Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro’

It is almost unfair as a good performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is usually taken for granted. Asked about the starry casts she used to be part of in the Vienna State Opera, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once said that those were singers who matured together under the supervision of knowledgeable conductors through a heavy rehearsal schedule and that it was only natural that they responded so immediately to each other and to the music. In other words, you cannot produce an ensemble out of thin air in two weeks. And if there is an ensemble opera in the repertoire, this is Le Nozze di Figaro. For this score to work, the sections of the orchestra and every singer in the cast must be well-integrated the same way the registers of a Mozartian singer’s voice should be. Nothing can stand out, it’s either perfect balance or fiasco. That is why I keep my expectations very low whenever I go to the theatre to visit the Almavivas, Figaro and Susanna. I am thankful for what can be salvaged and deem myself satisfied if I can remember two or three numbers that went really well.

Even in my low expectation policy, I expected very little of this evening’s performance. To start with, the sheer size of the Metropolitan Opera auditorium is a challenge in itself for a conductor to achieve ideal balance in scores meant for theatres smaller than the Met’s barn. Ideally, one would need singers of surpassing means and immaculate technique, an orchestra with extraordinarily flexible strings and a chorus of unusual clarity. The problem is: the house orchestra is not famous for clarity of articulation and the chorus is notoriously unwieldy. Conductor Antonello Manacorda had the difficult task of trying to make something really delicate out of inadequate raw material. Without considering the circumstances, the performance could be described as dull, unclear and inert. There was a high level of mismatches between singers and the orchestra, the playing of which was often poor in articulation and limited in color and dynamic. And things tended to be even stodgier when Mozart makes texture more complex, as in both act 2 finale and the finale ultimo. Now, if one considers the circumstances, if the musical side of the evening did not add much in terms of expression, it didn’t stand in the way of the stage performance.

Richard Eyre’s staging is hardly illuminating – I took a while to understand it was not Michael Grandage’s Glyndebourne production. There is nothing new or coherent or deeper than superficial in the Personenregie either, but – and this is not a small “but” -it was truly efficient. You may call it cute, unimaginative, slapstick, plagiarized (and it often was all of that), but the comedy timing never failed. All members of the cast seemed comfortable with each other, with what they had to do and they seemed to be having fun, what is a must for a comedy. I laughed, everybody laughed.

I have to be honest: I wasn’t eager to see Susanna Phillips’s Countess. Everything I had heard from her would not make me foresee anything of interest this evening. Porgi, amor has plainly defeated many a famous soprano and I braced for the worst, but Ms. Phillips – even if she and the conductor couldn’t agree about the beat – attacked her notes with surprising purity. The tone was a bit whimpery, intonation had its dubious moments, but she really tried to do the right thing. She developed steadily from her entrance. I am bit cranky about Countesses who don’t sing their high notes in the trio with Susanna and the Count, but the voice warmed to a round, creamy sound and, other than a wiry last phrase, her Dove sono was ideally sung. Again, she got a bit nervous with having to produce 100% pure tone when she forgave the Count for his bad behavior, but in the end I enjoyed her singing. Under the right conductor, she could really nail it. As it was, it was interesting and occasionally satisfying. Her Susanna, Nadine Sierra, was really in charge of keeping the plot moving and, if her acting was too pointed, she showed herself never less than fully committed. Her voice is not what one expects in this role – it never sparkles or gleams and she has the habit of stressing the last syllable of every phrase, even when it should go unstressed, but her Italian is usually believable, she can float mezza voce when she needs and her low notes are better than what one hears in the role. Even announced as indisposed, Gaëlle Arquez was a dulcet, stylish Cherubino, really at home in this repertoire. The three ladies indulged in discrete ornamentation.

Adam Plachetka had no problem in portraying the Count as a nasty, irascible master. Yet his grainy bass baritone seems to have lost some volume since I last saw him. And his singing tended to the emphatic in a way that tampered with legato. The stretta of his big aria was almost unmusical and his variations of what Mozart wrote felt as plainly wrong. Luca Pisaroni’s voice too sounded less spacious than what I was used to hear. Some of his high notes grated too and I would have mistaken him as the one with the flu. At this point, his Figaro runs dangerously close to sounding artsy,  and yet he is an alert actor and keeps the audience on his side. Brindley Sherratt was a forceful, firm-toned Bartolo, Meigui Zhang displayed a warm soprano as Barbarina and it was surprising to find Giuseppe Filianoti as Basilio.


