The best thing about this job – one of the best things, anyhow – is the chance it affords me to write about Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, as often as I like. I got to write about it last spring when the L.A. Opera put on its so-so production. Now a new recording has landed on my desk. Actually, I’ve never needed an excuse; Figaro is always somewhere on my mind. It not only contains some of the most beautiful music I know, it is also the most convincing demonstration of the way music can move the personages within a drama and, therefore, move the personages witnessing that drama – in a theater, at home in front of a video screen or even just a couple of speakers.
If I can prove this at all, the best way would be from one of the ensembles, when Mozart allows two or more characters to sing what’s on their minds simultaneously, with the music setting them apart – the power of music, in other words, to conquer time. Mozart’s own favorite ensemble in Figaro, or so he wrote somewhere, is the sextet in Act 3. The old harridan Marcellina, who has been trying to get Figaro to marry her, has now discovered that he is actually her illegitimate son; this also thwarts the designs of the Count, who has been trying to get
into the panties of Figaro’s intended bride, Susanna. Mother
and son are now reunited in a series of gooey, saccharine lovey-dovey phrases that show off Mozart’s marvelous mastery of musical parody.
In walks Susanna, who’s not yet in on developments; all she knows is that her darling Figaro is standing there cuddling in the arms of that dreadful Marcellina, and so, naturally, she throws a snit. What Mozart has been delivering to us as all sweetness and light, F major followed by C major, brightness and cheer, is nudged in two quick measures into an ill-tempered minor key. The harmony loses its direction utterly and modulates in sheer desperation, climaxing as Susanna hands Figaro a resounding slap on the ear. Finally Figaro gets in his explanation, joined by the rest of the company, and serenity – dramatic and harmonic – is restored.
But not quite. Perhaps to balance the fact that Susanna has come late into the ensemble, she is now allotted new music of her own: a haunting, serene, flowing tune made up of the most innocent phrases that expand into a perfect arch of melody, a kind of benediction on the joyous resolution of the day’s latest (but not last) crisis. I could argue for this moment as the most beautiful in the entire opera; perhaps Mozart felt that way, too. In any case, it is the kind of flourish that he alone could command, that last little light shone on his characters that lifts them out of artifice and onto a more accessible level where we can share their emotions, even their breath.
The first Figaro was a haphazard affair on 17 78-rpm discs recorded over two seasons (1935-36), with cast changes, at Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival and issued without recitatives. It wasn’t until 1952, well into the LP era, that a company risked an integral recording. (Trivia note: That was the album used by Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption.) In its final issue in 2001, the Schwann catalog listed 15 versions, and I’ve lost count since. On my desert-island shelf sits London/Decca’s Vienna State Opera performance conducted by Erich Kleiber (father of Carlos), with Lisa della Casa’s Countess and Cesare Siepi’s Figaro, a performance of such deep eloquence that I never expected to contemplate moving it aside.
But now there is Harmonia Mundi’s performance conducted by René Jacobs, and with it comes virtually a whole new way of listening to the sound of Mozart. The Belgian-born Jacobs, 58, has a distinguished dual career as countertenor and conductor, favoring mostly a baroque and classical repertory, with some marvelous Monteverdi and Handel operas to his credit. His ensemble is the Concerto Köln, playing on instruments of Mozart’s time and, more to the point, playing with a clarity of impact that Jacobs believes – and goes to some length to elucidate in excellent notes – was regarded by Mozart as integral
to the dramatic integrity of this music. You sense this immediately, and it is thrilling, as the small string section comes crashing down on the first fortissimo of the overture. Go back from here to the warm syrup of the Vienna Philharmonic on this same
passage; that, too, is beautiful, but suddenly it has become
The new cast is imbued with this power, this sense of danger. Figaro (Lorenzo Regazzo) measures the space for his and Susanna’s bed, and his lips almost smack at thoughts of that space in the future. Simon Keenlyside’s Count hurls imprecations at his dithering Countess like a fanfare of trombones; she – Véronique Gens – draws tears with every troubled response.
The rest – Patrizia Ciofi’s Susanna, Angelika Kirchschlager’s Cherubino all a-twinkle – couldn’t be better; together with the marvelously spirited leadership, they turn the venture into a new kind of intensely human chamber music writ large.
Harry Bicket, who was in town to lead only one (why?) of last week’s Hollywood Bowl concerts, is also of the current generation of Europeans who speak the early-music languages particularly well; his 2001 Handel Giulio Cesare with the L.A. Opera is fondly remembered. At the Bowl he gave a nicely balanced reading of the last of Haydn’s symphonies, with the Philharmonic forces properly reduced and loving attention paid to the miraculous flights of harmony in the slow movement. Once again, however, as so often this summer, the intrusive echoes in much of the Bowl’s seating area rendered Haydn’s dramatic scoring ludicrous. This is not a minor problem, and will require some serious construction to correct.
The rest of Bicket’s program consisted of interesting trash. First there was a Salieri overture, an early piece from long before he and Mozart locked horns. After intermission there was an extended collection of clichés and rip-offs in the manner of, say, a 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, a parody of a piece of early romantic fluff afflicted by an inability to bring itself to an ending. The music was no better for the fact that it actually was composed by the aforementioned Mendelssohn: a Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, grossly protracted, well enough played (by Yura Lee and Shai Wosner). The Salieri overture that Mr. Bicket conducted, by the way, was to an opera called The Stolen Bucket. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but it hardly seems worth the effort.