Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro. Thomas Hampson (baritone), Sonya Yoncheva (soprano), Luca Pisaroni (baritone), Christiane Karg (soprano), Angela Brower (mezzo-soprano), Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Maurizio Muraro (bass-baritone), Rolando Villazón (tenor), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor), Philippe Sly (bass-baritone), Regula Mühlemann (soprano). Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Vocalensemble Rastatt, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945, 3-CDs
DIGITAL REVIEW – Studio recordings of opera on CD were supposed to have reached the end of the line when the EMI Antonio Pappano/Plácido Domingo Tristan came out in 2005.
This turned out to be a premature obituary, but it’s true that recording staged or concert performances has now become the standard practice of releasing operas not headed for DVD and Blu-ray. That is how Deutsche Grammophon has been conducting its main long-term operatic project of late, methodically recording the seven major Mozart operas live in concert at the Baden-Baden Summer Festival.
When the project was launched in 2012, it seemed like an investment in – or a gamble on – the future of DG’s young, newly-signed conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as well as the sometimes tenuous vocal state of the star tenor who is singing in all seven recordings, Rolando Villázon. In the case of Yannick, DG managed to catch a skyrocketing career on the upswing since he was appointed as James Levine’s successor at the Met in early June; thus, every new entry in the cycle is going to have that much more prestige on the line.
This new Marriage of Figaro is the fourth release in the series – following Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and last year’s The Abduction from the Seraglio – and it mostly adheres to the cyclical nature of the project right down to the identical fonts of the lettering on the glossy finish of the box. Again, the modern-instrument orchestra – plus a fortepiano – is chamber-sized, and the players are asked to observe period-performance attacks and sustains without vibrato.
Yannick’s yen for swift tempos in Mozart is telegraphed when he races breathlessly through the overture. He runs a tight ship but, this time, it seems a bit too tight; the joie de vivre level of the ensembles and characters’ interactions in the Don Giovanni and Seraglio recordings is not as high here. Scenes like the tumultuous Act II finale or the reunion of Figaro and his parents in Act III that should produce plenty of sparkle and warmth pass by uneventfully, and the period practices produce dryness in the sound that also bleaches some of the color out of the picture.
The score is performed uncut, including the once-commonly-omitted back-to-back Act IV arias for Marcellina and Don Basilio. That’s significant because two marquee names, Anne Sofie von Otter and Villázon himself, were cast against type in these supporting roles, so each gets an extra star turn. Von Otter proves to be an unusually sympathetic, attractively-voiced Marcellina; here, this character is no ancient battle-axe. And seizing the opportunity, Villázon hams it up as Basilio through much of the opera while shedding the buffo shtick and turning in a strong vocal performance in his Act IV showcase. (Nézet-Séguin and Villázon talk about the project in the DG video below.)
Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva makes for a most affecting broken-hearted Countess early on in her Act II aria and adds an alluring “Dove sono” later. Luca Pisaroni’s Figaro is pretty good most of the time, yet in the big arias – “Non più andrai” and the great catalogue of female foibles, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” – he lets us down, for there is not much pizzazz in the former or bitterness in the latter. Thomas Hampson’s experienced Count is sturdy and not all that temperamental but with plenty of voice left; and Maurizio Muraro bring an imposing comic bass to Dr. Bartolo. Christiane Karg gradually reveals several facets of Susanna’s character; Angela Brower gets Cherubino’s breathlessness in “Non so più cosa son,” and her “Voi che sapete” is quite beautiful.
In all, this is a good cast, and Yannick keeps the energy flowing, but this set faces formidable competition through the ages from Figaros by Abbado, Böhm, Fricsay, Levine, and Gardiner – to cite only those on the DG label. The presence of an audience is hardly noticeable except for a bare handful of muted collective laughs – and praise be at a time of cost-cutting in the twilight of the CD era, the thick 236-page booklet contains a full libretto!
Next, La Clemenza da Tito is scheduled to be recorded in 2017, with only Idomeneo and The Magic Flute remaining after that.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.