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Kita-ku is not one of Tokyo’s fashionable neighborhoods and most tourists never go there. It’s district hall has a 1,300-seat theatre called Sakura Hall, where a collaboration with the Japanese period-instrument orchestra Les Boréades has brought about a yearly concert since 1995 with foreign guest musicians, featuring works ranging from Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie to Gluck’s Les Pèlerins de la Mecque. This year, they return to Mozart with Le Nozze di Figaro (in 2011, there was Così fan Tutte and, in 2004, there was Idomeneo with tenor John Elwes, a CD of which has been released).

Conductor and violinist Ryo Terakado is a key name in the Japanese HIP scene and has performed with every Japanese artist in this repertoire you can think of. I have, for instance, recognized some members of Masaato Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan on stage today. His approach to Mozart is hardly meant to cause any revolutionary impression. On the contrary, it seems exclusively informed with the intent of making this score clear, spontaneous and theatrical. Tempi were flowing, but not rushed, accents sounded natural and harsh sonorities were not seen as an expressive tool. Although Les Boréades is a very decent orchestra, it is no Les Musiciens du Louvre: strings are a bit on the thin side, the brass section is bumpy and woodwind could be little bit more in the foreground. I don’t know the hall acoustics, but I have the impression that singers had too much advantage on the orchestra too. And we’re speaking of a semi-staged performance with instruments on stage. In any case, I would be curious to see what Terakado could do with a more technically adept team.

I have the impression that Mozart would expect someone closer to Klara Ek than Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Countess Almaviva. Hers is a light, dulcet voice incapable of an ugly sound throughout its range. I had seen her before as a thoroughly lovely Romilda in a production of Handel’s Serse in Kopenhagen. Today, her Porgi, amor was sung with the spontaneity of a song one would sing to oneself, but I guess we’ve become too used to hear some like Te Kanawa making it an example of sublime. She was happier when the role’s tessitura was higher and offered an exemplary Dove sono, in which she proved capable of some shading. Roberta Mameli is the prove that a great Susanna has to have brains first – and then a good voice. Her voice is not devoid of charm – it comes in one pleasant bell-toned quality with enough body but very little tonal variety. If she could produce true mezza voce and allow her low notes to blossom properly, she could have a career as a Mozart singer, for she masters the style and is musicianship incarnated. What makes her Susanna so special, however, is her understanding of the art of Italian declamation. Whoever had the opportunity to attend a theatre performance in Italy knows that this country has a highly formalized theatrical tradition. You can close your eyes and guess who’s the damsel in distress, who’s prince charming, who’s the bad guy, who’s the damsel’s father et al only by the way they speak. Ms. Mameli’s Susanna is deeply imbued of buffo tradition and her recitatives are an exquisite concoction in which you can find thousands of information about who is Susanna and what she is doing at that precise moment. Better – she can retain this ability in her arias and ensembles without any sacrifice to vocal line. Even better – she is an excellent actress with a three-dimensional view of her role. This Susanna is clearly a servant, she obviously is in love with her fiancé, she evidently resists the Count and enjoys the distinction of being allowed in the Countess’s privacy. Most of all, she likes to think she is cleverer than everyone else. In the act II finale, she makes it clear that her greatest surprise there was not that Figaro could prefer an older woman, but simply the fact that someone could have finally fooled her. Later on, she used every little word in Deh vieni, non tardar to allure, to seduce not only Figaro, but everyone in that theatre. I have seen and heard great singers as Susanna, some of them had superior voices, but Roberta Mameli simply offered me the most completely interesting performance in this role in my experience. Bravissima.

As Mutsumi Hatano (Cherubino) has fallen unexpectedly ill and become completely hoarse, our Marcellina, Yuko Anazawa, had to dub her from behind the orchestra. Ms. Anazawa has a lovely, fruity voice and, nervous as she was by having to deal with previously unrehearsed recitatives, offered charming accounts of both Cherubino arias and a quite impressive rendition of her own aria, with extremely clear divisions. If she solves the lack of focus around the passaggio (and improves her Italian), she could have an important career.

Fulvio Bertini is a very funny actor, but his light and clear baritone is often too discreet for the role of the Count. Jun Hagiwara’s baritone too is light, but richer in harmonics (except in his high notes, when it is well focused nonetheless). His is an ideal voice for baroque music, but his Figaro was pleasant in its agreeable tonal quality and congeniality (his Italian too deserves some improvement). Makoto Sakurada has an international career in baroque repertoire and his cameo appearance here meant that we could hear Don Basilio’s aria, probably the best rendition I have ever heard (ok, the competition is generally a tenor near retirement…).

