Both Rodney Gilfry and Bryn Terfel offer healthy, rich vocalism, imagination and charisma.

Karita Mattila (The Countess), Marie McLaughlin (Susanna), Monica Bacelli (Cherubino), Lucio Gallo (The Count), Michele Pertusi (Figaro), Coro e Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Zubin Mehta

There is also Zubin Mehta’s recording from Florence, which offers quite an unusual view of the work. Maybe because of the directness of Mehta’s conducting and its concern about charming sonorities, clear perspectives and comfortable phrasing, there is a real Florentine quality about the performance – in the sense of relaxed playfulness. Here there is no nasty undertones – the Count snarls a lot, but this is just bluffing; the Countess has its lamenting moods, but it is caprice most of the time; the Count is flirtatious, but the Countess is the one he always comes gladly back to; the Countess seems to be offended by his behaviour, but she thinks it could not be otherwise. In this Boccaccio-like frame of mind, some points are wonderfully taken as the French horns mocking sounds in the end of Aprite un pò or how clearly Susanna and the woodwind are overdoing their teasing in Deh vieni – or, most of all, how effective is the shift of mood for Or tutti contenti saremo così, done in really serious mood so as to make us think whether those people are so happy as they claim to be. The recorded sound has woodwind upfront with the singers, for splendid effects; there is some advantage for upper strings too and singers are recorded with some space around them. Some of Mehta’s tempi are pointlessly tending to be slow – sometimes it tends to sound too pretty, but my main complaint is that the strings phrasing could be more pointed. However, the conductor’s purposefulness and structural sense are admirable – his act II finale and the finale ultimo are exemplary. Karita Mattila is an elegant Countess, who displays absolute vocal ease and musicianship throughout. On the other hand, Marie McLaughlin’s Susanna tends to be too much the “mistress of the situation”. When she is indeed playing the cards, it can be nice – but there are moments, when she is not and I would have appreciated a less knowing approach. It is a pity when she decides to scoop and slide, such as in Sull’aria. Monica Bacelli’s slim-toned Cherubino is musical and accurate enough and I like very much Angelo Nosottti’s spontaneous Bartolo. However, the two Italian basses taking the main male roles are the distinctive feature of this recording. Their dramatic imagination, idiomatic delivery and sheer charisma make them perfect in their roles. Lucio Gallo is commanding enough as the Count and sings his aria with finish and Michele Pertusi’s naturalness and vividness are irresistible.

Cheryl Studer (The Countess), Marie McLaughlin (Susanna), Gabriele Sima (Cherubino), Ruggero Raimondi (The Count), Lucio Gallo (Figaro), Wiener Staatsopernchor und orchester, Claudio Abbado

Cheryl Studer and Lucio Gallo, the Countess and the Figaro in Abbado’s CDs recorded some years later in studio, take these roles in the video made live at the Vienna State Opera, where she sounds more spontaneous and appealing. Her Susanna is Marie MacLaughlin, whose voice has become really dark at this point in her career. Hers is an efficient but not altogether ingratiating performance. If Gabriele Sima’s Cherubino is not in the same level of her colleagues, she is an excellent actress. Ruggero Raimondi is past his prime here, but offers an efficient Count nonetheless. Jonathan Miller’s staging is pleasant to the eyes and does not try to force many alien ideas in Da Ponte’s libretto.

Kiri Te Kanawa (The Countess), Dawn Upshaw (Susanna), Anne Sofie von Otter (Cherubino), Thomas Hampson (The Count), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Figaro), Metropolian Opera House Chorus and Orchestra, James Levine

