13 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (C. Van Horn, F. Antonelou, A. Bondarenko, S. Kermes, M.-E. Nesi; Sony 88883709262)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (Sony 88883709262)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata, K. 492Christian Van Horn (Figaro), Fanie Antonelou (Susanna), Andrei Bondarenko (Conte di Almaviva), Simone Kermes (Contessa di Almaviva), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Cherubino), Nikolai Loskutkin (Bartolo), Krystian Adam (Don Basilio), Maria Forsström (Marcellina), James Elliott (Don Curzio), Garry Agadzhanian (Antonio), Natalya Kirillova (Barbarina); MusicAeterna (Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre); Teodor Currentzis, conductor [Recorded in P. I. Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Perm, Russia, 24 September – 4 October 2012; 3CD, 188:25; Sony 88883709262; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Gioconda, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is one of the defining masterworks of its genre, and like da Vinci’s canvas Mozart’s score reveals different qualities when examined under different conditions. What is unchanging is the glorious flowering of Mozart’s genius that touches every bar of Le nozze di Figaro, but even this shimmers with an astonishing spectrum of hues when viewed through the prisms of the work of attentive artists. After nearly a century’s worth of recordings featuring many of the 20th and 21st Centuries’ most compelling Mozart conductors and singers, a new recording of Le nozze di Figaro must possess a fresh, valid perspective on the evergreen score if it is to justify its initiation into the opera’s discography. Freshness and validity surge from every moment of this recording by MusicAeterna and Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. Discarding traditions solely for the sake of pseudo-individuality rarely produces enduring results, but the adventurousness that pervades Maestro Currentzis’s work in this performance rises from an admirable desire to reconnect with the theatrical experience that Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, surely intended Le nozze di Figaro to be. The revolutionary sentiments explored in its dramatic situations led to the banning by imperial edict of Beaumarchais’s La foule journée, ou le mariage de Figaro, Mozart’s and da Ponte’s source for their opera, in 18th-Century Vienna, but successive generations of performances and recordings have effectively entombed Le nozze di Figaro in a sarcophagus of well-meaning but blunt conventions. Judging from the performance he instigates on this recording, Maestro Currentzis regards Le nozze di Figaro not as an oft-embalmed corpse to be made as presentable as possible for viewing by new audiences but as a remarkable creature still very much in the prime of its life.

Considering his reputation as something of an enfant terrible in ‘traditional’ repertoire, it is surprising to note upon close scrutiny how few deviations from tradition Maestro Currentzis actually undertakes in this recording. It is the spirit rather than the substance of the performance that differs so markedly from many performances of Le nozze di Figaro, even those with ambitions of replicating the performance practices of Mozart’s time. In truth, the glut of ‘historically-informed’ performances of Le nozze di Figaro in recent years has been disconcerting: there is little credible scholarship to support the notion that Mozart’s mature operas were intended to be performed as small-scaled affairs, and many of the performances and recordings that have ostensibly sought to return Le nozze di Figaro to the 18th Century, as it were, have instead stripped away much of the emotional largesse and musical splendor that marked the opera as something very special from the time of its first performance in 1786. Under Maestro Currentzis’s direction, this performance amalgamates the most effective elements of traditional and historically-informed approaches, shaping a momentous account of the score that manages both to sound like an opera composed in 1786 and to communicate very modern sensibilities. Though brief in duration, the singing of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Chorus certainly contributes to this dichotomy by disclosing the careful tonal blends and balances typical of period-specialist ensembles and the credibly jubilant exclamations of guests at what in the environs of Conte di Almaviva’s castle would have been a celebrity wedding. The playing of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra is similarly evocative of both the niceties of late-18th-Century performance practices and the larger-scaled traditions that accumulated in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This hybridization creates a sound world in which Mozart’s score flourishes excitingly. In the opening minutes of the recording, concerns arise about Maxim Emelyanychev’s fortepiano continuo, which threatens to emulate the overwrought business heard on several recent recordings of Mozart’s operas. Ultimately, though, Mr. Emelyanychev provides a thoroughly enjoyable continuo, his accompaniment of secco recitatives inventive and his playing in concerted numbers witty but never distracting. Among consistently first-rate performances by all of the instrumentalists, the clarinet lines in the Contessa’s cavatina ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’ are sublimely played by Toni Salar-Verdú and Marie Ross.

More than many standard-repertory scores, Le nozze di Figaro truly is an ensemble opera: poor singing even in the secondary rôles can significantly undermine a performance. The smallest parts are assigned to capable singers in this performance, and only a sameness of timbres among the ladies in the cast interferes with total immersion in the drama. After singing charmingly in Act Three, soprano Natalya Kirillova gives a haunting account of Barbarina’s gorgeous cavatina at the start of Act Four, ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina.’ Maria Forsström, a less-caricatured Marcellina than most, is allowed her frequently-excised aria in Act Four, ‘Il capro e la capretta,’ and she sings it excellently despite a slightly overdone cadenza. Her interactions with Susanna display wonderful comic timing, especially in their duettino ‘Via, resti servita, madama brillante,’ and she manages to engender something like maternal affection in her dealings with Figaro in Act Three. Krystian Adam’s lively Don Basilio, an engaging presence in recitatives and ensembles, is also permitted to sing his seldom-heard aria, ‘In quegl’anni, in cui val poco,’ and he takes advantage of the opportunity to show off his handsome tone and finely-honed technique. James Elliott is an alert, silver-tongued Don Curzio, and Garry Agadzhanian is an appropriately frustrated but unusually sophisticated Antonio: he is sure to have observed some very interesting things transpiring in his garden. Nikolai Loskutkin is a Bartolo of strength and sly insinuations. There is nothing subtle about his performance of ‘La vendetta, oh, la vendetta,’ however: his voice detonates the aria like a firebomb, and he makes his indignation felt in ensembles with delectable vocal posturing.

Mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi provides an unmistakably womanly Cherubino but a fantastically-sung one. From her first entrance, Ms. Nesi dons her character’s trousers with dramatic vibrancy that convincingly allays the femininity of her voice. She and Susanna are fabulously conspiratorial partners in misfortune, and the vivacity that she brings to recitatives and ensembles is captivating. Despite the feminineness of the basic timbre, Ms. Nesi’s Cherubino is a hormonally-charged adolescent to the life: though slightly ridiculous as youthful passions invariably are, this Cherubino’s infatuation with the Countess is a deeply-felt affection. Ms. Nesi’s singing of Cherubino’s arias ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ and ‘Voi che sapete che cosa è amor’ is exemplary, her technique more than equal to Mozart’s musical demands and her dramatic instincts inspiring her to give each aria precisely the right emotional profile. Ms. Nesi confirms the histrionic power of her artistry by overcoming the obstacle of her ladylike timbre and creating a musically first-rate and surprisingly sexy Cherubino.

From her entrance in the opera’s opening scene, soprano Fanie Antonelou offers a light-hearted Susanna to whom plotting and preening do not come naturally, but when darker sentiments invade her sunny disposition they erupt like midsummer thunderstorms. In the opening duet with Figaro, ‘Se a caso Madama la notte ti chiama,’ Ms. Antonelou’s Susanna is a charmingly flirtatious fiancée, her voice combining with that of her betrothed with humor but sly authority. There is never any doubt that this Susanna has the upper hand in her exchanges with the busybody Marcellina, and her intelligence deepens as the drama progresses. Ms. Antonelou gives a lovely performance of the aria ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi,’ her timbre slim but shining. In the trio with the Conte and Contessa, ‘Susanna, or via, sortite,’ she rises with complete comfort to her pair of top Cs, and her voice flutters through the celebrated duettino ‘Che soave zeffiretto’ with the freshness of the gentle breezes evoked by the text, her timbre combining beautifully with that of the Contessa. Ms. Antonelou’s singing of ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar,’ one of Mozart’s loveliest soprano arias, is tremendously effective both in its musical poise and its dramatic import. Whether tangling with the Conte or Figaro, Ms. Antonelou portrays a Susanna who never loses her wits. Susanna is the sort of rôle that seems far easier to sing than it actually is, and Ms. Antonelou makes a grand impression: she is the rare Susanna who seems destined to be a challenging but wonderfully endearing bride.