Considering this was only semi-staged with improvised costumes and props, it was amazing how much depth some singers were able to find here. Other than the above mentioned Mameli and Bertini, Ek never forgot that the Countess is a very young woman and portrayed her role’s essential dilemma: she fell in love with the Lindoro from Il Barbiere di Seviglia and ended up married to the Count Almaviva from Le Nozze di Figaro. I like too the fact that she doesn’t act as if she would become the title role in La Mère Coupable, because this is not the character portrayed by Mozart.

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Andreas Homoki’s all-purpose staging of… in the Komische Oper, this was Richard  Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, but here in the Tokyo New National Theatre it is supposed to be Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Anyway, I’ll walk you through the checklist – the color palette is limited to white/black/gray, there is only one set that comes apart at some point, there is a great deal of stylization/anachronism going on and singers are kept very busy throughout. To be honest, the production is 10 years old and I cannot say how many original ideas by Homoki are still in use. In any case, Spielleiter Yasuhiro Miura has done his job: in this sugar-rush approach – throngs of extras involved – everybody seems to be in the right place at the right time with the right motivation. It is all most uninterestingly efficient – and the animation from the cast is not of much help here.

“Animation” is the keyword to describe Ulf Schirmer’s conducting too, keen on fast tempi, crispy accents and regularity of pace. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra was seriously tested in what regards clarity by the unrelenting beat, but never gave up trying. This has given the performance some spirit – and even if dazzling accuracy would have been welcome, I would choose spirit over mechanical correctness anytime… What the conductor seemed to be rather careless about was his singers. At some times, I wondered if there had been any full rehearsal, for ensembles were invariably poorly balanced and synched. Sometimes a singer would sound unhappy about the tempo chosen for his aria; in other moments, he or she sounded as if he or she would have benefited of some guidance in style by the conductor. If this were a cast of exceptional abilities, maybe the magic would have operated by itself.

Mandy Fredrich has many advantages for the role of the Countess Almaviva: her voice is clear and uncomplicated and, having dealt with the role of the Queen of the Night as early as in last year’s Salzburg Festival, does not seem to find anything in this part really high (actually, she sing her own high notes better than almost every Countess I have ever seen live). She can also produce very clean Mozartian lines and has crystalline diction. But – and again this is a big “but” – the voice has a cold, uncongenial tonal quality and she too often sounds prosaic in moments in which she should sound simply scrumptious (the entire Porgi, amor, for instance). Her Susanna, Kanae Kushima, on the other hand, is very congenial – her voice has a smile and she knows what kind of woman Susanna is. However, faulty intonation and technique (she desperately needs a plausible solution for her low register) make it very hard to enjoy her performance. Deh vieni, non tardar was below amateurish. If a soprano has so little affection for this lovely piece of music, she should not be singing this role. Ukranian mezzo-soprano Lena Belkina (Cherubino) too made very little of her arias – she and Mozart are not really best friends. Levente Molnár’s baritone has an attractive Thomas Allen-like color and – some “acting with the voice” apart – is quite stylish. He can be clumsy in some key moments, but something must have gone seriously wrong during the Count Almaviva’s big aria. The stretta was all over the place. As Figaro, Marco Vinco produced the right endearingly goofy impression – native Italian being a great advantage. The voice unfortunately has a muffled, not very youthful quality.

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The Theater Basel has been chosen by Opernwelt magazine “Opera House of the Year” both in 2009 and 2010. Since this distinction has never been bestowed upon the Deutsche Oper, the Deutsche Staatsoper, the Bayerische Staatsoper or the Wiener Staatsoper, I reckon that the quality of the ensemble, chorus and orchestra may not be the key criterion. The Swiss opera house has reached the news with some controversial productions, particularly Calixto Bieito’s Aida.

