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Le Nozze di Figaro
Kermes, Antonelou, Nesi, Forsström, Kirillova; Van Horn, Bondarenko, Loskutkin, Adam, Elliott, Agadzhanian; MusicAeterna (Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre), Currentzis. Text and translation. SONY 88430 14172
It's hard to decide which is more startling — the views stated by the conductor of this new Figaro or the performance itself. In either case, it's clear that Teodor Currentzis, who leads a period-instrument ensemble in Perm, Russia, is anything but timid.
Interviewed in the liner notes, he denigrates his predecessors in this repertoire and makes a claim to unique legitimacy. He promises fidelity to Mozart's intentions and practices, which he says include great latitude in dramatic interpretation. For some reason, authenticity also requires the use of Baroque instruments and vocal style, even though they predatethe composer's era — a practice that seems something like performing Shakespeare with Chaucerian pronunciation.
The performance is both controversial and invigorating. Mannered but technically precise, the overture features a breakneck pace, brittle contours and a tendency to expose inner instrumental lines. The next surprise is the prominence of the keyboard instrument (a fortepiano, considered historically appropriate), which is rarely silent, either during recitative or melody, in keeping with reports of Mozart's own performance manner. The result is an entire new layer of impressions, as fortepianist Maxim Emelyanychev devises florid, comical punctuation, explosive reactions, elaborate fantasia-like variations and quasi-leitmotifs, brilliantly and in an improvisational manner. When Curzio stutters, the fortepiano makes fun of him. It's fun, if a bit over the top.
Rhythmic freedom and flexibility also enliven this studio performance, especially in ensembles in Act II such as the trio (No. 14) involving the furious Count Almaviva. The sense of dramatic incident is keen. Even when the acting gets a little out of hand in Susanna's "Venite, inginocchiatevi," which features laughter, humming, whistling and the speaking of certain lines, the shifts and accelerandos remind us that this is an action aria, evoking plenty of stage movement. The dance music in Act III is remarkably propulsive and infectious. Often an ensemble takes an especially vivid turn, with tight staccato chords thundering in punctuation; attention must be paid.
Two aspects of the interpretation strike me as less effective. One is the exaggerated refinement — to the point of preciosity — of many slow passages. As if to prove their noble rank, the Almavivas often affect a dainty, whitened timbre. In "Contessa, perdono," near the end of the opera, the singers are so hushed and slow that they all seem paralyzed by terror or medication. Even the revelation of Figaro's true parentage in Act III is softened and limp, mined for pathos rather than laughs.
The other, related problem is the not inconsequential matter of the Baroque-flavored singing. Two tendencies collide here — avoidance of vibrato, and a hyper-inflected style — with awkward results. Not only do many of the Countess's and Susanna's important lines have an angular, disembodied, boyish quality; the insistent dramatic inflections also lead to distortions in tone and pitch. Fanie Antonelou, as Susanna, flattens and nasalizes the top note of phrases, an effect apparently intended as comic that becomes habitual. Both Antonelou and the brilliant Simone Kermes, the Countess, seem miscast.
Baritone Andrei Bondarenko, as the Count, is somewhat more Italianate and versatile, alternating between extremes of whispered lasciviousness and explosive rage. Mary-Ellen Nesi sings an effective Cherubino, although her "Voi che sapete" (like the Countess's "Dove sono") is embellished somewhat overabundantly, starting from the beginning. Bass Christian van Horn becomes a surprisingly warm, confident Figaro (something like a young Cesare Siepi) after an overrefined start.
The MusicAeterna instrumentalists seem to be playing for their life, especially the omnipresent pianoforte. The company under Currentzis is recording the other two Mozart–da Ponte operas (for release in late 2014 and 2015). That may be only the beginning of a wider trend — a growth industry in recycling and retrofitting Mozart, no holds barred.
In addition to three CDs, the package contains a Pure Audio Blu-ray of the entire opera, a gain in sound quality for listeners who have the required player.
DAVID J. BAKER
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