The steely Conte of Andrei Bondarenko is more than usually in command of his court: it seems remarkable, in fact, that young Cherubino would dare to give voice to his pining for the Contessa even in private in this Conte’s castle. The finest quality of Mr. Bondarenko’s performance is the manner in which he both snarls and smiles in his execution of Mozart’s music, however. His sturdy, well-integrated voice is an ideal instrument for the Conte, and he sings the rôle with debonair urbanity. In dialogues with both Susanna and the Contessa Mr. Bondarenko’s Conte seethes with nervous energy, occasionally threatening but rarely truly cruel. His performance of the Conte’s aria ‘Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro’ is invigorating, and he brings rousing musical and textual alertness to ensembles. His pianissimo, almost crooned singing of ‘Contessa, perdono’ in the opera’s final scene at first seems a misjudgment, but Mr. Bondarenko manages it with such dignity and sincerity that the risk pays off. Strangely, it is the quiet intensity of this passage that lends the opera’s finale the incredible poignancy that it has in this performance, and Mr. Bondarenko’s Conte is far more involved in both the unease and its resolution in this Le nozze di Figaro than almost any other on records.

The self-proclaimed ‘Lady Gaga of opera,’ soprano Simone Kermes is without question one of the most dynamic and in some ways divisive presences in Classical Music today, and whether her singing pleases or perturbs it unfailingly generates the kind of spirited conversation that sustains opera. In this performance, her Contessa is worlds away from the legendary portrayal by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but Ms. Kermes crafts an equally absorbing characterization on her own terms. It is sometimes overlooked that Ms. Kermes possesses a superb voice, and she displays an uncanny ability to wield absolute technical control over her vocal resources. Her Contessa in this performance is a sublime triumph of graceful vocalism and conventions-to-the-wind dramatic commitment. Ms. Kermes’s singing in ensembles is precise and passionate whether she is suffering the sting of her husband’s jealousy and suspicion, dealing kindly but somewhat aloofly with Cherubino, or taking Susanna’s part in her quest for liberation from masculine domination. Not one note or dramatic accent is misplaced in Ms. Kermes’s performance, and her singing exudes irresistible charisma. The Contessa’s arias ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’ and ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ are two of the greatest challenges in the soprano repertory, and Ms. Kermes conquers them with exquisite self-assurance. Her account of ‘Porgi, amor’ radiates very individual warmth, and her singing of ‘Dove sono’ is marked by almost unbearably dolorous beauty of tone. In the final scene, the absolution granted by Ms. Kermes’s Contessa has the redeeming force of a benediction: her silver-toned delivery of ‘Più docil io sono, e dico di sì’ crowns a magnificent performance that encapsulates the best of Ms. Kermes’s artistry.

It has become atypical for a Figaro to dominate a performance of Le nozze di Figaro: it is his wedding, after all, but too few modern Figaros seize the dramatic reins as Mozart and da Ponte surely wanted. Christian Van Horn strides to the center of the drama in his first line of recitative and never ceases to be the fulcrum upon which this performance pivots. Mr. Van Horn brings pointed humor to his singing of Figaro’s cavatina ‘Se vuol ballare, signor Contino,’ imparting not so much a serious challenge to the Conte as a bemused taunt. In the oft-abused ‘Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso’ Mr. Van Horn takes care to actually sing rather than bark the aria, and his performance of ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’ is similarly shaped by genuine musicality. Mr. Van Horn’s voice is a burnished, mahogany-hued instrument, and his Figaro buzzes with unforced machismo. This Figaro may be in service to the Almaviva household, but he is anything but subservient. The Nozze di Figaro discography preserves many fine performances of Figaro’s music, but few Figaros have succeeded as completely as Mr. Van Horn at constructing a character who is both strong and sympathetic. A performance of Le nozze di Figaro with an inept Figaro is a marriage without a groom: this is a performance with a Figaro who not only proves a worthy partner for Susanna but whose singing fully justifies the opera having been named in his honor.

Few operas figure more prominently in the international standard repertoire than Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, productions of which grace the world’s stages with deserved regularity. The score is also no stranger to the recording studio, and the performances of many of the most gifted Mozarteans of the past century have been preserved in the opera’s exceptionally competitive discography. It is an opera about which it might be presumed that new generations of performers can have nothing new to say, but this recording confounds that presumption. Teodor Currentzis and a near-ideal cast say much that has never been said before, and in their musical speech it is the voice of Mozart that is heard most affectingly.