23 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (T. Hampson, S. Yoncheva, L. Pisaroni, C. Karg, A. Brower, A. S. von Otter, M. Muraro, R. Villazón, J.-P. Fouchécourt, P. Sly, R. Mühlemann; Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492Thomas Hampson (Conte d’Almaviva), Sonya Yoncheva (Contessa d’Almaviva), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Christiane Karg (Susanna), Angela Brower (Cherubino), Anne Sofie von Otter (Marcellina), Maurizio Muraro (Bartolo), Rolando Villazón (Basilio), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Don Curzio), Philippe Sly (Antonio), Regula Mühlemann (Barbarina); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Jory Vinikour, fortepiano continuo; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded in conjunction with concert performances in Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany, in July 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945; 3 CDs, 173:34; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

What a time this is for those listeners who love the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! On the heels of a rollicking account of Die Entführung aus dem Serail from Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and Jérémie Rhorer and with traversals of La clemenza di Tito from cpo, Zaide from Signum Classics, and Don Giovanni from Sony Classical on the horizon comes Deutsche Grammophon’s thought-provoking new recording of Le nozze di Figaro, the fourth installment in conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s and tenor Rolando Villazón’s venture to record Mozart’s seven mature operas, spanning the decade from 1781’s Idomeneo, re di Creta to 1791’s Die Zauberflöte and La clemenza di Tito. Recorded during two concert performances and a rehearsal in July 2015 and expertly engineered by Tonmeister Rainer Maillard and Assistant Engineer Douglas Ward to both uphold Deutsche Grammophon’s legendary standards of sonic excellence and preserve enjoyable aspects of the live-performance atmosphere, most notably the audience’s blissful laughter, this account of Le nozze di Figaro unites Mozartean veterans with newcomers in a musical setting that fuses elements of period-appropriate practices with the extraordinary legacy of the opera’s 229-year history. This emphatically is not a dainty, tempest-in-a-teacup performance, however: Mozart’s, librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s, and playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s drama surges from these discs, every sigh, smile, and stress vividly, lovingly brought to life.

Written in 1778, Beaumarchais’s comedy La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro was the central work in a triptych that sent shock waves of seismic intensity through late-Eighteenth-Century intellectual circles, its convoluted sagas of wily servants sparring with despotic aristocrats garnering disapproval in seats of power throughout Europe. Though banned throughout Hapsburg lands by imperial decree owing not to its barbed social satire but to its copious sexual innuendo, Lorenzo da Ponte miraculously procured authorization from Joseph II’s court to adapt La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro for the operatic stage. The resulting libretto, the first of three of the poet’s texts that Mozart would eventually set, is a marvel of humor and humanity—precisely the sort of material that appealed strongly to Mozart’s cosmopolitan sensibilities.

Recently named James Levine’s successor as Music Director of The Metropolitan Opera, making him only the third holder of that title after Levine and Rafael Kubelík, the Québécois Nézet-Séguin, barely out of his thirties, confirms with his stewardship of this recording of Le nozze di Figaro that he is both a Mozartean of once-in-a-generation significance and a fully-qualified heir to Levine and Kubelík—and, looking further back into the annals of MET history, Gustav Mahler. The young conductor’s instinct for getting to the heart of each scene provides this performance with prodigious cumulative momentum, and Nézet-Séguin is among the few conductors to have presided over a recording of Le nozze di Figaro who never loses his way in the opera’s magnificent ensembles. Tempi are quick: Otto Klemperer’s studio recording of a similarly inclusive edition of Nozze di Figaro runs sixteen minutes longer than this performance, but only in a handful of numbers do Nézet-Séguin’s speeds feel slightly rushed. Even in these instances, the impact of the music is strengthened by the effervescence of the conductor’s approach. For instance, Cherubino’s Act One aria ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ is taken at such a clip that the singer can barely get the notes out. Get the notes out she does, though, and the rapidity of Nézet-Séguin’s tempo is justified by the dramatic efficacy that the aria gains from the breathless vivacity of the musical performance matching the ethos of the text. Nevertheless, the score’s lyric episodes, especially the Contessa’s ‘Porgi, amor’ and ‘Dove sono i bei momenti,’ are handled with sensitivity and pathos. At its most individual, Nézet-Séguin’s conducting of this Nozze di Figaro is never pedantic or precious: every motion of his baton is motivated by his personal response to Mozart’s score and dedicated to kindling a lucid, cogent performance that takes advantage of his cast’s considerable strengths.

