Notes and Editorial Reviews
MOZART Le nozze di Figaro • Sylvain Cambreling, cond; Peter Mattei (Count Almaviva); Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro); Heidi Grant Murphy (Susanna); Christine Schäfer (Cherubino); Roland Bracht (Dr. Bartolo); Burkhard Ulrich (Don Basilio); Helene Schneiderman (Marcellina); Eberhard Francesco Lorenz (Don Curzio); Cassandra Berthon (Barbarina); Jürg Kienberger (Recitativist); Op National de Paris O & Ch • OPUS ARTE 6004 (2 DVDs: 250:00 + 59:43) Live: Paris 2006
Bonus: A Day of Real Madness, documentary by Reiner E. Moritz
This splendid performance of Le nozze di Figaro was originally issued on DVD in 2006, and is here making its reappearance in Opus Arte’s “Essential Opera Collection.” As in the case of the Rigoletto from 2001, reviewed elsewhere, this designation is well deserved. Since this disc was fully reviewed by Christopher Williams in these pages when it was first released, I won’t retread the excellent detail of his review but only make some observations of my own.
First, the production by Christoph Marthaler is whimsical and truly funny. Back in the 1980s, I complained bitterly of Peter Sellars’s ridiculous updating and setting of this opera in a New York penthouse (like the Trump Tower) because so much of what was in the libretto—not only the stage directions, which for better or worse are very explicit because this was based on a play that had equally specific instructions, but also in the words of the recitatives and arias—was either ignored or completely contradicted by his almost consistently asinine setting. Marthaler has set nearly the entire opera in front of a marriage bureau, which has a certain relationship to the subtext of the opera (it is, after all, about marriage, fidelity, and whether or not one should ever marry for convenience or just for love), but even here there are moments, such as the riotous conclusion of act II or the final scene which is supposed to take place in the garden outside the Count’s abode, that just don’t work. Marthaler, in collaboration with conductor Cambreling, has come up with an amusing alternative to playing the secco recitatives on a harpsichord. They have invented a character called the “Recitativist,” a comedian-musician (Jürg Kienberger) who whimsically plays the recitative accompaniment on any number of instruments, including (at one point) a balloon with air escaping from it and, at another, by tooting on beer bottles that he drinks from to continually lower their pitch, sometimes humming along with them. This creates a very funny diversion to these otherwise dull moments, which is fortunate since Cambreling insisted on keeping all of them because they realized that this is where the real drama takes place, that the arias are just moments of reflection that stop the action.
As an overall production I much preferred David McVicar's contemporary staging given at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Here, the opera was updated to 1830s post-Revolution France where “the inexorable unraveling of an old order has produced acute feelings of loss.” More to the point, the costumes are closer to the era of Beaumarchais’s play and the stage settings equally funny due to McVicar's sharp wit. The differences lie in the quality of the casts and of the recorded sound. In the Royal Opera video (Opus Arte 990), we are given strong vocal and acting performances by Erwin Schrott (Figaro), Miah Persson (Susanna), the Count (Gerald Finley), and Don Basilio (Philip Langridge). Dorothea Röschmann’s Countess is extremely well acted, but she doesn’t have the steadiest or most beautiful voice for the role, and the singing of our Cherubino (Rinat Shaham), Dr. Bartolo (Jonathan Veira), and Marcellina (Graciela Araya) is substandard. The recorded sound, however, is terrific, the microphone picking up orchestra and soloists with crisp, lifelike fidelity. In this Paris production, every single role from top to bottom is sung splendidly. Williams had a niggling complaint about the fact that Christine Schäfer, the Cherubino, is a soprano, and thus does not add variety to the ensembles but sounds a bit too much like the Susanna and Countess. This is true, but except for the very low notes in “Voi che sapete,” Schäfer sings and acts brilliantly, really looking like an adolescent, sex-drawn boy. My complaints about the cast here are small, mostly of baritone Regazzo as an almost consistently scowling, over-macho Figaro with a gorgeous voice but almost no inflection in his use of it, and of soprano Heidi Grant Murphy as Susanna, who sings beautifully but looks rather dowdy, something like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote.
More to the point, the sound recording and mix by Radio France is not consistently clear. The microphones seem to be a little high or a bit away from both soloists and orchestra, with the result that everyone sounds a little reverberant most of the time. Once in a while, the principals walk right under the microphone—it seems to have been set up a little to stage left of center—and then sound marvelous, but at moments the sonics are a little off. This is a shame, as Cambreling conducts here a shade better than Antonio Pappano on the Royal Opera DVD, the differences being in the Countess’s two arias. Having played these pieces for a soprano friend of mine many years ago, I can assure you that they are written in cut time, 2/2, and so are not to be performed as slowly as they so often are. Pappano, then, conducts them in the conventional way which is wrong; Cambreling at a brisker pace which is right. Christiane Oelze cannot match Röschmann as an actress, thus her overall presentation (visual as well as aural) is not as strong, but strictly from a singing perspective Oelse’s voice is radiant and exquisite (I have previously described her as having a voice of pure crystal) whereas Röschmann’s is plain-sounding and a bit fluttery.
What makes Marthaler’s conception work is his zany, Marx Brothers-style sense of humor, which (thankfully) is tasteful and never overdone. In brief, this is a great singing and conducting performance set to a clever but not always convincing stage production. An opera like Rossini’s La pietra del paragone benefits from this kind of surreal zaniness because it isn’t really a stage plot that one takes the least bit seriously, but Beaumarchais’s comedy of manners, though requiring some good slapstick moments, needs a bit more structure in order to make sense of it. Therefore I recommend this DVD for its many good points while still preferring the Royal Opera version as a visual representation of the work.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley