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What's the best recording of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro?

Robert Rowat

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro appears on most opera lovers' top 10 lists. For its fine balance of humour, pathos, theatre, satire and, of course, amazing music, some people call it the perfect opera.

But is there a perfect recording of it?

While we wait for the release of a promising new Deutsche Grammophon recording of Le nozze di Figaro on July 8, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin (watch the trailer here), we decided to put the question to five Canadian opera professionals:

  1. Charles Barber, artistic director of City Opera Vancouver, whose next project, The Lost Operas of Mozart, takes place in October at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver.
  2. Soprano Samantha Pickett, member of the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio and who has sung the role of the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro.
  3. Brett Polegato, who has sung the baritone roles in all three of Mozart's Da Ponte operas, but none more often than Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, which he has sung in a dozen different productions.
  4. Joey Pietraroia, conductor in residence at Pacific Opera Victoria and the Victoria Symphony.
  5. Brent Krysa, who has directed productions of Le nozze di Figaro for opera companies in Victoria, Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg.

What's the best recording of Le nozze di Figaro? Read on for their choices.

Le nozze di Figaro, 2014, Sony Classical
Fanie Antonelou (Susanna), Christian van Horn (Figaro), Simone Kermes (Countess), Andrei Bondarenko (Count), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Cherubino) and others.
The artists and orchestra of Musica Aeterna
Teodor Currentzis, conductor

I grew up on the heavyweights of Mozart, and in the great traditions of Le nozze: Bruno Walter, Klemperer, Erich Kleiber, Giulini, Furtwängler (in German!), and Krips. Later, I came to know what the clarity of Harnoncourt, Gardiner and McGegan had to offer. In the '90s I was assistant to Sir Charles Mackerras on several projects, and my expectations of Mozart changed again.

Today, I enjoy the multitudes that are contained in this work. The provocations and politics, the alternating current of energy and repose, the long line and the abrupt punctuations: all of this lives within, and one contemporary recording catches most of it.

Led by conductor Teodor Currentzis and the Perm-based Musica Aeterna, this Sony recording from 2014 is an astonishment. It is a wonder and a tonic. It is bracing and fun, rigorous and demanding. Recorded at low pitch (A430 Hz), it sounds as bright as any version of the opera you may have heard.

The recording presumes its listeners are as young, wittily charged, alert and nimble as its performers. This is Mozart for those who find in him all the litheness and daring of youth, and in Figaro all the cheekiness and enchantment of innocence just lost but still remembered. Currentzis records with his orchestra standing, and in the highest sense dancing and charging.

This recording might best serve the young who are discovering the Master, and who will be astounded by his pulse. It will also serve the old who remember that youth, and now add to it the sweet regret and desire to have done better. Figaro contains these contradictions, and this astounding CD releases many Figaros.

— Charles Barber, artistic director of City Opera Vancouver

Le nozze di Figaro, 2006, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Miah Persson (Susanna), Erwin Schrott (Figaro), Dorothea Röschmann (Countess), Gerald Finley (Count Almaviva), Rinat Shaham (Cherubino) and others.
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano, conductor

I truly believe that Le nozze di Figaro — which I will affectionately refer to as plain old Nozze from here on out — is the perfect opera. Now, while I dodge the piles of rotten fruit and hate mail from all the tenors out there, allow me to explain: it begins with the perfect, electric and most characteristic three measures and explodes into the most magical and effervescent overture. The recitatives, the ensembles, the arias, the characters, the disguises, the heartache, the reconciliation! It's all there; each sublime second leading to the next. Everyone is alive and well, relatively speaking, at the end of the opera.

While my favourite recording of all time is the Solti/Allen/Te Kanawa version [see Polegato's text below], I would like to talk about my favourite production of Nozze: the Royal Opera House's 2006 David McVicar production, starring Erwin Schrott as Figaro, Miah Persson as Susanna, Gerald Finley as Count Almaviva, Dorothea Röschmann as Countess Almaviva and Rinat Shaham as Cherubino. Set in 1830 France, this production echoes the revolutionary narrative through the original Beaumarchais play, Mozart's adaptation and McVicar's setting of the summer revolution of 1830.

The production is lavishly Jane Austenian — one of the reasons I adore it so much — and the lighting design is utterly superb. Schrott is an unmistakable Figaro; his tone is robust and his characterization is youthful yet dignified. Persson is a vivacious and illuminating Susanna, commanding the respect of this gargantuan role. Finley is a bold and dangerous Almaviva, and Röschmann as the Countess is elegant, refined and human. Shaham is an electrically roguish Cherubino. And did I mention they all sound amazing?

I love this production from a musical standpoint because the singers are so expressive and creative. The ornaments and appogiaturas are charming and delightful. Pappano's tempi are spot on (read: on the brisk side, but nothing too wild). I simply can't take my eyes or ears away from the production; it is, in a word, gorgeous.