Although James Levine is an experienced Mozart conductor who achieves both clarity and dramatic purpose and never lets it sag, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra sounds hard-pressed trying to produce the nimbleness required by its principal conductor. The results are alternately indistinct and extremely heavy, impairing any possibility of spontaneity and variety. Deutsche Grammophon has gathered here a most distinguished cast here, but the results are studio-bound. Even if these singers are far from sleepwalking though the score, one almost has the impression that they recorded their parts separately in different sessions: there seem to be very little interface between these singers’ personalities and the results are ultimately too heterogeneous and unconvincing. Since her recording with Georg Solti (see below), Kiri Te Kanawa’s soprano has loosened a bit and sounds a bit unfocused in the lower end of her range. In any case, this is comparing her to herself: it is still an uniquely velvety and smooth voice that soars effortlessly through Mozartian lines. While her interpretation was rather anonymous 10 years before, here she offers a spirited and alert performance. Dawn Upshaw’s soprano has an overbright and slightly nasal quality that can be an acquired taste and her Italian is accented. That said, she is a singer of extraordinary imagination who means every word and note of her part, making for an intelligent and congenial performance. Anne Sofie Von Otter’s light grainy mezzo is too feminine and not truly youthful sounding for Cherubino. She sings with her customary good taste and sense of style, but the character does not come to life here. Thomas Hampson was not in his best voice during these sessions; there are rough and hollow passages and some awkward moments. His long experience in this role helps him to produce the right impression in this role nonetheless.  Ferruccio Furlanetto’s bass sounds here a bit heavy for Figaro and maybe that is why he tries to make for that with all the buffo tricks available in his repertory. While it is refreshing to hear an Italian singer with such mastery of Italian theatrical declamation, he goes over the top in a way here that shocks with the approach of the remaining singers in the cast. As it is, one tends to believe that Figaro might be on drugs here… You will find many famous singers in minor roles in this recording, but unfortunately most of them not in great shape.

Arleen Augér (The Countess), Barbara Bonney (Susanna), Alicia Nafé (Cherubino), Håkan Hagegård (The Count), Petteri Salomaa (Figaro), Drottninghold Court Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Arnold Östman

Arnold Östman’s conducting is masterly and shows complete understanding of operatic style in the late XVIIIth century. However, the Drottningholm orchestra still lacks tone and – the dry orchestral sound being a serious drawback -  this might be quite frustrating. Arleen Augér is in easy voice as the Countess and sings her arias as if she were singing for herself (as a matter of fact, that is what she should be doing according to the plot) and is also very animated in recitative. Barbara Bonney is in heavenly voice as Susanna and it is a relief to listen to the role sung without any comical affectation. Alicia Nafé is a decent Cherubino, but Håkan Hagegård presses his baritone a bit too hard as the Count, even if he builds a convincingly obnoxious character. Petteri Salomaa’s light and compact bass works wonderfully for Figaro. This performance has also the best Marcellina in the discography, Della Jones, but, more than that, has every alternative number ever meant for the opera – including the 1789 Dove sono for Catarina Cavalieri, the higher version of the Count’s Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro and the 1789 arias for Adriana Ferrarese dal Bene’s Susanna, Un moto di gioia and Al desio, exquisitely sung by Barbara Bonney.

Margaret Price (The Countess), Kathleen Battle (Susanna), Ann Murray (Cherubino), Jorma Hynninen (The Count), Thomas Allen (Figaro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti offers a uniquely dramatically and musically satisfying approach to Le Nozze di Figaro – behind the brilliant orchestral playing, the breathtaking passagework by the Vienna Philharmonic’s strings, the absolute clarity, the underlying tension is never out of sight. Unfortunately, the recorded sound is problematic. Not only is it too resonant and are microphones placed a bit distant, but also the sound image changes during the recording. That does not disturb in the least the Viennese musicians, in top form. The cast is a bit eccentric, but so devoted to creating a theatrical experience that I forgive everybody for their minor flaws. An experienced Countess, Margaret Price is here a bit past her best. It goes almost unnoticed, but the wear is clearly exposed in Dove sono. Kathleen Battle’s Susanna is either flirting with the whole male cast or is fooling all of them – who can tell? She is in silvery voice and blends well with Price, but the resonant acoustics do not help her. Ann Murray does not sound boyish at all, but offers a very meditative, almost Romantic Cherubino. Jorma Hynninen is a total bully as the Count, while Figaro is really debonair. The part is too high for the former, and too low for the latter, though.