As unexpected as Nézet-Séguin’s mercurial tempi to ears accustomed to ponderous Mozart performances will be this recording's orchestral soundscape, which, contrary to recent trends in Mozart performances, is wholly without the slightest hint of a period instrument except for the aptly piquant sounds of Jory Vinikour’s fantastically witty but never obtrusive fortepiano continuo, practically an anonymous character in the opera who propels the drama without meddling in its resolution. Some listeners may never accept keyboard continuo extending beyond secco recitatives in Mozart’s operas, but in an era before the rise of podium-centric conducting in the modern sense can a composer and musician as ebullient as Mozart really be thought to have sat idly at the keyboard during arias and ensembles, awaiting the next stretch of secco recitative? Questions of historicity aside, Vinikour’s quicksilver but infallibly tasteful playing is one of the foremost delights of this Nozze di Figaro, one that the boundlessly inventive Mozart is certain to have appreciated.

As in the previous DGG recordings of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, Nézet-Séguin’s leadership spurs the Chamber Orchestra of Europe musicians to aspire to and succeed in matching the standards that Karl Böhm set with Staatskapelle Dresden in the 1970s. The orchestra’s instruments are modern, but the players who wield them have clearly absorbed many of the past half-century’s innovations in the field of period-appropriate practices. Like Böhm’s, Nézet-Séguin’s manner of preparing Le nozze di Figaro leaves traditions to conductors who prefer to borrow interpretations of Mozart’s music from others rather than devising their own. To this end, he and the COE musicians seek answers to questions about how to translate the notes into meaningful sounds in the score, trusting Mozart to have provided every clue needed to solve the opera’s riddles.

Like their COE colleagues, the Vocalensemble Rastatt singers draw the animation of their performance from the music that Mozart entrusted to them, their singing of ‘Giovani liete, fiori spargete’ in Act One and the ladies’ dulcet ‘Ricevete, o padroncina’ in Act Three embodying the prevailing spirit of Nézet-Séguin’s leadership. The singers are thoroughly convincing as townspeople eager to enjoy a good party and perhaps a bit of intrigue without sounding as though they were recruited at a small-town barn dance. Performing Le nozze di Figaro is not unlike managing arrivals and departures at a busy airport. In this performance, both Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s instrumentalists and Vocalensemble Rastatt’s choristers touch down smoothly, the air traffic control of Nézet-Séguin’s conducting steering them clear of every peril.

The junior member of a superlative ensemble cast, Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann portrays Barbarina with a voice and a persona as fresh as newly-fallen autumn snow on the Matterhorn. In the vivacious girl’s Act Three scenes with the residents of Castello d’Almaviva and Cherubino, Mühlemann’s singing is perfectly-proportioned, and she voices the melancholic Act Four cavatina ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina!’ hypnotically. If she continues on this path, one followed in recent memory by Dames Margaret Price and Kiri Te Kanawa, there are surely memorable depictions of Susanna and/or the Contessa ahead of her.

As the grumbling gardener Antonio, Susanna’s uncle, Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly is nothing short of ideal, the voice firm, attractive, and flexible and the quick vibrato intensifying the dramatic bite of the character’s frustrated sputtering. The brevity of the rôle is the only deficiency: Mozart would undoubtedly have composed an aria for Sly’s Antonio. In the Act Three scene in which Marcellina’s hastily-produced marriage contract with Figaro is negated by the revelation that the clever fellow is none other than her conveniently mislaid son, French tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is a frenetically fussy Don Curzio whose pompous pontificating on the legitimacy of Marcellina’s contractual claim on Figaro is wonderfully over the top. Encountering an artist of Villazón’s stature in a small rôle like Basilio is unexpected, but how special the results of this experiment prove to be! Most importantly, Villazón does not over-sing: his every note falls readily into its appointed space in the drama. He sings lightly, the words on the breath, in the Act One trio with Susanna and the Conte, and his aria in Act Three, ‘In quegli anni in cui val poco,’ is drolly but handsomely sung, the tenor’s ebullient personality sparkling in the aria’s tempo de menuetto section. He, Fouchécourt, and Sly might profit lavishly from moonlighting as an operatic comedy troupe.

