Record Guide: Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro

“I fell asleep and was under the pleasant illusion that I was listening to Le nozze di Figaro” – Joseph Haydn in a letter to a friend

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, his first collaboration with the Venetian poet and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, could only have come from the minds of two geniuses far ahead of their time. Viennese audiences had never seen anything like Figaro. Interestingly enough, it took years for the public to fully grasp it; despite its successful premiere at the Burgtheater in 1786, it was only performed a handful of times in Vienna before becoming a regular part of the repertoire some two years later. Considered by many to be the greatest opera ever composed, Le nozze di Figaro isn’t easy to perform. You need eight first-rate singers along with very capable comprimarios and a conductor who understands Mozart to make it work. It is, however, one of the most recorded operas in the repertoire, so we are fortunate to have plenty of options.

Early Interpretations That Failed the Test of Time

Fritz Busch’s 1934-35 version (Naxos) is historically very important because it was the first attempt to record a Mozart opera almost in its entirety. The sound is decent, but the recitativo secco is completely omitted. Busch’s conducting is nothing special and the singers don’t necessarily perform well, with the exception of Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder’s charming Figaro. A similar result can be heard in Herbert von Karajan’s 1950 recording for EMI/Warner: an ambitious undertaking that ultimately falls short because, although he has fantastic singers, his direction is inexplicably frenetic and his cast struggles to keep up. Erich Kunz as Figaro, Irmgard Seefried as Susanna and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess stand out in the few moments when the conductor lets them shine. As Busch, he also omits the entire recitativo secco. Karajan never managed to make a proper recording of Le nozze di Figaro; he later attempted both live and studio recordings, but for various reasons always failed to create a convincing interpretation of the opera. That’s why I won’t be discussing any of his other interpretations in this guide.


Average Recordings with Some Merit

Vittorio Gui’s 1955 version (EMI/Warner) is nothing out of the ordinary. The direction is empty, flat and at times humourless, but some of the singers make this recording worth listening to at times. Sesto Bruscantini nails the comic parts as Figaro, Graziella Sciutti shows us why she was one of the dominant Susannas of her time and Sena Jurinac is a ravishing but inexperienced Countess. Franco Calabrese has an interesting bass voice but his lack of high register prevents him from being a good Count (he doesn’t sing the high F-sharp at the end of his Act III aria), while Rise Stevens’ Cherubino lacks flexibility and energy.

Erich Leinsdorf’s 1959 interpretation for Decca is uncharacteristically bland and, like Gui’s, lacks humour. Giorgio Tozzi makes an adequate Figaro, nothing special, and George London’s Count, though rich in voice, lacks the elegance and aristocracy required for the role. The female cast is better: Roberta Peters’ Susanna is excellent, as is Rosalind Elias’ Cherubino. Lisa della Casa gives her best recorded performance as the Countess. The lack of comedy in the recording is somewhat mitigated by Fernando Corena’s Bartolo and Sandra Warfield’s Marcellina.

This 1970 EMI/Warner recording is evidently marked by Otto Klemperer’s characteristically slow and solemn conducting, which ultimately detracts from the opera’s witty comedic moments. The vocal highlights are Teresa Berganza’s anthological Cherubino and Reri Grist’s superb Susanna. On the other hand, Gabriel Bacquier as the Count and Elisabeth Söderström as the Countess aren’t enough to save the cast from Geraint Evans’ unbearable Figaro.

James Levine, usually a very good Mozart conductor, misses the mark with his 1990 recording for Deutsche Grammophon, conducting the work in a brusque manner that ignores some of the opera’s most sensitive passages. The cast looks great on paper, but in execution it is less than the sum of its parts. Kiri Te Kanawa’s Countess isn’t as lovely as in other recordings and Dawn Upshaw’s voice sounds very small, even for a role like Susanna. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Figaro is beautifully sung, but lacks incisiveness. On the other hand, Thomas Hampson as the Count, Anne Sofie von Otter as Cherubino and Anthony Laciura as Basilio thrive.


Good Recordings with Shortcomings

Ferenc Fricsay’s conducting is, as always, excellent when it comes to Mozart. This 1960 Deutsche Grammophon recording is no different, as he manages to highlight every little detail hidden in the score. His singers, although they should sound good in theory, don’t manage to give a credible performance on disc, mainly due to the amount of overacting they seem to have been asked to do. Renato Capecchi as Figaro and Irmgard Seefried as Susanna grin, giggle and exaggerate every moment they can and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau loses the aristocratic and calculating qualities that distinguish his other performances of the Count. Maria Stader’s attractive Countess seems to be the only one to escape this trend.

The 1971 reading by Sir Colin Davis for Philips’ Mozart Collection is fascinating, unique and dramatic. His conducting is imaginative without losing firmness. Mirella Freni is one of the best Susannas on disc, Jessye Norman’s Countess is absolutely fantastic and Ingvar Wixell is certainly a good Count Almaviva, though he lacks a touch of elegance and polish. On the other hand, Wladimiro Ganzarolli’s Figaro brings the recording down with his overly rough and unmusical performance. Yvonne Minton as Cherubino is good without being anything special, while Bartolo, Marcellina and Basilio, sung by Clifford Grant, Maria Casula and Robert Tear respectively, are quite good.

Sir Neville Marriner’s version for Philips (1985) is characterised by his energetic conducting, which blends perfectly with the lightness, directness and small scale of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Barbara Hendricks is a very sweet Susanna, while Agnes Baltsa portrays one of the best Cherubinos in the discography. Lucia Popp, who usually sang Susanna, lacks the vocal size for the Countess, but her intelligence and adaptability as a singer make up for it. José van Dam as Figaro and Ruggero Raimondi as the Count are good, but the similarity of their interpretations makes it difficult to distinguish the master-servant relationship between them.