Lucia Popp (The Countess), Barbara Hendricks (Susanna), Agnes Baltsa (Cherubino), Ruggero Raimondi (The Count), José Van Dam (Figaro), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner

Neville Marriner has decided to play safe when he recorded this Figaro. The tempi are comfortable, neither dazzling nor dragging, but too often undistinguished. Although woodwind are beautifully recorded, the strings are a bit dim. This is dangerous both in the most animated numbers, where the orchestral sound may sound recessed and in the lyrical numbers, where singers are left to build atmosphere on their own. Lucia Popp decided to record the role of the Countess when the voice was less pure and light than it used to be. It may lack “floating” quality for Porgi, Amor, but her soprano sounds younger than most Countesses’ and her tone colouring, perfect pronunciation, sensitivity and sense of theatre are all for the best. Barbara Hendricks has a sensuous voice (what becomes the role of Susanna) and is stylish, but her lower register (which is quite important in this role) is not really functional. Agnes Baltsa is miscast as Cherubino. She does not sound very Mozartian and does not make me think of a boy either. Ruggero Raimondi is an experienced, efficient Count who makes good use of recitatives. José Van Dam tries too hard to be a convincing Figaro. He is not a very cheerful guy and sounds a bit silly trying to be one. On the other hand, his voice in excellent shape and he is utterly stylish.

Kiri Te Kanawa (The Countess), Lucia Popp (Susanna), Frederica von Stade (Cherubino), Thomas Allen (The Count), Samuel Ramey (Figaro), London Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Georg Solti

Georg Solti’s recording had everything to be a major entry in the discography, but, alas, it seriously lacks profile. Although the conductor opts for animated and forward-moving tempi, it seems there is no concept behind that. The fact that the playing of the London Philharmonic is not transparent enough and that the recorded sound lacks definition make the performance even more faceless. Kiri Te Kanawa is an aristocratic and velvety-voiced Countess, but her expression is ultimately too generalized. Lucia Popp was not in her best Susanna-form. In the beginning of act I, the voice is a bit heavy and some vowels sound squeezed. Later on, she improves immensely and offers a sexy Deh vieni. Frederica von Stade’s is a classic performance. It has a unique boyish and naughty quality. Thomas Allen is an aristocratic and somewhat mischievous Count. It is wonderfully sung with accurate divisions in the stretta of Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro. Samuel Ramey is a rich-toned, stylish if overserious Figaro.

Gundula Janowitz (The Countess), Lucia Popp (Susanna), Agnes Baltsa (Cherubino), Bernd Weikl (The Count), Hermann Prey (Figaro), Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Karl Böhm

How marvelous the 80’s must have been in Japan! There was nothing too expensive money could not buy – for example, a guest performance from the Vienna State Opera featuring an all-star cast. Regardless of the excitement of witnessing such an occasion live, this document has today a more restricted value, I am afraid. In 1980, Karl Böhm had lost a great deal of ebullience. Considering his Mozart always tended to be more elegant than lively, this means that tempi here tend to drag a bit, making the stage action stiff and unnatural. Although his orchestra is not necessarily heavy, the recorded sound lacks definition, what impares clarity as a whole. On the plus side, singers are recorded in natural perspective. Unfortunately, nobody is as clearly recorded as the very much present prompter – a serious blemish. Gundula Janowitz had lost a great deal of spontaneity since her studio recording (but her Italian had become more natural, it must be said) and some mannerisms were by then a bit annoying. In her good moments, however, she still can offer exemplary Mozartian phasing, crowned by her hallmark ethereal pianissimi. If you want to sample Agnes Baltsa’s Cherubino, this is your recording. She is far more stylish and in better voice than in the studio – and was clearly a favourite with the audience that evening. This is also a unique opportunity to listen to Bernd Weikl’s elegant, firm-toned Count Almaviva. It is a pity, though, that Hermann Prey was not in his best voice – he takes a while to warm up and then still sounds short-breathed and blustery, resorting too often to “acting with the voice”. Minor roles have singers such as Kurt Rydl, Heinz Zednik, Kurt Equiluz and Margarita Lilowa. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production had by then become something bureaucratic and the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan is a venue that somehow stimulates to our days outdated theatrical conventions (such as having singers return to the stage to receive the applauses for their arie di sortita). If I have to retain something positive out of this dusty performance, it is probably the way Count and Countess Almaviva are portrayed as that kind of couple who like to perform teasing games in order to keep their marriage’s interest going on – it might seem obvious but it often goes unnoticed. I left the best for last – the gush of fresh air in the proceedings is the incomparable Lucia Popp, an ideal Susanna. She is in exquisite voice, looks lovely, oozes charm, never stops trying to add some zest to her scenes and has Mozartian style in her veins – a cherishable memento of a truly delightful artist.