As the male partner in the reluctant couple whose machinations, exploited by their aristocratic patron, feed the maelstrom that affects the drama’s course, bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro portrays Bartolo as a pompous conniver who only half believes his own orations. His razor-sharp diction compensates for occasional tonal unsteadiness, his verve in recitatives and ensembles supported by consummate musicality. Muraro sings the Act One aria ‘La vendetta, oh, la vendetta’ wonderfully: this Bartolo clearly remembers the lesson that he was taught by Basilio’s ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ in Il barbiere di Siviglia! The effects of an extensive career encompassing an uncommonly broad repertory on the voice of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter cannot be ignored, but she gamely uses this to her advantage in her portrayal of Marcellina, Bartolo’s partner in crime and, as it turns out, more intimate activities. Sounding as proud as an affronted queen in her Act One scene with Susanna, von Otter sings her half of the duettino ‘Via, resti servita’ divertingly, savoring every mean-spirited syllable. Marcellina’s lines in the ActTwo finale are effortlessly dispatched, and von Otter wields her natural flair for unexaggerated comedy in the Act Three scene in which it is discovered that, rather than his contract-quoting betrothed, she is in fact Figaro’s mother, a development by which no one seems more shocked than she. Marcellina’s aria in Act Four, ‘Il capro e la capretta,’ is often excluded from both staged performances and recordings of the opera, but von Otter here sings it captivatingly, rolling through its divisions with the virtuosity that made her a force with which to reckon in Händel repertory. In the recorded history of Le nozze di Figaro, Marcellina has often been ignored, and in some of the instances in which she has been noticed it would have been preferable for her to have remained ignored. Von Otter cannot be ignored, and more’s the better: no Marcellina on disc has made the character’s rapid-fire transformation of a lover’s affection into a mother’s doting funnier.

Singing the lovesick Cherubino with polished, pristine tone and tasteful ornamentation, American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower brings the rather foolish lad to life without either condescending to or overdoing efforts at conveying masculinity. Like Richard Strauss’s Octavian and Komponist, Mozart’s Cherubino was conceived as a soprano rôle, and Brower negotiates the tessitura with ease, maintaining an enchanting lightness even in moments of greatest dramatic duress. As mentioned previously, the tempo for the Act One aria ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ pushes Brower, but she pushes back, the frenzied excitement of the music reflected in her libidinous-frat-boy vocal acting. The control that she exhibits in sustaining the bel canto line in Cherubino’s Act Two arietta ‘Voi che sapete che cosa è amor’ adds psychological depth to Brower’s characterization, suggesting that he is capable at least occasionally of reasoning from a perspective above his belt. Her vocalism in the duettino with Susanna, ‘Aprite, presto, aprite,’ glistens, and she radiates adolescent awkwardness when interacting with Barbarina. Cherubino’s young heart palpitates for the Contessa, but there are so many enticing ladies of all ages and stations at the Conte’s court: how is a boy to devote himself to only one of them? Perhaps the root of the Conte’s dislike of Cherubino is his recognition of a kindred spirit and competitor in an environment with room for only a single ravenous philanderer. Brower’s Cherubino is a pawn in everyone’s games, but how attractive she makes being used sound!

In many performances of Le nozze di Figaro, the title character is little more than a grown-up but not altogether matured Cherubino, an amiable fellow who bumbles along with the mischief afoot in his master’s household. In this performance, the Figaro of bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni never misses an opportunity to make a play for the upper hand: the fact that he so seldom succeeds is indicative of the cunning of his adversaries. He and Susanna start Act One with a nimble performance of their first duettino, Pisaroni singing ‘Cinque... dieci... venti... trenta’ merrily, and the more sinister implications of the duettino ‘Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama’ are limned without vocal heaviness. Pisaroni’s delivery of the cavatina ‘Se vuol ballare, signor contino’ is good-natured, but the seriousness of his intention to tangle with the philandering Conte is unmistakable. He brings down the curtain on Act One with a voicing of the aria ‘Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso’ that brims with wry insinuation. Inventing the story of Figaro jumping from the Contessa’s window and upsetting Antonio’s prized flowerpot with quick-witted spontaneity, Pisaroni’s Figaro sails through the ActTwo finale by the seat of his trousers, even his best-crafted lies falling flat. Honesty may not be the best policy for his character, but the bass-baritone’s singing never fails him. In the Act Three scene with Marcellina, Bartolo, the Conte, and Don Curzio, Figaro finally finds himself at the top of the heap, the wily Conte flummoxed by the discovery of Figaro’s parentage, and Pisaroni’s voice booms with relieved pride. Nevertheless, uncertainty takes hold anew in the Act Three finale, and the shadows return in the singer’s vocal coloring. Figaro’s recitative and aria in Act Four, ‘Tutto è disposto... Oh Susanna, Susanna, quanta pena mi costi!’ and ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,’ are sung as capably by Pisaroni as by the finest Figaros on disc, and he magnifies the importance of Figaro’s every word in the opera’s finale. From the gruff bottom to a ringing top F, Pisaroni has every note in Figaro’s range at the ready, and he portrays a dashing valet who serves sarcasm without sacrificing sterling singing.

This recording documents American baritone Thomas Hampson’s third interpretation of Conte d’Almaviva for a major label. His intellectual comprehension of the Conte’s motivations, already well-honed at the time of his first recording of the part in 1990, has broadened in the years of his acquaintance with the music, but the voice as recorded in 2015 sounds astonishingly untouched by the intervening years. Ever a resourceful artist, Hampson’s Conte was from the start an ‘old soul’ portrayal, one in which an unquenchable carnal hunger does not wholly obscure an inalienable nobility. In this performance, his Conte blusters slightly more than in past, enhancing the notion that the Conte is a man of a certain age whose position is now a greater attraction than his person. In the Act One trio with Susanna and Basilio, ‘Cosa sento! Tosto andate,’ Hampson sings strongly, his timbre warming when he addresses Susanna. In the Act Two trio with the Contessa and Susanna and the act’s subsequent finale, though, the character’s mounting frustration and fury metamorphose the silvery tones of Act One into steel-edged weapons. The Act Three duettino with Susanna, ‘Crudel! Perchè finora farmi languir così,’ is distinguished by a momentary return to the gentle melancholy of Act One: can it be that the lusty Conte actually loves Susanna, at least on some level? Essentially thrown to the wind in many performances, the recitative ‘Hai già vinta la causa!’ and aria ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’ are magnetically sung by Hampson, who then voices the Conte’s parts in the brilliant sextet and the Act Three finale with boundless charisma. After the hubbub of Act Four, Hampson takes the lead in bringing about the opera’s moving dénouement. Aided by Nézet-Séguin, who sets exactly the right tempo for the passage, Hampson voices ‘Contessa, perdono’ simply but poignantly, his tones centered and ideally weighted. Hopelessly impenetrable would be the heart that did not react magnanimously to such a plea. An essential component of Mozart’s genius was his peerless ability to create morally-ambiguous characters who are alluring even when at their most repulsive. As sung by Hampson in this performance, the Conte’s words and actions are often reprehensible, but the man never is. It is silly when his first two commercial recordings of the Conte were so accomplished to suggest, as the colloquialism goes, that the third time is the charm, but there is no denying that Hampson remains a thoughtful, commanding Conte who charms.

Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg provides this Nozze di Figaro with a Susanna who is at once both at the center of the drama and slightly removed from it. Intermittently sounding like a countess in training, this is a Susanna who follows her heart only after analyzing every situation with her formidable intellect. In her Act One scenes with Figaro, Karg is the personification of pre-wedding excitement, her rejoinders to her husband-to-be reverberating with joviality. Then, the socially savvy Susanna emerges in the scene with Marcellina, Karg’s singing in the duettino ‘Via, resti servita’ matching the overtones of von Otter’s lines with her own pointed aspersions. Sizing up her opponents in the trio with the Conte and Basilio, she is alternately coy and caustic, careful to maintain her integrity without figuratively biting the hand that feeds her. Karg’s account of the Act Two aria ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi’ shimmers with girlish jauntiness that only partially conceals more somber thoughts. In the terrific trio with the Conte and Contessa, the first of Susanna’s pair of top Cs disappears into the sonic hullabaloo, but the second appears, comet-like, above the ensemble. Karg complements Brower’s elan in the duettino with Cherubino, ‘Aprite, presto, aprite,’ the two of them conspiring like Hänsel and Gretel on the brink of being caught by their mother with berry-stained lips. Her vocalism in the Act Two finale gleams, and, like Hampson, she allows hints of genuine affection to surface in the Act Three duettino with the Conte. Karg leads the sextet with the determination of a musical Joan of Arc escorting her countrymen into battle, but the smiling mischief returns in the celebrated duettino with the Contessa and the madcap Act Three finale. Susanna’s recitative ‘Giunse alfin il momento’ and exquisite F-major aria ‘Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella’ are the musical apogee of Act Four, and Karg delivers the former with communicative thrust and sings the latter with composure and expressivity. She seconds the Contessa beautifully in the opera’s finale. Karg’s Susanna is an especially suitable match for Pisaroni’s Figaro as she also has every note of her part in the voice. Many sopranos make the mistake of thinking that they must venture to give Susanna a palpable dramatic profile in order to establish her stature in the drama, but Mozart did that for them. Karg understands that what is required to realize Susanna’s full dramatic potential is to faithfully sing her music. This Karg does, often dazzlingly, and she thereby easily earns inclusion alongside Maria Cebotari, Bidù Sayão, Irmgard Seefried, Edith Mathis, and Lucia Popp among the superior Susannas on disc.

