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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze Di Figaro - Opera buffa in four acts, K.492 (1786)
Susanna, maid to the Countess - Dorothea Röschmann (soprano); Figaro, manservant to the Count - René Pape (bass-baritone); Count Almaviva - Roman Trekel (baritone); Countess Almaviva - Emily Magee (soprano); Cherubino, a young buck around the palace – Patricia Risley (mezzo); Marcellina, a mature lady owed a debt by Figaro – Rosemarie Lang (soprano); Don Basilio, a music-master and schemer – Peter Schreier (tenor); Don Bartolo - Kwangchul Youn (bass); Barbarina - Yvonne Zeuge (soprano); Antonio, gardener – Bernd Zettisch (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatsopernchor/Daniel Barenboim
Stage Director: Thomas Langhoff
Set Designer: Herbert Kapplmüller
Costume Designer: Yoshio Yabara
TV Director: Alexandre Tarta
rec. live, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 1999
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio; Picture Format 16:9; Resolution 1080i HD
Subtitle languages: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 111111 [191:00]

This opera is widely considered to be among the greatest ever penned. Designated 'opera buffa', it is based on the second of the Beaumarchais trilogy of plays set around Count Almaviva. Every professional opera company of reasonable size will have a production in its repertoire. It is certainly in the top ten performed world-wide in any year. For its time the subject was considered rather risqué in respect of Count Almaviva’s would-be amours with his servants. Also the original play in France had censorship problems because of its rather political slant of the proletariat getting the upper hand over the aristocracy. If it were not for the fortunate position held by librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, it is doubtful if the opera would ever have reached the stage. It represents a superb marriage of composer and librettist, the latter being surely unique in the annals of music. Born a Jew, uneducated until near the age of fifteen, he was forced to convert to Christianity on the second marriage of his father when the boy became known as Lorenzo Da Ponte. He went on to become a distinguished scholar, a Catholic Priest, a recognised poet, a rebel and not least a libertine and adulterer when in Holy Orders. He arrived in Vienna at the turn of 1781-82, a year before the Emperor restored Italian Opera to the Imperial Theatre, the Burgtheater. The Emperor appointed Da Ponte Poet to the Imperial Theatres.

The play on which the opera is based was viewed with some distaste in Vienna even after the more liberal Emperor Joseph II had come to power on the death of his mother. Da Ponte, with his access to the Emperor worked the necessary miracles and got his permission for Le nozze di Figaro to go ahead on the basis of it being an opera and not the already banned play. This necessitated the more political and revolutionary aspects of the play being toned down, particularly the inflammatory Act 5 monologue, it being replaced by Figaro’s Act 4 warning about women which greatly pleased the Emperor. In between Da Ponte’s going backwards and forwards to the Emperor to overcome various worries, Mozart composed the music in six weeks despite a flare-up of the kidney condition that was to kill him five years later. Despite some opposition from conservative sections of the Court, it was presented on 1 May 1786 to an audience somewhat bemused by the work’s novelty. At the second performance five numbers had to be repeated and at the third seven, with the duet Aprite presto performed three times.

Given the proliferation of recordings on video, as well as those in sound only, I assumed something special was afoot with this re-release of the 1999 Berlin performance under Barenboim’s baton. It seems that its virtue is as a "special new release of the first official Arthaus Musik Production from the original HD material". It is described in the advertising blurb as "a memorable recording from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin [which] was Arthaus Musik’s first official release in 2000". The hype continues by naming the virtues of Dorothea Röschmann, René Pape, Emily Magee and Peter Schreier among the singing cast. Then there's the presence of Daniel Barenboim, chief conductor of the Berlin State Orchestra since 1992, named conductor for life by the orchestra in 2000.

My own assessment, particularly when what we see here is placed in competition against several other stagings and performances, is of something distinctly tepid. To my ears Barenboim lacks fluency and orchestral pointing. Compare things with Pappano’s Covent Garden 2006 recording directed by David McVicar and rejoicing in Tanya McCallan’s elegant and consistent designs. Here there is frequent inconsistency between period costume and accessories. A magic-marker pen and a tool-belt used and worn by Figaro as he measures the room allocated to the young couple are simple examples. Later tea is made and poured with clear water visibly emanating from the spout. Trivial details, yes, but where is the overall conceptual vision and direction or was this a budget production with left-overs? I think not, but the constant clambering over and onto the elegant furniture also grated somewhat. I can forgive a lot if the singing is of a high standard and idiomatic but in total the singing is distinctly Germanic, lacking the Italianate tinta from the majority of the cast. This applies particularly to René Pape whose Figaro is wanting in the necessary sparkle let alone in revolutionary intent. As for Roman Trekel’s Count, he looks utterly stupid with his accentuated bald-wigged head. I exempt from any criticism Dorothea Röschmann’s Susanna and Patricia Risley’s well sung and portrayed Cherubino. I regretted seeing the sometime great Mozart tenor Peter Schreier in the small role of Don Basilio, the smarmy music master. Neither Rosemary Lang nor Kwangchul Youn created believable characters nor did they do justice to Mozart’s divine music. As the put-upon Countess Almaviva, Emily Magee sang nicely in duet with Susanna and made a better shot of Dove sono (CH.55) than a rather strained Porgi amour (CH.24). As to the concluding goings-on in act four, the lighting is so dim, even on TV, it is difficult to see what is going on.
Robert J Farr



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