Gundula Janowitz (The Countess), Lucia Popp (Susanna), Frederica von Stade (Cherubino), Gabriel Bacquier (The Count), José Van Dam (Figaro), Choeur et Orchestre de l’Opéra de Paris, Georg Solti

This is the earliest souvenir of Giorgio Strehler’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro on video – an all-star affair with some of the world’s most famous Mozart singers those days. Maybe that accounts for the fact that Strehler’s detailed Personenregie would appear more vividly 26 years later, when the director had already passed away, as revived with a cast of younger singers by his assistant Marina Bianchi. In any case, the distinguished soloists here are characterful enough in their own way. Lucia Popp is again an exemplary Susanna,  who benefits greatly from Strehler’s guidance (as compared to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s more artificial approach in the production from Vienna). It is considered an universal truth that Frederica von Stade is the best Cherubino in the history of opera and, well, you can see why here. Although Gundula Janowitz’s performance has the same kind of mannerisms as heard in Tokyo, she too is scenically and vocally more at ease here. Gabriel Bacquier has his rough edges as The Count, but he knows how to turn this in his favor in a very nasty approach to the part of the Count. Vocally, José Van Dam has always been a faultless Figaro, but here he seems to be having so much fun that I cannot help finding this his best account in this role. Although the orchestra from the Opéra de Paris is not anyone’s model of Mozartian playing, the more natural recorded sound and the influence of the staging ultimately make it a more interesting document of Georg Solti in this work than his studio recording.

Anna Tomowa-Sintow (The Countess), Ileana Cotrubas (Susanna), Frederica von Stade (Cherubino), Tom Krause (The Count), José Van Dam (Figaro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan’s Decca recording deserves some attention. It has been quite forgotten these days, what is a pity, since it is one of the best examples of his talents. Here, he reaches the optimal level of balance between orchestral richness and clarity of articulation. There is real purpose in his phrasing and woodwind are prominent in an unusual way for this conductor. Most numbers have fast tempi, but he relaxes for the more lyric moments, less aptly in Cherubino arias. It is particularly nice the way both finali are built – although this is far from the zippiest Ah, signor, che giusto siete, it is wonderfully pointed and clear. Of course, the Vienna Philharmonic has lots to do with it. No other large orchestra sounds so natural in this piece. Alas, here end most of the qualities of the recording. First of all, the sound is too fussy – with unnaturally varied recording levels and artificial perspectives. Anna Tomowa-Sintow is particularly flawed as the Countess. Her voice lacks firmness and purity – there are intonation problems too. Ileana Cotrubas is a naughty Susanna with delicious silvery tones, but she sounds modest in the scale of this performance. Frederica von Stade’s superb Cherubino is better sampled in Solti’s recording, where she is even more characterful. Tom Krause is rough voiced as the Count, but José Van Dam offers his best Figaro – he is far more outgoing here than in Neville Marriner’s recording.

Heather Harper (The Countess), Judith Blegen (Susanna), Teresa Berganza (Cherubino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (The Count), Geraint Evans (Figaro), John Alldis Choir, English Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim’s recording, following performances at the Edinburgh Festival, is afflicted by some heaviness that prevents him to achieve true Mozartian graciousness. Although woodwind are beautifully highlighted, string playing sorely lacks clean articulation, what makes generally pleasant tempi sound a bit staid. Heather Harper’s rather thick but flexible soprano tends to sound pinched in high notes. Hers is a mature countess, not really sensuous and somewhat grand in manner. On the other hand, Judith Blegen is a bright-voiced, charming and vivacious Susanna. Teresa Berganza’s sexy mezzo does not attempt at all to sound boyish, but phrases her Mozartian lines to the manner born. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone had by then lost some richness, but still sounds firm enough in a part congenial to his patrician ways. Unfortunately, Geraint Evans’s woolly, unfocused Figaro sounds too elderly for comfort.