In their Japanese tour, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro has been chosen for performances in Aichi, Toyama, Tokyo and Shiga. Elmar Goerden’s 2010 production does confirm the Theater Basel’s repution for theatrical values. It is hardly what one would call Regietheater – the action is updated to our days and the story is told more or less as Mozart and da Ponte would have explained it. But – and this is a big “but” – the director really took the pains of trying to explain who these people on stage are. There are many insightful little touches: the room Susanna and Figaro are moving in is a nursery that has never been used; the Countess has probably ever been bipolar, but has gone worse since her baby’s death; the Count has been shut out in her morning process and finally given up; Figaro and Susanna’s wedding exposes their masters’ dead-end marriage and is dealt with as a marital problem by Count and Countess Almaviva. The fact that these masters are oppressed by a traumatic event makes their oppression more difficult to repel:  Susanna says to herself “Please fogive me for lying to someone who is really looking for love” when she is pretending to accept the Count’s advances, for she here knows she is playing with the feelings of a grieving father and estranged husband. If there is anything in the concept which does not feel right is the fact that the Count’s role deserved a little bit more consideration from the director. For instance, when he sings Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro, frustration could be more evident than wrath – the keywords being mentr’io sospiro. He is declaring he is miserable – and that is not a small detail.

To make things better, Goerden’s staging is not just a concept – it really works on stage. Characters are very well defined, their course of action is continuous and coherent even in ensembles and everything is done in a natural and convincing way. Considering those are ensemble singers, it is curious that the guest “star”, Carmela Remigio, is very much in the core of this staging. I cannot say how much is her own contribution, but I have found her Countess outstandingly convincing in her confrontation with the Count in act II. Actually, this evening it made more sense than… ever. I had seen this Italian soprano in Damiano Michieletto’s Don Giovanni in Florence and there too she proved to be a compelling actress.

The musical aspects of this performance were far less inspiring. Presuming that I’ve heard their A-team (I don’t really think so…), the Basel Sinfonietta and the house chorus are quite sub par. Although maestro Giuliano Betta provided clarity and animated tempi in plenty, strings lacked a distinctive sound and were not terribly precise, in any case nothing appalling as French horn proved to be. Also, synchrony between soloists and orchestra was quite problematic, an overbusy fortepiano continuo making things difficult in recitatives too. At least this evening, the conductor seemed to have not a very good ear for singers, undermining predictable breath pauses and rushing them in moments where they (and the audience) expected them to take some time to convey their point.

The cast itself left more than something to be desired in terms of singing. Remigio can produce clear and stylish Mozartian lines, but seems to find that bothersome. She undersings in ensembles, resorts to acting-with-the-voice when she can and is often vehement rather than persuasive. For instance, while in the duettino with Susanna she proved to be a capable Mozart singer, Porgi, amor lacked poise (but not a broken heart). Dove sono was not truly gracious, but had some beautiful mezza voce. However, she “sold” her Countess with the conviction with which she delivered her words. Often when I found her gusty or sour or just harsh, the text actually made more sense that way (if not always the music…). A thought-provoking, capable but hardly ideal performance.

Maya Boog (Susanna) too knows her text, always has the dramatic action in sight and ultimately does not let down when Susanna music becomes “difficult”, but her soprano is seriously unfocused, sometimes in the verge of breathiness. Franziska Gottwald (Cherubino) has a beautiful voice, the low register particularly irresistible, and probably offered the best singing this evening. Her mezzo has some colorless patches and she can sound quite anonymous now and then. In any case, the raw material for a great Mozart singer is there. Christopher Bolduc (the Count)’s baritone lacks some volume and is a bit generic in tone (and he has to work on his Italian) and yet he acquitted himself in the stretta of his aria far more commendably than many more interesting singers.  His Figaro, Evgeny Alexev sometimes produces Hermann Prey-like sounds, but is mostly throaty and/or nasal.

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Although this is my second experience with the  production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro from Prague’s National Theatre, you won’t find here in this blog any description of the first time, when I saw it in the Estates Theatre in 2011, because I found it nothing but a tourist trap for those who want to see the theatre where Mozart premièred Don Giovanni. Why then have I decided to give it a second try? First, on their Japanese tour, they would probably show their A-team; second, I was curious about their guest prima donna; but ultimately because January 14th was a holiday with a discouraging weather forecast.

It must be said that the sets seem to have been dusted prior to the shipping to Japan – I had the impression some pieces of furniture are new (maybe borrowed in Japan?), but I might be wrong. Maybe the fact that the whole scenery wasn’t wobbly as back in Prague is the answer for the positive impression, who knows? This cast too is stronger in the acting department (although there is not really much direction to speak of). In Prague, there was an interesting conductor (Tomas Netopil) that offered a strong performance in what regards the contribution of the orchestra. Here we had a competent Jan Chalupecky, whose kapellmeisterlich reliability did not involve a rich, clear or polished orchestral sound. Maybe he had to make do with the B-team this evening. As it was, the conducting duties involved not making it difficult for the singers while keeping the principles of Mozartian style in view – within these goals, the performance was quite successful, if you don’t expect excellency.