Sir Charles Mackerras’ 1994 Telarc recording, like Marriner’s, is made with a smaller orchestra: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. His musical direction, consummate and knowledgeable of Mozart, is one of the highlights of this version, along with his perfect understanding with the orchestra. On the vocal side, Carol Vaness delivers one of the best recorded Countesses, Susanne Mentzer is a lovely Cherubino, Suzanne Murphy portrays an experienced Marcellina and Antonio Antoniozzi, though sometimes light-voiced, delivers a very comic Bartolo. Nuccia Focile as Susanna and Alessandro Corbelli as the Count give a fine performance, while Alastair Miles’ Figaro is dull and uninspired. A big plus of this recording is the large appendix of alternate arias from the opera.

Memorable Live Recordings

This live recording from the Metropolitan Opera in 1944 (The Forties) features Bruno Walter’s quick but studied conducting and the legendary Ezio Pinza’s rich and sonorous portrayal of Figaro. The sound quality may not be the best, but it’s enough to appreciate his extraordinary qualities. He’s also accompanied by three fantastic leading ladies: Bidú Sayão (Susanna), Eleanor Steber (Countess) and Jarmila Novotná (Cherubino), making this live performance an absolute classic.

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s mythical 1953 live version from the Salzburg Festival, sung entirely in German (EMI/Warner), is alluring not only because of the conductor’s mastery and expressiveness, but also because the cast is magnificent. We hear three of the singers from the 1950 Karajan version, but now with the opportunity to shine: Erich Kunz’s excellent Figaro, Irmgard Seefried’s fantastic Susanna and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf showing us why she’s the greatest Countess in recorded history. Paul Schöffler’s Count is good, even if he lacks vocal ability, and Hilde Güden is an apt Cherubino, even if she’s not a mezzo. The fact that it’s sung in German inevitably takes away some of the opera’s charm.

Another excellent recording from the Salzburg Festival, this time with Karl Böhm, a superb Mozartian, on the podium and fortunately in Italian (Orfeo, 1957), shares some qualities with the Furtwängler version. We have Erich Kunz (Figaro), Irmgard Seefried (Susanna) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (the Countess) splendidly reprising their roles, this time joined by the cynical and calculating Count of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the best baritone to sing the part in recorded history, and a young Christa Ludwig’s brilliant Cherubino.

Quality Options

Now in studio for Deutsche Grammophon (1967), Karl Böhm offers a very similar reading of Le nozze di Figaro to his Salzburg Festival performance ten years earlier. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau reprises his magnificent Count with a little more depth and experience. Hermann Prey’s Figaro sounds great, if a little too elegant for the role. Edith Mathis’ Susanna is fine, Gundula Janowitz’s Countess is in the same vein as Schwarzkopf’s but with worse Italian diction and Tatiana Troyanos’ Cherubino is fiery and impulsive.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1993 live recording with period instruments for Archiv is fresh, comic and energetic. Bryn Terfel may be one of the best modern Figaros and Rodney Gilfry’s Count may come close to those of the golden age, but the strength of this version is the collaboration of the entire cast, working as an ensemble to bring the opera to life. The comic moments are delightful and the dramatic ones carry all the weight they should, demonstrating the careful work of the conductor and singers.

René Jacobs conducts this heterodox and theatrical recording on period instruments for Harmonia Mundi (2008). His emphasis on the woodwinds rather than the strings makes this a very distinctive version. As with Gardiner, the merit of the cast is collective rather than individual, but it would be a crime not to mention Simon Keenlyside’s elegant Count, very much in the Fischer-Dieskau mould. The imagination of the conductor and singers makes this a very exciting recording to listen to.

Candidates for Top Pick

Erich Kleiber’s 1955 version for Decca is probably the best conducted: precise, balanced and vigorous. Cesare Siepi’s Figaro is a worthy successor to Pinza’s, Hilde Güden as Susanna is forceful if a little exaggerated, and Lisa della Casa is a beautifully sung but at times bland Countess. Alfred Poell as the Count is unorthodox, though he gives a good account of himself, while Suzanne Danco’s Cherubino isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Fernando Corena, Hilde Rössel-Majdan and Murray Dickie do very well as Bartolo, Marcellina and Basilio.

The 1960 version for EMI/Warner, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, has one of the best casts ever to record Nozze. Giuseppe Taddei is an excellent Figaro, Anna Moffo’s Susanna is probably the best on disc, Eberhard Wächter is scheming and lecherous as the Count, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Countess is as insuperable as ever and Fiorenza Cossotto’s Cherubino is vivacious. Giulini’s musical direction, while good, lacks the spark and humour of someone like Kleiber or Muti to elevate this recording even more.

Riccardo Muti’s musical direction of the work for EMI/Warner in 1986 rivals that of Kleiber: bright, lively, sensitive and balanced, without neglecting either the comic or the dramatic of the opera. Kathleen Battle’s spirited Susanna comes close to Moffo’s, and Margaret Price’s Countess is an absolute revelation. Thomas Allen, a fantastic Count in other recordings, sings Figaro here with mixed results, while Jorma Hynninen’s Count is well sung but lacks elegance. One wonders why the roles weren’t sung the other way round.

The Top Choice

My top recommendation for Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is Sir Georg Solti’s 1981 version on Decca. His musical direction – warm, sparkling and graceful – is accompanied by a splendid cast. Samuel Ramey sings an ideal Figaro, Lucia Popp’s vocal qualities fit Susanna like a glove, Thomas Allen’s Count is surpassed only by Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa in her absolute prime is one of the most compelling Countesses in recorded history and Frederica von Stade’s Cherubino is incomparable. Kurt Moll gives the best Bartolo on disc, while Jane Berbié as Marcellina and Robert Tear as Basilio are ideal for their roles.


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