Kiri Te Kanawa (The Countess), Mirella Freni (Susanna), Maria Ewing (Cherubino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (The Count), Hermann Prey (Figaro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s film is a valuable memento of Mirella Freni and Hermann Prey’s charms and of the young Maria Ewing’s acting skills, but the whole concept is so outdated that the final impression is of kitsch. Ponelle’s idea of not having singers dub lines that are supposed to carry characters’ thoughts might be irritating for some. Although the Wiener Philharmoniker is a seasoned Mozartian orchestra, if you really want to sample Karl Böhm’s take on this opera, you should try his studio recording with the Deutsche Oper (see below), where the playing is more consistent and the recorded sound is better balanced (here singers have an excessive advantage over the orchestra). Kiri Te Kanawa is, as always, a lovely Countess Almaviva, but she seems straight-jacked, working her charm basically by means of her velvety voice. If you want to see her on video, than live at Covent Garden (see below) shows her in absolutely exquisite voice and even better-looking. Supervised by Böhm, Mirella Freni offers here a cleaner and more consistent performance than she did for Colin Davis. Maria Ewing’s mezzo has no inbuilt charm for Cherubino, but she sings stylishly and sensitively. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sounds here a bit rougher than in Böhm’s previous recording. Hermann Prey remains a Figaro of immense flair.

Mirella Freni (The Countess), Daniela Mazzuccato (Susanna), Teresa Berganza (Cherubino), Hermann Prey (The Count), José Van Dam (Figaro), Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano, Claudio Abbado

Mirella Freni and Hermann Prey were for a long time the world’s favourite Susanna and Figaro, but come un baleno rapido, la loro sorte cangiò and they could finally give the orders at the Almaviva household live at La Scala. As the Countess, she displays welcome Italianate qualities: use of dynamics based on the meaning of the text (as in Porgi amor), a pure bright powerful sound to preside the ensembles and an expertly focused low register that allows us to hear pieces of phrasing written by Mozart that generally belong to the score alone. As for Prey, it seems that Figaro is really the role for him. The voice has too much of a smile for the Count and the writing requires a more incisive instrument. Even the well-behaved José van Dam, the performance’s Figaro, sounds dashing compared in comparison. There is also an interesting Susanna in Daniela Mazzucato. She might be the typical Italian soubrette, but one who knows the moment to sing “straight”. Although her singing is always most appealing, one can always tell that the classy one is the other soprano. Teresa Berganza is a charming if feminine Cherubino. In Voi che sapete, the similarity between her voice and the accompanying oboe is truly surprising. It is only a pity that the recorded sound is problematic – too favorable to an orchestra that is not in its best shape, to start with.

Jessye Norman (The Countess), Mirella Freni (Susanna), Yvonne Minton (Cherubino), Ingvar Wixell (The Count), Wladimiro Ganzarolli (Figaro), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Colin Davis

Colin Davis’s most remarkable achievement is the atmosphere of permanent tension and nervousness. This was a revolution in terms in this opera, often performed as a gemütlich pantomime. Although the approach is brilliant, one often wonders if some of the nervousness is rather a byproduct of the orchestra’s discomfort. Jessye Norman, in one of her few recordings in a Mozartian role, is a most original Countess. Although the role is on the high side for her voice, she sings a sensuous Porgi, Amor and, in the garden scene, no other Countess disguises her voice as efficiently as she does. However, the stretta of Dove Sono takes her to her limits. Mirella Freni here abuses from off-pitch effects, disfiguring her otherwise admirable Susanna, and Yvonne Minton is quite anonymous as Cherubino. Waldimiro Ganzarolli is an unsubtle and uningratiating Figaro, but Ingvar Wixell is an interesting Count – a rather unsmiling and unsubtle master. The recording lacks a bit definition – violins are too prominent in relation to the other instruments in the orchestra, for example.

