Thanksgiving Figaro

An important reminder: I don’t just critique the present state of the classical music world. I love classical music, and sometimes I stilli get lost in it, just as I did in the old days, when I loved it without any footnotes, and lived in the classical music world fulltime.

This happened over Thanksgiving, when I had the gift of some quiet time in the country. I found myself listening to Mozart operas, first Don Giovanni, in the René Jacobs recording, surely one of the most astounding alt-classical performances ever done of a standard classical piece. (I returned to the Jacobs, by the way, after seeing the Don Giovanni production at the New York City Opera. Which leads to this parenthesis, soon to be a full-fledged post here: The company seems to be back, in a strong, lively way. Bravo to them!)

That led me to the Jacobs Nozze di Figaro, which I hadn’t heard since it came out, and then to classic old Figaro recordings. I went to the old recordings because the Jacobs cast, apart from Simon Keenlyside (powerful, radiant, complex) as the Count, struck me as comparatively junior league, no matter how famous some of the singers might be now. This doesn’t mean the performance can’t sweep you away, and that the cast doesn’t generate some real dramatic heat, but — not major league singing.

So here’s a short report, Greg’s diary of his time in hog heaven. Casts listed in this order: Figaro, the Count, the Countess, Susanna, Cherubino.

1955 Decca recording, with Cesare Siepi, Alfred Poell, Lisa Della Casa, Hilde Gueden, and Suzanne Danco. Erich Kleiber conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

This, at its best, comes across like a grand old movie, the kind where the stars are personalities, not just actors. And this goes for the conductor and orchestra, not just the singers. Just listen, for instance, to the pizzicato strings, imitating Cherubino’s guitar (or whatever he’s supposed to be playing when he sings “Voi che sapete”). They swing. There’s no other word for it. They dance into the offbeats, with such verve, and so much enjoyment.

The weak link in the cast is Poell, dry-voiced, though very dramatic. And the star of stars is Siepi. He soars over the performance, and while he acts his role with relish and delight, he’s also entirely implausible, because with a voice like that, he couldn’t — in the musical sociology of the 18th century — be a servant. He’d be the king. The emperor. 

1955 EMI recording, with Giuseppe Taddei, Eberhard Waechter, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Anna Moffo, Fiorenza Cossotto. Plus an early-in-his-career appearance by Piero Cappuccilli as Antonio. Giulini conducts the Phiharmonia Orchestra.

Like a ’60s or ’70s big-budget film from a great director. By far the most carefully conducted of the recordings I sampled, with maybe the best all-round orchestra playing. Plenty of vitality, too, but not so much verve. Nothing to match the old Viennese touch that Keilber brings, or the alt-classical panache of Jacobs.

A curiosity: each cast member seems to be in a separate dramatic space, as if they weren’t all working from the same concept of the opera. Though individually their acting is at the very least lively, and from Schwarzkopf quite affecting, as if a tragic heroine had found her way into the comedy. How this fits with Taddei’s over-cuteness I wouldn’t even try to understand. Moffo is a standout for me, because she’s so sexy, on top of all her other virtues as an actress and singer.

Plus: Taddei, Waechter, and Cappuccilli all are baritones. So in the C major section of the second act finale (“Conoscete signor Figaro”), much of which lies toward the bottom of the octave below middle C, none of them quite can dig in enough. They get the notes out, of course, but not with the bite of Siepi, who as a bass is effortlessly comfortable in that register. (And he sings the high notes better than most baritones.)

1956 EMI recording, with Sesto Bruscantini, Franco Calabrese, Sena Jurinac, Graziella Scuitti, Risé Stevens. Vittorio Gui conducting the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra.

A true class act, wonderfully civilized, brought down a little by Calabrese, who’s comparatively colorless, and vocally sounds strained by his role, And by Stevens, who’s lovely, but sounds too old for Cherubino. Gui isn’t a name too many people remember these days, but he’s alive and, again, civilized, maybe a bit slow in places, at least for my jaded 2009 taste.

A great pleasure here: Figaro and Susanna are both Italian. It makes a difference. The text comes alive, and the opening scene, with only the two of them, just sparkles. Bruscantini (another name maybe not so much remembered anymore) is a true working-class Figaro, strong and bluff, something none of the others I sampled seemed to go for. If only he had an aristocratic count (Waechter, Keenlyside) to play off of!

2004 René Jacobs recording, on Harmonia Mundi. Lorenzo Regazzo, Simon Keenlyside, Véronique Gens, Patrizia Ciofi, Angelika Kirschschlager. René Jacobs conducting the Concerto Köln.

I’d compare this to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette film, a postmodern look at history, with today’s dance music playing at the court dances, and a contemporary shoe or two peeking out amid all the antique ones. It’s also like the film because it comes off as an ensemble production, apart from Keenlyside, with no one in the cast really memorable, and the director (Jacobs, in this case) standing out as the real star.

Jacobs, as always with Mozart, uses period instruments with contemporary phrasing, tempi, and rubatos. (There’s the Marie Antoinette link.) Plus insanity from the fortepiano and cello in the recitative accompaniments (though not as much as in Don Giovanni). Jacobs thinks — and I’m sure he’s right — that the players would improvise very freely, so we get (among much else) double, triple, and quadruple stops from the cello, and free fantasies from the fortepiano. I love it.

Regazzo, the Figaro, typifies how the cast strikes me — good enough, but anonymous, at least compared to the big vocal personalities of the past. Everyone, though, really does seem to be in the same dramatic space, with the same concept of the piece, and that’s something I don’t get from the other recordings. Plus Jacobs conducts with almost as much fine detail as Giulini (just listen to the contrasts of piano and forte, especially in fast passages, for instance in the second act finale, and with a lot more swing. So this is an alt-classical pleasure, and I can’t quite imagine how the balance would change if all the singers had as much personality as Jacobs.

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  1. says

    What a dedicated Figaro listener you are! What a pleasure it is to get the “down low” on these various performances.

    By the way, in every performance of Figaro I have seen Susanna plays (or pretends to play) the guitar while Cherubino sings “Voi che sapete.”

  2. says

    Wait a minute – why is Rene Jacobs alt-classical? He’s working within a fairly well-established period-performance tradition, I would think. (I haven’t heard the recording, so I’m reluctant to make any definite judgment on it.) More to the point, Rene Jacobs performing a Mozart opera in what he thinks was the style at the time, while doubtless really cool, shares absolutely nothing with Mason Bates DJing from his laptop as an orchestra plays, other than that you like both things.

    If you’re going to argue for the utility of “alt-classical” as a term, I think you need to actually define it, and then use it consistently.

  3. Janis says

    Mm, the one version I wish existed is the one with Michael Maniaci playing Cherubino. He’s a bona fide soprano — his voice never dropped. He’s a big dude though, so it’s a high voice with all the belt of a baritone. Quite cool.

    There was apparently a controversy when he got tapped to play Cherubino. I love opera — where hiring a guy to play a guy is against tradition. :-) So at one point, he was a guy hired to play a part written for a young girl of a boy cross-dressing as a woman. I’m dizzy …