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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 1

Le nozze di Figaro: Mozart’s operatic gem comes to Opéra de Montréal

by Joseph K. So / September 1, 2011

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Mozart’s opera buffa Le nozze di Figaro was composed in 1786, with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, it remains one of the most popular operas of all time. According to operabase.com, during the last five seasons (2005-2006 to 2009-2010), Nozze was the fifth most popular opera in the world with a total of 399 professional performances. Only Die Zauberflöte (451), La traviata (447), Carmen (424), and La bohème (420) were performed more frequently.

Mozart thus claims two of the top five spots in this unofficial popularity contest. Without the Masonic symbolism and deep philosophies in Die Zauberflöte, Nozze is the most human of Mozart's operas. A comic-dramatic plot dealing with love, lust, jealousy, infidelity, and ultimately forgiveness never goes out of style, especially when framed by a divine score full of scintillating arias, duets, and ensembles.

Just beneath the surface of Nozze is Mozart’s social commentary—rather daring in his time—on the tension between two worlds separated by class and wealth: the “upstairs” domain of the aristocratic Count and Countess, and the “downstairs” world inhabited by “the common folks,” the working class Susanna and Figaro. There are no gods and goddesses, just people of flesh and blood, whose lives remain as fresh and relevant today as in Mozart’s time.

Nozze premiered to moderately positive reception in Vienna in May 1786, with Mozart himself conducting. It was staged in Prague later the same year to solid success. Figaro and Count Almaviva are sung by baritones, although in Mozart’s time, the baritone voice category did not exist. Similarly, Cherubino, normally assigned to a mezzo today, was classified as a soprano.

This being one of the more lengthy Mozart operas with four acts and three hours of music, Nozze is often performed with a number of “standard cuts”: Marcellina and Basilio’s arias in act 4, plus a duet, chorus repeats, and various cuts to the recitatives. Mozart also recycled some of the music in other works—Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai” has an instrumental quotation in act 2 of Don Giovanni, and the Countess’s aria “Dove sono” has its origin in the Agnus Dei section of his Coronation Mass.

The principals in Nozze (Figaro, Susanna, the Count and Countess) are very exacting roles that demand Mozart singers of the first order. For example, the act 2 opening aria of the Countess, “Porgi amor” has to be sung “cold” with no chance for the soprano to warm up. It requires long breath, accurate intonation, purity of sound, and rock-solid legato, an acid test for any singer. Similarly, the Count’s bravura aria “Hai gia vinta la causa…Vedro mentr’io sospiro” requires a free upper register combined with a powerful sense of drama. Generally considered the prima donna in Nozze, Susanna has only one aria, “Deh vieni non tartar,” and the tessitura is unremarkable, but it’s a role requiring real stamina as Susanna has lots of ensemble work and is on stage for most of the opera. Modern-day directors seem to prefer youthful singers for Figaro and Susanna as these are as much acting as singing roles, and good chemistry between them is vital.

L’Opéra de Montréal has assembled an ideal cast. Top on my list is baritone Phillip Addis as the Count. Addis, with his spectacular lyric baritone and powerful stage persona is tailor-made for this role. He partners the American soprano Nicole Cabell as the Countess. Winner of the 2005 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Cabell is sure to light up the stage with her luscious soprano and alluring stage presence. Robert Gleadow has previously sung Figaro with the COC. His irrepressible personality is a real asset as Figaro. Hélène Guilmette sings Susanna.

Le nozze de Figaro, Opéra de Montréal, September 17, 20, 22, 24, 19:30, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier operademontreal.com

» Discography
One of the most recorded of Mozart's operas, there are plenty of great recordings of Nozze. Several came out around the mid-1950s to coincide with the Mozart bicentenary. Erich Kleiber’s on the Decca label (1955) has the great Cesare Siepi and Hilde Gueden as Figaro and Susanna. Also indispensable is Giulini on EMI (1959) with Schwarzkopf (Countess) in one of her signature roles and Anna Moffo as a surprisingly effective Susanna, partnered by Giuseppe Taddei as an idiomatic Figaro. Also worthy is the Colin Davis recording from 1970 on Philips, with Mirella Freni a gorgeous-voiced Susanna and Jessye Norman an opulent Countess.

On video, one of the most enjoyable is the 1975 performance conducted by Karl Böhm and filmed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. It has a “dream cast”—the adorable Susanna of Freni, here paired with the slightly mature but honey-toned Figaro of Hermann Prey. A very young Kiri Te Kanawa is a fresh-voiced Countess. Captured for posterity is the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count. The American mezzo Maria Ewing is an intriguing Cherubino, captured here before her vocal decline. Of the several recent productions, a standout is the 2001 René Jacobs version with Simon Keenlyside as the Count and Veronique Gens as Countess. Also enjoyable is the 2006 Mozart year production from Salzburg on CD and DVD. It has the glamorous Anna Netrebko as Susanna, a role she has since dropped.

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