Gundula Janowitz (The Countess), Edith Mathis (Susanna), Tatiana Troyanos (Cherubino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (The Count), Hermann Prey (Figaro), Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper, Karl BÖhm

In Karl Böhm’s recording, the aristocrats are not trying to be nice to their subjects. Gundula Janowitz’s patrician Countess utters a horrified fammi or cercar da una serva aita! and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Count has nothing suave about him and is far from gentle with his wife (or, for that matter, with anybody else). To make things graver, Böhm’s tempi are invariably slow, but textures are clear and light. Gundula Janowitz is in heavenly voice – her Countess should stand in the encyclopedia, next to the entry “Mozartian singing”. Under these austere masters, Edith Mathis’s stylish Susanna is more unsmiling and less extrovert than usual. Tatiana Troyanos’s fruity and sexy mezzo adds to a charming if not entirely playful Cherubino. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has some rough patches – but that fit his unfriendly portrait – while  Hermann Prey’s easy-going Figaro is irresistible.

Leyla Gencer (The Countess), Mirella Freni (Susanna), Edith Mathis (Cherubino), Gabriel Bacquier (The Count), Heinz Blankenburg (Figaro), The Glyndenbourne Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Silvio Varviso

Recorded live in Glyndenbourne in 1961, Silvio Varviso’s recording is a lively affair, with fast tempi, clear textures and sprightly rhythms. The conductor has admirable feeling for comedy and, even if his orchestra is not truly world-class, it never misses its theatrical/musical points. It is indeed admirable how cleanly ensembles are carried out, even when really rapidly paced. It is a pity that Leyla Gencer was not in her best voice here – the tone is slightly veiled and her customary floating mezza voce was simply not working that day. Because of that, Porgi, Amor is everything but intimate. Dove sono is far better – her a tempo handling of the stretta is particularly praiseworthy. Her Countess has something chic yet playful about her. If Mirella Freni had left no other recording but this first of her Susannas, one would immediately understand why she was so famous – it is a thoroughly lovely, spirited performance, caught in those days when she had one of the most exquisite voices in the international scene. Edith Mathis is the best soprano Cherubino in the discography – she achieves believable boyishness and is unfailingly stylish. Gabriel Bacquier is in strong voice and offers a debonair approach to the role of Count Almaviva – even his aria is smoother than we are used to hear. Heinz Blankenburg’s hearty baritone has its wooden moments, but he is never less than congenial. Finally, when one has someone like Hugues Cuenod for Basilio, one asks him to sing his aria. The recorded sound is spacious and natural enough, practically free of congestion and distortion.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (The Countess), Anna Moffo (Susanna), Fiorenza Cossotto (Cherubino), Eberhard Wächter (The Count), Giuseppe Taddei (Figaro), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini

Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1959 is considered a classic in the discography. The conductor certainly displays his legendary care with details – the orchestral balance is perfect, there is amazing clarity and the tempi, somewhat lacking in forward movement now and then, tend to be pleasant to the ears. It is true that the Philharmonia strings are a bit on the edge having to deal with passagework, and Giulini’s playing with dynamics may turn the sound colourless now and then, but, when this orchestra is made to play loud, the result can be overloud. The recorded sound is clear, if congested when there are too many singers on stage (it is a studio recording, but tries to reproduce stage atmosphere). Also, the harpsichord is too dimly recorded. On the whole, the performance is not very convincing. The conductor seems to see the whole thing on purely musical terms (the shifts in the finali may sound a bit awkward therefore), while the cast enacts their parts in a kind of “I Love Lucy” overpointed style – the result is a bit schyzophrenic. In very good voice, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf won’t disappoint her fans with her detailed/artificial performance. Her phrasing may sound outdated now and then – there is a bit of sliding, unsupported low register and some pecking into notes. Anna Moffo’s soprano lacks purity in the upper range, but her voice is definitely sexy, she is stylish (for today’s standards, maybe the one stylist in the cast) and seems to be having fun. Fiorenza Cossotto is a distinguished Cherubino – Non so più is a bit overdone, but Voi che sapete is delightful. This is a Cherubino who does sound seductive without sounding feminine. Eberhard Wächter’s blustery Count deals with distortion of tone and line too often – but Giuseppe Taddei is definitely the chief offender. It seems he is singing the Mustafà in L’Italiana in Algeri. In the comic effects’ department, he goes for the works – under the note attack, nasal voices, parlando effects among other bizarreries.