Amidst the helter-skelter goings-on of this emotionally-charged Nozze di Figaro, the poised, imperturbable, sumptuously-voiced Contessa of Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva is profoundly touching and frequently surprising. The voluptuousness of her timbre prompts recollection of the fact that the Contessa is a rôle sung with merit in previous generations by Elisabeth Rethberg, Marcella Pobbe, and Renata Tebaldi, conscientious, capable Mozarteans whose voices were of markedly grander proportions than those of most of the singers now favored for Mozart performances. Yoncheva’s is not by any measure an enormous voice, but it is an instrument quite unlike the ‘blonde’ voices most often heard in the rôle. The Contessa’s E♭-major cavatina that begins Act Two, ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro,’ situated without so much as one line of prefacing recitative, is one of the most treacherous entrances in opera, the long melodic lines unforgivingly exposed. Yoncheva needs nowhere to hide, singing the piece rapturously but with restraint and moving seamlessly through the full range of the music. In the trio with Susanna and the Conte that follows, ‘Susanna, or via, sortite,’ the soprano’s distinctive timbre makes her utterances stand out, and her voice is never lost in the boisterous ensembles that end Acts Two and Three. Yoncheva sings the recitative ‘E Susanna non vien!’ in Act Three with an immediacy that evinces the ironic anguish of a Contessa, once so eager to reinvent herself, who longs to again be uncomplicated Rosina. The C-major aria ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ is one of Mozart’s most sublime inspirations, an interlude like Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma, addio patria, amici addio’ in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Händel’s Rinaldo in which time stands still as undiluted emotions gush from the music. Yoncheva’s performance of the aria is magical, her chocolate-hued voice flowing through the music like lava. Her lines in the duettino with Susanna, ‘Che soave zeffiretto,’ are sung with an incandescence in which music and words are virtually indistinguishable. Responding to the Conte’s entreaty for absolution in the Act Four finale, Yoncheva’s Contessa grants his request with a thread of tone that expands into a deluge of emotion in ‘Più dolce io sono, e dico di sì.’ Rather than trying to adhere to other singers’ conceptions of the Contessa, Yoncheva makes the rôle her own, coming to Nozze di Figaro with experience in parts including Monteverdi’s Poppea, Gounod’s Juliette, and Verdi’s Desdemona but without external sources’ misleading theories about how she ought to sound. In truth, the only indications of how a rôle should be sung by which a singer should be guided, whether singing the rôle for the first or the fiftieth time, whether on stage or in studio, are those provided by the composer. In the performance on these discs, it is apparent that Yoncheva learned the Contessa’s music under Mozart’s tutelage as bequeathed to posterity in his score. With such a teacher, how could she do anything but sing as personally and gorgeously as she does here?

More than two-and-a-half centuries after its première, Le nozze di Figaro remains one of the most popular operas in the international repertory. Especially in the past fifty years, the score has proved immune to almost every conceivable directorial abuse. The music has survived poor singing, egotistical conducting, and wrongheaded efforts at adjusting the parameters of ‘stylish’ performance standards and increasing the opera’s ‘relevance’ for modern audiences. Regardless of these obstacles, the adage that asserts that the proof is in the pudding is as applicable in the opera house as in the kitchen. Why, then, does Le nozze di Figaro still challenge, amuse, and move? There is ample proof ripe for the hearing in this recording, which in terms of singing, conducting, and unwavering fidelity to the composer’s genius is a concoction fit for the most gluttonous Mozart appetites.