When it comes to the cast, it is hard to believe that a country with such tradition of important singers (Emmy Destinn, Karel Burian, Maria Jeritza, Jarmila Novotná, Beno Blachut, Milada Subrtová and, to give some “new names”, Magdalena Kozená and Martina Janková) cannot produce – from the roster of its own National Theatre – a more impressive Mozartian cast than this (let’s not speak of that from 2011…). I have written that the core of any performance of Le Nozze di Figaro is the soprano in the role of Susanna. Back in Prague, we had a very decent one (really superior to her colleagues), but this evening we had even better: the young Jana Sibera is a very promising singer whose sweetly shimmering, quicksilvery soprano is entirely at home in Mozart. Her soaring Deh vieni, non tardar redeemed this afternoon. She is also a very good actress who never forget that Susanna is just a servant in the house – a pretty one with almost ingenuous playfulness, who cannot hide her excitement for taking part in her masters’ whimsical marital games. Michaela Kapustová’s Cherubino had her moments, but she is unfortunately too often careless for comfort. The very young singer taking the role of the Count still has an undeveloped voice – an interesting one, still green I am afraid – but the Figaro (the one survivor from the 2011 cast) who had yet to master his high register and to follow the conductor has become helplessly nasal-toned and still lags behind or rushes ahead the beat. And there is Isabel Rey’s Countess. Singers often say that one should always have a Mozartian role now and then to see what has gone wrong and to fix it. This Spanish soprano used to be a very commendable Mozart singer – as one can see in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s DVDs of Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni from Zürich- but she seems to have gone really astray. In her defense, one could say that she rises up to her high register more easily than some famous Countesses (she has sung her own high notes instead of delegating them to Susanna, for strenuous results though), but other than this, there was very little to beguile the ears this afternoon. I do hope that this Mozartian excursion help her to find her way back.

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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.

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I wrote only yesterday about the redeeming powers of an exceptional musical experience in the context of a shabby old production. Thomas Langhoff’s 1999 staging for the Berlin Staatsoper is as provincial looking as can be (it is very similar to the one shown in the Estates Theatre in Prague – and I don’t mean this as a compliment) – sets and costumes are anachronistic and display very poor taste, when they don’t look downright cheap, but differently from what I saw in the Deutsche Oper yesterday, the Spielleitung is very efficient and the sense of comedy timing is never lost. More than this, these singers natural abilities are well taken profit of and some scenes seemed almost spontaneous (something remarkable in a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, an opera in which things tends to be a little bit look-how-I’ll-do-this-and-how-I’ll-do-that).

However, the acting is hardly the reason why this evening’s performance was remarkable – here the laurels go to Daniel Barenboim. I have both his recordings (English Chamber Orchestra with Heather Harper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Berlin Philharmonic with Lella Cuberli and Andreas Schmidt) and find them ponderous and poorly acquainted with Mozartian style and I was bracing myself for a long evening. But fortune favors the bold – although the conductor does not care very much for clearly articulated phrasing, the Staatskapelle Berlin in top form could find clarity in its rather legato-ish approach to fast passagework in the overture, which counted with clean attacks and a flowing but not hectic pace. During the whole evening, the maestro seemed to ponder how fast every number should be by the criteria of expressiveness and polish. He proved this evening to have understood the way Mozart operas benefits from a “concertante” approach, in the sense that soloists and orchestra were always presented in the same perspective, with singers and woodwind responding to each other in structurally commendable and exquisite sounding organicity. If singers needed a bit more intimacy, the orchestra would shift together with them to a softer yet positive sound. Voi che sapete, for example, sounded wholly fresh to my ears – every shift of mood perfectly rendered, oboes and clarinets increasingly seductive during the arietta.  The conductor never lost from sight that great comedy always operates on the thin line that separates the funny from the touching, and, while avoiding cuteness, these characters’ feelings were never made fun of. Riconosci in questo amplesso, for instance, has its moments of physical comedy, but it also portrays a mother finding a long lost son – and, as R. Strauss would say of Der Rosenkavalier, one should have one eye dry and the other one wet here. And so we had this evening. My hat for Barenboim – this was Mozart playing of top level, and that he has achieved that relatively late in his successful career only confirms that he is truly a great musician.

