Thirty-two years ago, the Vienna State Opera brought to Japan Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, particularly noted for its film adaptation (published five years before) with Kiri Te Kanawa, Mirella Freni and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The cast seen and heard at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan was no less glamorous: Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Agnes Baltsa, Bernd Weikl and Hermann Prey. Even in this uniformly prestigious group of singers, Popp’s Susanna was very much the evening’s Schwerpunkt, as it should be. After all, Susanna is the central role in this opera,and if the soprano does not provide the starting spark, the performance generally does not ignite.
The resurrection of Ponnelle’s old staging does seem anachronistic in the sense that its traditional approach, no added insight and cute routines are rarely seen in operatic stages these days. And yet, the staging presently in use in Vienna (by Jean-Louis Martinoty) too is more or less traditional, albeit stylized – and certainly less beautiful. What proved to be a surprise for me was the fact that, as staged this evening, sets and costumes looked shining new and Diana Kienast’s Spielleitung made the proceedings far more agile than they used to be in Ponnelle’s days. Also, the level of acting was above average, some singers bringing fresh ideas to their roles and some freshness to a potentially stiff enterprise.
I would say that a more agile conductor would have done the necessary trick to suppress the museological aspect of this performance. Peter Schneider has an old-fashioned view of this score – rich, vibrant orchestral sound, considerate tempi and elegant, light-on-the-foot tempi – pleasant, slightly decadent Mozart made believable by the echt decadent elegance imported from Vienna. The truth is that with any other big orchestra, this would have probably been quite boring – but these musicians know how to produce bright, clean, transparent sounds (I guess that the A-team featured in this evening’s Don Giovanni in the old opera house would have brought a little bit more smoothness too). As it was, moments like Aprite, presto aprite could have done with less ponderousness, but whenever a serious undertone could be found, the maestro and his orchestra could find the right poignant note that makes a performance of this opera really special – something that many buoyant and supple performances of this opera unfortunately often lack.
Barbara Frittoli’s vibrant soprano can still produce the right effect in this music – her Porgi, amor deeply heartfelt and poised – but there is now some tremulousness in her mezza voce and her high register is no longer really comfortable (she predictably chose the lower options in Susanna, or via sortite). Her characterization, as always, three-dimensional and classy. Her Susanna, Sylvia Schwartz is unfortunately too small-scaled to produce the right effect. She was too often inaudible and unvaried and the tone is grainy and not sexy. She is a stylish and musicianly singer – but the memory of Lucia Popp in the same production makes things difficult for her. As Cherubino, Margarita Gritskova offered the all-round more satisfying performance in the evening – her fruity mezzo projects well in the hall and she sang with true Mozartian poise. I intended to write that Carlos Álvarez was very close to be an ideal Count, full-toned and patrician with the right touch of nastiness – but I find his manipulation of his big aria’s stretta simply unacceptable. A baritone who has often sung Verdi shouldn’t be afraid of high notes. Erwin Schrott was clearly not at his most energetic – his voice sounded often undersupported, legato was often left to imagination, he overused parlando effects and was rather rhythmically imprecise. During the evening, he would improve and bring imaginative small effects (and some rather bureaucratically employed) to his Figaro. Small roles could be a little bit more solid (but for a charming Barbarina in Valentina Nafornita, more Susanna-material than Schwartz herself) – the chorus definitely could be improved upon.