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MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro

CD Button Karg, Yoncheva, Brower, von Otter; Pisaroni, Hampson, Villazón, Muraro; Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Vocalensemble Rastatt, Nézet-Séguin. Text and translation. DG 479 5945 (3)

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CONDUCTED BY Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the first phrases of Figaro’s overture announce the nature of the “folle journée” to come: the opening gesture becomes like a whispered bit of gossip, an intimation of the veins of erotic and political intrigue that will play out through the opera. He never loses sight of the work’s comedy, but his effervescent reading also reveals the emotional resonance that makes it a humanistic masterpiece. Take the orchestral prelude to “Porgi, amor”: the passage is played more quickly than usual, avoiding lachrymosity, but with enough deliberation to let its sentiment through. The Countess, for all her sadness, is too self-aware to succumb to tears; instead, she is poised to enter into the manic doings of the day.

This is the fourth installment of Nézet-Séguin’s Mozart series on DG; like the others, it’s derived from concert performances at the Baden-Baden Festival, this time from 2015. It features singers who combine vocal accomplishment with musical and dramatic intelligence. Luca Pisaroni is an unusually somber Figaro, one with no use for buffo mannerisms. This servant is supremely rational. The opening scene plays out as his moral education—a tutorial in the ways of the world from which he emerges sadder but wiser. In “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,” you can hear Figaro doing the arithmetic as he explores the nature of cuckoldry in a reading both funny and touching. Pisaroni relishes articulating his native language; every word of da Ponte’s libretto is a delight. 

Christiane Karg is a good match for him. Her Susanna is no soubrette but a serious young woman—a beacon of moral intelligence, albeit one with a good deal of native wit, conveyed through the alertness of Karg’s singing and the sharpness of her attack. Only in “Deh, vieni” did I wish for a little more conventional sweetness, and for a measure of melting lyricism to temper the singer’s scrupulous accuracy.

The Countess is Sonya Yoncheva, who so naturally conveys vulnerability that just her vocal tone makes the character’s plight tangible. She avoids laying on affective gestures; her singing has dignity befitting an aristocrat. Yoncheva produces one of the most beautiful sounds in opera today, making her performance as sensuously enjoyable as it is affecting. 

This is the second time Thomas Hampson has recorded the Count for DG. The first time was in 1990, on the James Levine/Met set; the present release makes all too apparent the effects of the intervening quarter century. Without recourse to working legato, Hampson has to shout his way through the role. The hectoring tone, unpleasant to hear, also robs the character of complexity: the Count becomes a bully, offering no clue as to why the Countess desires his affections. 

Angela Brower, as Cherubino, deploys an appealing lyric mezzo of so bright a tinge that you could mistake her for a soprano. She nicely distinguishes her two arias: the bursts of sound that punctuate “Non so più” register as unruly hormonal disruptions, while the relative poise of “Voi che sapete” shows the page summoning his best manners in the presence of the Countess. 

Anne Sofie von Otter, Cherubino on the Levine set, graciously acknowledges the passage of time by taking on Marcellina. The hints of the voice’s former creaminess suggest that the housekeeper is an aging beauty rather than a simple harridan. Von Otter’s intact virtues as a singing musician justify the inclusion of her Act IV aria, a moment of delight rather than a trial to be endured before the rewards that follow. Although you’d never glean Rolando Villazón’s past career as a star lyric tenor from the evidence on these discs, his astringent present-day tone is aptly suited to Basilio, and his intelligence as a singer informs his portrait of the wily music master.

Maurizio Muraro scores comic points as Bartolo, but his voice is too worn to allow “La vendetta” to deliver its full impact. Regula Mühlemann, as Barbarina, is delectable in her brief search for the lost pin. But the show belongs to Nézet-Séguin, who offers a reading so well gauged, and so bursting with life, that it continually provoked me to think, “What a wonderful opera!” —Fred Cohn



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