A Notable nozze di Figaro

Virtually every new recording of Mozart's great opera, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), is eagerly anticipated. The opera is, after all, an indisputable masterpiece, and frequently described as the most perfect opera ever written. Not only does it contain an irresistible flood of melody, with one hummable, ear worm-like tune after the other, but its music also unfailingly serves da Ponte's libretto. As the story careens from ridiculous comedy to trenchant, oft-poignant commentary on the power struggles between master and servant, and women and men, it seems as alive today as it was threatening to an 18th-century aristocratic order that was destined to fall.

This recording, of concert performances that took place in the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in July 2015, is especially important for two reasons. The first is its star-studded cast of younger and veteran singers, among whom are four extremely well knowns: bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), baritone Thomas Hampson (Count Almaviva), mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter (Marcellina), and tenor Rolando Villazón (Basilio). Its younger singers, as well, are firmly establishing themselves on the stages of the world's major houses.

Equally significant is the chance to hear the work of the man conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Metropolitan Opera Music Director Designate and Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. As such, the recording provides glimpses of what is to come to the Met's stage and HD broadcasts around the world.

It's not that Le nozze di Figaro has been lacking for great recordings. Arkivmusic.com, for example, lists 114 live and studio audio and video issues (including duplicates). But as exhaustive as its listings may seem, they omit the very first recording of the work, the Fritz Busch Glyndebourne Festival set from 1934–1935.

This recording is the newest of the lot. Auditioned in CD format—it had better sound better as a 24/96 download—its sonics come up short in comparison with a number of other sets, including the CD version of René Jacobs' period-instrument performance. Colors and air on that recording are more pronounced, and make for more involved listening. Given that Jacobs' performance is also available in hybrid SACD format, it is especially recommendable for those who value sonics, novelty, and period instrument exploration. It also includes much wonderful singing and any number of fascinating embellishments.

Two other complete recordings are also available as hi-rez downloads: the somewhat controversial Teodor Currentzis period instrument recording with MusicaAeterna, and the classic, marvelously conducted Erich Kleiber mono recording from 1955 with the Vienna Philharmonic and an absolutely superb cast. The latter I discuss below.

Taking his cue from period instrument practice, Nézet-Séguin is as zippy and energetic as they come. A special touch is added by Jory Vinikour, whose continuo commentary on fortepiano is often as witty as conductor Nicola Luisotti's in live performance. While some may welcome the absence of Karajan's romantic indulgence, I remain convinced that unless singers have vocal personalities and voices as distinguished as those in Karajan's mono recording from 1950, all the zip in the world does not translate into a compelling performance.

Vocally, as with sonics, Nézet-Séguin's bag is decidedly mixed. On the plus side are several delicious interpretations, Pisaroni's Figaro first among them. The voice is gorgeous, and every word filled with meaning. As clueless as the character of Figaro may be at times, Pisaroni creates one of the most spot-on, lovable Figaros you are likely to encounter on disc.

At this point in her long career, Anne Sofie Von Otter's voice is starting to show its age. As such, casting her as Marcellina, Figaro's previously unknown mystery mother, was an inspired choice. Despite occasional unsteadiness, much beauty remains, and her intelligence shines through phrase after phrase.

Just as wonderful, if not more so, is Villazón as Basilio, the music teacher. Earlier in his career, before his vocal crisis, Villazón excelled in comic opera. Here, his personality remains just as distinct and charming, and his voice handsome and steady. It's a marvelous performance on every level.

I'm also quite partial to baritone Philippe Sly's Antonio—he'll be singing Figaro on record before you know it—and soprano Regula Mühlemann's exceptionally sweet Barbarina. If she continues to sing like this, she will go far. Maurizio Muraro (Bartolo) and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Don Curzio) do just fine in their smaller roles.

Most problematic of the leads is Hampson as Count Almaviva. The roughness that spoils the once velvet smooth surface of his voice whenever he sings adamantly may, in one sense, suit his character, but the Count's all-essential nobility rarely comes through. To his credit, Hampson does attempt, when appropriate, to soften his tone and sing with the honeyed sweetness of yore, but when he does, the voice too often grows unsteady. It is not a performance I wish to return to.