Mozart operas tend to be cast from the ensemble in German and Austrian opera houses – and it is relatively lucky that the Staatsoper has so many great singers under permanent contract. Dorothea Röschmann is the Susanna in the video from this very production (with Emily Magee and René Pape) and has since then developed into big lyric roles and had to pay some price for it (she had cancelled some performances and her recent Donna Elviras involved sometimes a Mi tradì transposed down). I am, however, glad to report that this invaluable singer is finding her way back to the top of the game. Her Countess is featured both in a video from London (with Miah Persson and Gerald Finley) and from Salzburg (with Anna Netrebko and Bo Skovhus), but her performance this evening was clearly better than in both these recordings. Although she comes close to holding to dear life by the end of the stretta of Dove Sono (the high a’s were there all right, but they felt like high c# sharps in her physical effort, and the high c’s in Susanna or via sortite were abandoned for the ossia*), this evening she sang with more seamless sense of legato and scaled down more willingly (and comfortably) to piano when necessary. In terms of interpretation, she is a singer who always gets to the heart of the matter – and if one will recall smoother renditions of Porgi, amor, this one unmistakably had a broken heart.

This evening’s Susanna was both enchanting and disappointing. Anna Prohaska is a highly intelligent singer, with stupendous Italian pronunciation, REAL understanding of the text (I had to write that in capital letters, for she found more original and insightful turns of phrasing than almost anyone else since Lucia Popp), sense of style, acting skills and personal charm, but the voice itself is simply too small-scaled for Susanna. It comes in one basic silvery color, but not “silvery” enough to pierce through in ensembles, and her low notes – the fact that you could hear them is commendable in itself – were produced in something very close to Broadway belting. I am not saying that she should never sing Susanna – but I am not sure if she should sing this role now. One could say that Popp, Cotrubas, Freni et al sang this role when they were very young. But those were very different voices, I am afraid. I hope Christine Schäfer has some good and honest friends kind enough to tell her that she should take a break and think about what she has been doing. In the last three years, I have only seen her in bad shape, but this evening it was a bit more serious than this. Considering that the role is Cherubino – and that this singer has ventured into singing Violetta Valéry in La Traviata a few years ago – and that she could barely make it this evening, this cannot be seen as normal. She is a singer I had known and liked from recordings (the Mozart/Strauss CD with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado was a favorite of mine for a while) – and it would be sad to see her going down so soon.

Artur Rucinski was a clean and poised Count Almaviva. He lost a bit steam for his big aria, but that did not prevent him from offering clear divisions and a good trill even then. Vito Priante was a most likeable Figaro, in his spontaneous, resonant voice, crystal-clear diction, rhythmic buoyancy and sense of comedy. He does belong in this repertoire and I hope to hear more from him (so far, I knew him from baroque opera recordings). Finally, Maurizio Muraro was an excellent Basilio and Katherina Kammerloher, shorn of her aria, was a fresh-toned Marcellina.

* This may sound picky, but I firmly believe that the Countess should sing her high c’s in this scene. If one remembers Kathleen Battle’s claims for the prima donna dressing room in the Met in the 1980’s, the answer should be clear: “the prima donna is the one with the high c’s, the trills… and the big aria”.

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Although Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro has been taped and released on DVD in its original run, when Anna Netrebko sang the role of Susanna and Nikolaus Harnoncourt led the Vienna Philharmonic, I would say that this year’s reprise would have made a more significant document. Not only is the musical performance of superior quality, but also the new cast brought a more natural approach and a more developed sense of comedy that put in perspective Claus Guth’s attempt to Schnitzlerize Beaumarchais. Offering a more convincing performance than Harnoncourt’s is not a difficult task for conductor Robin Ticciati – instead of trying to make a statement by eccentric accents, rit. and acc. effects and schizophrenic choice of tempi, the young English maestro generally gives this music time to breath and even dared to choose paces slower than we are used to hear today in order to let each phrase develop musical and theatrical meaning. This approach might have worked in its full potential if the Vienna Philharmonic were in the pit, instead of a rather dry-toned Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As it were, phrases expected to bloom and develop expressive tonal colouring were treated to an almost uniformly insipid orchestral sound that only occasionally portrayed the many nuances of expression in Mozart’s music. I found it particularly bothering that Guth insisted on impairing musical values by his dubious theatrical points – whenever Mozart writes a complex ensemble, there is this bothersome actor playing cupid making laugh-provoking jokes to overshadow Mozart’s beautiful polyphony (why?). The poor singer in the role of the Count Almaviva had to sing his very difficult aria carrying the said actor on his shoulders – no wonder he sounded breathless in it (and the fact that he could sing it at all in these circumstances in an evidence of his good technique).

Even if it might be true that Genia Kühmeier is not a big-house Countess, her performance this evening could be the dictionary example of how Mozartian singing should sound. Both her arias were touchingly sung in immaculate tone and absolute purity of line. Curiously, she took first the lower ossia in the act II trio with Susanna and the Count only to nail a very bright and easy top c a few moments later. Marlis Peterson might be lighter-toned, but her high register often sounded richer in comparison and, as a result, she found no problem in presiding over ensembles. She too is a stylish Mozartian with a truly pleasant voice, but the role of Susanna requires a stronger lower register and maybe a little bit more sexiness and playfulness. Even in the acting department, she could sometimes seem too chic for the circumstances (and she was probably the tallest Susanna I have ever seen…!). Katija Dragojevic, on the other hand, has an ideal physique for Cherubino and does not need to work hard for sexiness. Her voice is sensuous and clean-toned, but low notes are not really there and the intonation in her first aria left something to be desired.

Both Simon Keenlyside and Erwin Schrott offer far more varied and interesting performances than the singers featured on the DVD. The English baritone is a truly gifted actor, who brought a very British fastidiousness and an underlying vulnerability to his Count that made his role particularly funny. He seemed a bit short in the lower end of his range and couldn’t always keep a smooth line, but his voice is forceful and well-focused.  Erwin Schrott adapted his own vivacious Figaro to the director’s concept and avoided ad libs and excessive enthusiasm, what made him even more persuasive. I have seen him in stronger voice in this role, but he still sang very well in his full-toned basso cantante.  The minor roles were well taken by Marie McLaughlin, Franz-Josef Selig and Patrick Henckens, but the act IV arias have been cut (as well as tiny bits of recitative during the opera).

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Inutilia truncat is one of the most representative “slogans” of Classical art, one Dieter Dorn could have claim to follow when creating his 1997 production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro for the Bavarian State Opera. There is no lack of action in Beaumarchais’s story as told by Lorenzo da Ponte, but the truth is that you should take good care of what you are showing on stage when you are showing basically very little. Jürgen Rose’s sets never suggest anything clean and elegant, but rather lack of imagination and limited budget. As if saggy white fabric walls were not disappointing enough, the Countess is denied furniture but only a couple of blue chairs on a blue linoleum (Susanna has to write her letter to the Count on the floor with an instrument the handiness of which can only suggest a ball pen miraculously sent from the future) and the whole garden scene is reduced to three large pieces of white cloth under the most glaring lighting one can think of. If the Count does not recognize his wife as thoroughly lit as she was there, it was probably because he was dazzled by followspots. After 13 years, it is impossible to speak of the director’s original ideas for his actors, but the most positive aspect of this performance was the overall very good stage performances from all involved. Although there is probably nothing original going on here, this was nimbly performed by the cast.

The only character who seems to have deserved special consideration seems to be the Countess, here shown as the mistress of her own household ready to use Susanna and Figaro for her purposes (i.e., winning her husband back) almost as selfishly as the Count. It was most fortunate that Barbara Frittoli could perform the concept as believably as she has done this evening. Although her attitude towards her servants was quite liberal, this tampered nothing with the fact that they were supposed to obey her orders. Also, even if she longed for her husband attentions, this did not prevent her from loosing her temper at him whenever an instance of his misbehavior had been found out. The Milanese soprano’s vibrant voice has always required some time for a demanding ear to adjust it to the needs of Mozartian instrumental purity and, even if these days it is running dangerously close to unacceptability, it still remains inside the realm of admissibility. Once you get used to it, you will find a stylish singer able to very clean attack in testing moments such as Porgi, amor, easy ascent to her high register (she sang her own high notes as written by Mozart, instead of delegating them to her Susanna) and a very homogenous tonal quality throughout her range. More than that, a singer who handles the text intelligently and whose soprano is large enough to tackle a lyric role in a larger house without forcing and capable of shading without holding back. Although her singing this evening was hardly immaculate, it was nonetheless engaging, expressive and spirited.