So, no one dies and there are no glorious, tenorial high Cs, but I think "Deh vieni, non tardar" is as close as we get to experiencing heaven before death.

— Samantha Pickett, soprano

Le nozze di Figaro, 1980, Decca
Lucia Popp (Susanna), Samuel Ramey (Figaro), Kiri Te Kanawa (Countess), Thomas Allen (Count), Frederica von Stade (Cherubino) and others.
London Opera Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra
Georg Solti, conductor

Mozart's three Da Ponte operas — Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte — have figured prominently in my career. And while I have sung the roles of Don Giovanni and Guglielmo more than a handful of times, it is the role of Il Conte Almaviva that I have most often performed: almost a dozen productions to date.

No recording of Le nozze di Figaro has ever satisfied me as much as Georg Solti's 1980 release on Decca Records. Solti seems to strike a wonderful balance between the early music practices that were just beginning to flourish on recordings, especially in terms of articulation, and the romanticism and richness one often found in earlier performances.

His cast is simply superb. I love the elegance and virility that Samuel Ramey brings to the role of Figaro. On so many recordings, Figaro has one or the other of these qualities; Ramey's combination of the two allows him to be both a formidable opponent to the Count and a believable suitor for Susanna. Lucia Popp's Susanna is not the soubrette one often encounters. The roundness in her sound, for me, hints at more mature roles (like the Countess) and serves to make us believe her scenes as the Countess in the garden and gives the character a worldliness that balances nicely with Ramey's powerful Figaro. We believe them as a couple.

As Cherubino, Frederica von Stade imbues her singing with a sense of breathlessness and youthful exuberance — especially evident in her Act 1 aria, "Non so più." It is clear why she was the foremost interpreter of the role in her day.

But for me, Nozze will always be about the Count and Countess Almaviva. Theirs is the interesting relationship. While Kiri Te Kenawa's interpretation of the Countess may not be the most intellectual or nuanced on recording, she does sing both of her arias with exquisite beauty of tone and I understand why the Count was once so smitten with her. However, I do long for some of the playfulness and mischief of the Rosina from Il Barbiere di Siviglia in her performance.

Simply put, Sir Thomas Allen as the Count is unparallelled in the role. For me he has it all: elegance, passion, strength and vulnerability. And no one has ever sung "Hai già vinta la causa" and "Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro" better!

— Brett Polegato, baritone

Le nozze di Figaro, 1995, Deutsche Grammophon
Sylvia McNair (Susanna), Lucio Gallo (Figaro), Cheryl Studer (Countess), Bo Skovhus (Count), Cecilia Bartoli (Cherubino) and others.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor

Trying to choose your favorite recording of an opera is like having to choose your favorite flavour of gelato: it's not always easy to have everything you want in one recording. I managed to narrow it down to two. For the cast, I go with the 1984 recording on the Decca label with Solti conducting the London Symphony, Ramey, Popp, Te Kanawa, Allen and von Stade — a true dream team. But since I had to choose one recording, I'll have to go with the 1995 Deutsche Grammophon recording with Claudio Abbado and the Wiener Philharmoniker.

What I love about this recording is the orchestral sound and presence. The inner lines, particularly the great second violin figures that we don't often hear but are so wonderfully rhythmic and charged, clearly add another layer to the texture. Abbado seems to find the exact tempos to allow the music to breathe while still remaining transparent light and crisp. The orchestral playing is impeccable. Clean articulation and beautiful line.

— Joey Pietraroia, conductor

Le nozze di Figaro, 2004, Harmonia Mundi
Patriza Ciofi (Susanna), Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro), Veronique Gens (Countess), Simon Keenlyside (Count), Angelika Kirchschlager (Cherubino) and others.
Collegium Vocale Gent, Concerto Köln
René Jacobs, conductor

Since the Abbado recording was already claimed for McNair's nearly perfect performance of Susanna, my next pick is for something of beautiful imperfection. Indeed René Jacobs' recording of Nozze seems doomed to run off the rails from the get-go in the overture, which is both thrilling and fun. The Almaviva household is in motion, and comic disaster is imminent.

I love this recording because you can hear every stage direction played out in the flamboyant continuo improvisation. As a stage director, all I need to do while listening to this recording is close my eyes and watch. I remember while studying music at McGill the joy of running down to the HMV on Sainte-Catherine Street to pore over the classical music catalogue of opera recordings, looking for those recordings that were awarded, by its editor, a rose symbol, indicating a certain dramatic or theatrical quality. This recording is a rose. Perfection can be pretty, but sometimes messiness can reveal the true drama of a work of comic genius like Le nozze di Figaro, only if the performance is played out fearlessly — and that's what I love about the Jacobs recording. The ensemble is fearless! Whatever the musical flaws, the stage action and comedy are delivered.

— Brent Krysa, stage director

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