Teresa Stich-Randall (The Countess), Rita Streich (Susanna), Pilar Lorengar (Cherubino), Heinz Rehfuss (The Count), Rolando Panerai (Figaro), Choeur du Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire, Hans Rosbaud

Recorded live in the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Hans Rosbaud’s performance is sabotaged by the unclear and congestion-prone recorded sound, the subpar orchestral playing (brass instruments especially) and lugubrious piano accompaniment in the recitatives. One is left wondering what the conductor would do in ideal conditions – his is a cleanly conceived, structurally clear and forward-moving account of the score. It is also an opportunity to listen to rarely recorded singers. Teresa Stich-Randall is another what-might-have-been. If she sang actual phrases instead of attacking each note individually, she would be an ideal Countess – her voice is pleasant and spontaneous, there is something elegant about her and she is a sensitive and intelligent performer. Considering all the shortcomings, very few sopranos would survive the slow tempo in the first section of Dove sono as commendably as she does here. Rita Streich might be too coy for Susanna, but her bell-toned soprano is consistently pleasant and she avoids the cuteness many a German soprano would indulge those days. Pilar Lorengar’s Cherubino is also loveliness itself, but again the approach is too girly and well-behaved. Heinz Rehfuss is an austere Count Almaviva, whose dark velvety bass-baritone suggests gentility rather than lechery. His restraint involves avoiding the high f # in the end of Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro. Rolando Panerai’s energetic attitude, “open” vocal production, idiomatic Italian and interpretative touches ranging from snarling to off-pitch effects suggests a more rustic Figaro than we are used to here, ultimately a refreshing approach to a role often too “nobly” sung.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (The Countess), Irmgard Seefried (Susanna), Sena Jurinac (Cherubino), George London (The Count), Erich Kunz (Figaro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan’s first studio recording of Le Nozze di Figaro is a disappointing affair – some have criticized the egg-timer approach to the overture, but what to say of the egg-timer applied to the entire opera? Although the Vienna Philharmonic copes well with the insensitively fast tempi, the same cannot be said of the singers – the orchestra often sounds furious while singers seem a bit desperate. Only the acknowledgedly beautiful passages, such as Porgi, Amor or the letter duet, receive a more relaxed approach, which unfortunately invites the cast to apply cuteness all over the place. To make things worse, singers are recorded upfront while the orchestra is shown in recessed perspective. Considering it is a mono recording from 1950, there is practically none distortion when sopranos ascend to their top notes. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was in excellent voice and, provided you can put up with her precious mannerisms, she offers the only all-round finished interpretation in this cast, especially compared with the kitsch performance by Irmgard Seefried, who is at clearly at a loss singing in Italian. Because of this handicap, she cannot make any sense of Da Ponte’s text and replaces legitimate interpretation for operetta-style quirks such as pecking at notes. When you are ready to call this one of the most inadequate recorded operatic performances, she finally produces a charming account of Deh vieni. Although Sena Jurinac’s is a treat to the ears, she skates through the role of Cherubino without ever trying to produce something close to a boyish impression. Erich Kunz’s Figaro can be charming – his basic tone is pleasant and his manners are congenial, but his Italian is accented, his idea of spontaneity has more to do with Lehar than with Mozart and too often he cheats when confronted with the problem of having to sing high notes. George London is probably the best voice in the cast and he also has the less problematic Italian – he is also probably the darker-toned Count Almaviva in the discography, but he knows how to produce the necessary lightness. Only the results are so superficial that he could be sight-reading as well. The final drawback – secco recitatives were excised altogether.

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