Camilla Tilling is the owner of  a pretty voice and has a strong sense of Mozartian style, but lacks projection and tends to be overshadowed by the orchestra and other singers. She was also an austere, rather charmless Susanna, but still spontaneous and surprisingly quite realistic. In the end, even if I missed some vivaciousness, I could not help thinking that the trade-off for the usual commandingness and cuteness was somehow positive. As Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus was, on the other hand, vivaciousness itself. Hers is an irresistibly warm voice and she has temper to spare. After some problems during Non so più , she offered a memorable Voi che sapete, desire, anxiety and seduction perfectly balanced. The Almaviva family was quite well represented this evening, for Mariusz Kwiecien proved to be an exemplary Count. His strong baritone finds no difficulty in this writing and he knows how to convey bossiness while keeping some charm. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo proved to be less creative as Figaro, his is a firm, generously and vigorously produced voice and, as Frittoli and Bonitatibus, could make recitatives sparkle in the idiomatic usage of their native language.

Juraj Valcuha seems to have a good idea of how this opera should be performed within the limits of Mozartian style and the house orchestra is adeptly flexible and clear, even if the sound was not terribly beautiful, but the idea behind the gesture was not always there. Too often, the proceedings suggested the mechanical rather than the spirited. To make things worse, now and then one would suspect that a couple of extra rehearsals could have been helpful – ensembles were often poorly timed and every member of the cast, in various degrees, would occasionally experiment some trouble in following the conductor’s beat.

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When I saw Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 2005, I named my review “Contessa, perdono”, because of the words I had written about the evening’s prima donna. Now I repeat the same title because of the words I did write back then. This fall’s reprise had been anounced with Dorothea Röschmann and Isabel Bayrakdarian as mistress and servant in the Almaviva household – an exotic idea considering these ladies’ similarity of Fach. However, Röschmann’s health problems and Bayrakdarian’s pregnancy forced the Met to recast. Therefore, Hei-Kyung Hong, the Met’s resident Countess was called to fill in.

Although Hong’s soprano used to be more crystalline in 2005, these two years must have been very rewarding to the Korean soprano. This afternoon she proved to be an all-round entirely satisfying Countess. As in 2005, her voice is an admirable instrument: at once full and silvery lyric soprano with a very easy and gleaming top register. However, her ability to convey it through Mozartian lines is impressively improved. Maybe I saw her in a bad day in 2005, but the difference is simply striking. She is still not entirely at ease with Porgi, amor, but her Dove sono was note-perfect. Hers was a spirited, charming performance – and her stage persona could not be more graceful. I doubt that Röschmann would have been better, judging from her Salzbug DVD with Harnoncourt.

The “replacement” Susanna is also a true find. The young and volatile Lisette Oropesa from New Orleans has the proper quicksilvery voice, idiomatic Italian, complete grasp of style, enough cutting edge to pierce through the orchestra and a most likeable personality. In her Met debut, Anke Vondung offered an intense and irresistible Cherubino. Her Non so più was a bit thick-toned but Voi che sapete was beautifully sung. If I am not more enthusiastic, it is because I have witnessed the incomparable Joyce DiDonato’s Met debut in the same role in 2005.

There are plenty of Figaros more richly sung than Erwin Schrott’s – if my memory does not fail me, Luca Pisaroni’s performance in 2005 was rather more consistent too. But the Uruguayan bass-baritone’s stage charisma is an undeniable asset. With his neverending imagination, he illuminates Lorenzo da Ponte’s text with fresh new ideas throughout. Also, his ability to interact and to extract the best from his stage partners is praiseworthy, particularly in what refers to his Susanna, with whom she formed a vivacious couple. I am afraid Michele Pertusi is not in the level of the other singers – his slightly veiled bass is not devoid of charm but his whole approach is too buffo for this role.

Britain’s contribution to this production is far superior in 2007 than in 2005 – Ann Murray is still a formidable Marcellina and Robin Leggate was in particularly strong voice as Basilio. For once it was a pity they they were deprived of their arias.

Back in 2005, Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was considered too fast and nervous – and I have to confess a soft spot for the “tense” approach for this opera. Philippe Jordan’s comfortable, well-organised perspective was too reliable on the cast to produce the necessary sparkle. Differently from 2005, the string playing was often blurred and the brass section again left a lot to be desired.

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