Sopranos Sonya Yoncheva (Countess Almaviva) and Christiane Karg (Susanna), as well as mezzo-soprano Angela Brower (Cherubino), are all very fine singers. I'm especially partial to Karg, whose work in lieder (art song) is exceptional, and whose top is gorgeous. Nonetheless, the gravity of utterance that often enters her tone lower in the range is not ideal for Susanna. Yoncheva, on the other hand, displays less personality and nobility than ideal. Brower, too, has room to develop in the personality department. Heard together, the three women sound too much alike.

Alternative Choices
Not every audio or video issue includes every single recitative or aria that Mozart wrote. While the fast moving plot's multiple twists and turn are most easily followed on video, some of the most characterful and distinctive performances are only available in audio format. One survey discusses what the unattributed author considers the most notable recordings of the lot. While I haven't heard every recording in that survey, by a long shot, I do have my faves. I also confess that I spend far more time listening to female voices than to men's. Hence, my faves focus on the three female leads: Countess Almaviva, Susanna, and Cherubino.

Every time I think of the Countess, I hear in my head the voices of Schwarzkopf, Te Kanawa, Fleming, and the incomparable Tiana Lemnitz (on the two arias she set down in the 1930s). Even soprano Lotte Lehmann's German language "Porgi amor" is exceptional, catch breaths and all.

For Cherubino, the endearing Von Stade on multiple CDs and DVDs, and Ewing on film/DVD, are unforgettable. Ditto for the astoundingly alive, unquestionably idiosyncratic arias that Conchita Supervia recorded in 1928.

For Susanna, you must hear the marvelous Irmgard Seefried and, in her German and Italian versions of Susanna and Cherubino's arias that were recorded in the 1920s, the equally incomparable and totally adorable Elisabeth Schumann. I'll bet some readers are eager to note their must-hears in the comments section.

My recommendations for complete, nearly complete, or complete except for [. . .] recordings most certainly include the aforementioned Jacobs, whose interpretation, singers, and period instrumentation/pitch are ear-opening. On SACD, which I must get, it will probably sound fabulous.

Moving back in time, I'm quite partial to the 1950 Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic and the triple-header soprano superiority of Schwarzkopf, Seefried, and Jurinac. Alongside it sings the 1955 Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic and the truly fabulous cast of Siepi, Gueden, Della Casa, Danco, Poell, and Corena (which is available as a hi-res download); and the 1976 Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic DVD with its only-on-film Ponnelle staging and superb lip-synched cast of Prey, Te Kanawa, Freni, Ewing, and Fischer-Dieskau. While I haven't heard the Gramophone survey's favorite Böhm recording, the 1968 version with the Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra and a superb cast that includes Prey, Fischer-Dieskau, Janowitz, Mathis, and Troyanos, I can well imagine why that different trio of female leads is so attractive. As for the conducting, Böhm takes to Mozart as to the manner born.

Collectors will certainly want to hear this new Nézet-Séguin recording, and savor what is special about it. Few, however, will ultimately embrace it as their first choice.

rschryer's picture

As well as having a home in Philly, Yannick has one in his native Montreal, where he has served, since 2000, as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain (his life partner is a violist in the OM).

sjk's picture


The Grammophone survey you refer to was written by Richard Lawrence (http://www.gramophone.co.uk/latest-issue/awards-2011).


woodford's picture

I've heard the Cosi in this series, and bought the Don Giovanni in HiRez, and you're right about the sound. it's dry and airless, and does little to flatter the voices. I enjoyed both performances, but neither as much as other favorites.

it's interesting that you highlighted Te Kanawa and Von Stade as two exemplars for the countess and cherubino, but didn't mention the Solti recording in which they both appear, along with Lucia Popp, Sam Ramey, Thomas Allen, and Kurt Moll. it's a fantastic performance, and the recording is very good as well.

and it's available on Tidal and Qobuz. well worth listening to if you don't already know it.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Yours truly doesn't have it in his collection. This must be remedied. The cast is fabulous.

woodford's picture

http://www.audiostream.com/content/lovely-recordings-hosted-stephen-dupont#db0zh0FS3Y1pm3dd.97 ;)

(for some reason i can't have one login across both sites)

volvic's picture

It is the only one I don't have in my collection, have passed it up in the past due to other recordings by Solti leaving me cold. Will pick it up. Recently picked up the Fricsay version and quite like it, listening to it now. Do like the Kleiber version from 1959 but as I have said before, the Bohm is the one to get and no, the Germanic accents coming through the Italian singing doesn't bother me.