Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro / Davis, Titus, Donath

Release Date: 12/23/2014
Label: RCA
Catalog Number: RCA 63837
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Number of Discs: 3

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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Of all the new Mozart opera recordings that have come my way this bicentenary year, this one gets my vote for best conducting. Davis has been presiding over performances of Figaro for, I'd guess, thirty years now, and he knows exactly how the score should go. He “plays“ his Bavarian Radio Symphony the way a great Lieder accompanist plays the piano, bringing out inner voices at will, underlining every shift in mood, never overpowering the vocal line. His orchestra often seems to be singing along with the voices, sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, always enhancing the import of the text. There's a world of sadness, for instance, in the sighing of the strings as they introduce the Countess's “Porgi amor,“ just as, by contrast, there's fury and indignation in the music of the Count's aria. There are innumerable small expressive details as well. When Figaro tersely reprises his “Se vuol ballare“ in act II, he sounds more determined, more minatory, simply because of the way Davis uses the double basses to reinforce his words. Every new episode in the great act II finale, every twist in plot, is gleefully seconded by the orchestral voices, yet there's never any hint of exaggeration. Dynamics ebb and flow easily, tempos are always just, and it all sounds so perfectly sane and natural that you may have to refer to recordings led by lesser conductors to appreciate Davis's extraordinary skill. His previous Figaro for Philips, first issued in 1971, is fiercer in spots and always dramatically telling, if less smooth overall and less rich in detail. It was a good job, but the new account is altogether more masterly. I'd rank Davis's achievement in Figaro with that of Giulini or Erich Kleiber. Among contemporary conductors, I don't think anyone can touch him—at least not until some record company coaxes a Figaro out of the younger Kleiber (Carlos), who shares Davis's uncanny ability to make an opera orchestra sing.

I must, regretfully, pick on the cast. It would have made a great deal of sense, this busy Mozart year, for the big companies to pool their resources and give us fewer and better recordings: After some amiable discussion, each company would select just one major opera—RCA might take Figaro, say; Philips, Zauberflöte; EMI, Don Giovanni; and so on—and then assemble, in one place, the very best available cast. Fat chance! It's not that I'm opposed to competition. It's just that there aren't enough top-notch Mozart singers around to staff three or four new recordings of each opera. Only one of Davis's troupe strikes me as the best possible choice for her role: Helen Donath. Her Susanna is prettily, perkily vocalized, but beyond that, it's so assured, so plausible, and so per-sonably sung that the soprano herself all but disappears, leaving only the character vividly before us. We're not listening to Donath here; we're meeting Mozart's Susanna in the flesh. None of the other cast members are quite so accomplished, though every one of them is likable enough, and they're all so adept at projecting the Italian words that I'd like to know who their diction coach was (if any). The exception is Varady, whose voice has wonderful gleam and thrust but whose words are so peculiarly uttered that they color (perhaps unintentionally) her characterization. She's a serious, long-suffering Countess who's out of place among these conniving people, a Ruth amid the alien corn, and all the more poignant because of it. Her arias are beautifully, dolorously sung, though she's a bit short of breath in “Dove sono.“ It's no great feat to bring Cherubino to life; what really counts is the way he sings his arias. The young American mezzo Marilyn Schmiege is boyish and sensual enough, and she knows just how to shape “Voi che sapete,“ but there are a few raw patches in her voice. Cornelia Kallisch is also not a sterling vocalist, and she finds her aria too high and too florid for comfort, but she's a lively actress.

I admire Furlanetto's verbal skills a great deal. His Count has many faces: unctuous, gullible, aristocratically confident, eagerly amorous, all worn without the histrionics we often get from the most egregious teutonic blusterers. His voice is rusty, though, nowhere more so than in his aria, which progresses stiffly from note to note. Titus's Figaro doesn't have the vocal warmth and suavity of the best Italian models—his timbre is dry and undistinguished—but he's believable as both the feisty lover and the quick-witted schemer. I don't think he's done anything better on records; this Figaro is a great improvement on his Don Giovanni in particular. Nimsgern is a flexible Bartolo; Zednik manages Basilio's aria well enough to justify its inclusion; and that agreeable Swedish tenor Claes H. Ahnsjö still has some sweetness left in his tone. The Barbarina and Antonio are fine.

RCA's engineers have stereophonically exaggerated the distance between some of the singers in the ensembles—this is not the way they would sound in an opera house—but they've otherwise captured voices and orchestra with great naturalness. RCA's fat booklet includes notes and a libretto, and even a few photos of the recording sessions (something we seldom see any more). My favorite Figaros remain Giulini's on Angel (two mid-price discs) and Kleiber's on London (three mid-price discs). Davis's Philips recording is, truth to tell, slightly better cast than this new one: Norman, Wixell, Ganzirolli, Minton, and Freni as a still-incomparable Susanna; so I won't be giving that one away either. Despite its shortcomings, however, this latest Figaro has a theatrical vitality that's hard to resist. It compares favorably with all but the very best classic recordings, and it makes an auspicious start for RCA's re-entry into the opera business.

-- Ralph V. Lucano, FANFARE [11/1991]
Works on This Recording
1. Le nozze di Figaro, K 492 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer: Claes H. Ahnsjö (Tenor), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Bass), Cornelia Kallisch (Mezzo Soprano), Siegmund Nimsgern (Bass Baritone), Heinz Zednik (Tenor), Gerhard Auer (Bass), Monika Schmidt (Soprano), Julia Varády (Soprano), Alan Titus (Baritone), Helen Donath (Soprano), Azuko Suzuki (Soprano), Ingrid Kertesi (Soprano), Marilyn Schmiege (Mezzo Soprano), David Syrus (Harpsichord)
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Period: Classical
Written: 1786 ; Vienna, Austria
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