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Urania WS 121.304
06 May 2017

Urania Remasters Marriage of Figaro

Good news for lovers of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro: the famous Living Stereo recording, a co-production of RCA Victor and English Decca, is now available again, well remastered, on Urania.

MOZART: Marriage of Figaro

Lisa Della Casa (Countess), Roberta Peters (Susanna), Rosalind Elias (Cherubino), George London (Count), Giorgio Tozzi (Figaro); Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus/ Erich Leinsdorf

Urania WS 121.304 [3CDs]

$39.99  Click to buy

Recorded in 1958, it won a Grammy for Best Opera or Choral Performance, a category that was split into two in subsequent years. The features noted by many previous critics (e.g., in Alan Blyth’s Opera on Record, vol. 1, and the Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera) still register vividly today. The vocalism is splendid in the five central roles and strong even in the smaller ones.

The LP box trumpeted the cast as “selected by the Metropolitan Opera.” Of the five leading roles, four are filled by North Americans (Giorgio Tozzi was born in Chicago; George London was born to a Jewish family in Montreal, the family name being Burnstein). Lisa Della Casa was Swiss, and the comprimarios, orchestra, and chorus are nearly all European. The one exception in the smaller roles is that Marcellina is sung by the characterful Sandra Warfield (who performed 172 times at the Met and also appeared often in Europe). George London—renowned for his performances in Wagner—makes a very resonant and powerful-sounding Count. Scholars stress that Figaro is, for musical and dramatic reasons, the more bass-like of the two roles, whereas the Count should more properly be a suave baritone. But London makes a fine case for having a true bass in the role and never sounds uncomfortable on high notes. Much praise is due to Gabor Carelli, a character tenor whom I’d never encountered before. He nicely differentiates the two roles of Basilio and Don Curzio, and does Basilio’s Act 4 aria as well as anyone could wish.

Throughout the recording, the humor can get a bit exaggerated, notably in recitatives, as if for the benefit of audience members who don’t understand Italian and, in big halls, are sitting far from the singers. Supertitles have nowadays eased some of this pressure.

The singing is also rarely very soft, presumably another habit deriving from big halls. But this is no stand-and-shout performance: dramatic continuity is often paramount and is enhanced by welcome moments of intentional overlap between the end of one recitative and the beginning of the next or between a recitative and the beginning or end of a musical number.

Leinsdorf’s conducting is brisk and somewhat metronomic, in ways that paralleled habits that were developing around the same time within early-music performance. Few embellishments are made to the vocal lines. Leinsdorf actually wrote a book explaining his belief in trusting the letter of the score: The Composer’s Advocate: A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians.

The recording quality is still vivid, 59 years later, with fine use of stereo directionality to help clarify on-stage movement, especially in the famously intricate Act 4. The performance is nearly note-complete: the only trims made during the recording sessions were in the Act 2 finale. Thus we get both Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias in Act 4, unlike on some other recordings and in many live performances.

To the Italian label’s credit, Urania has allowed the opera to spill over onto a third disc. Thus nothing from the original release has been removed. By contrast, EMI omitted Basilio’s Act 4 aria when it rereleased the famous Glyndebourne/ Gui recording on 2 CDs. (Too bad, as the performance of that aria by Hugues Cuénod had been singled out for special praise by critics of the original LPs.) The CD breaks are sensible ones: middle of the long Act 2 and beginning of Act 4.

With an opera as oft-recorded as Figaro, it is inevitable that certain musical numbers, especially arias, have been performed more magically somewhere else, e.g., on a recital disc. Ezio Pinza, for example, made two wonderfully detailed renderings of Figaro’s sarcastic “Se vuol ballare”; and that same aria is likewise more nuanced in complete recordings and videos of the opera with Samuel Ramey or Bryn Terfel than as sung here by Giorgio Tozzi. By contrast, certain arias and other numbers in the present recording are totally treasurable, displaying a near-ideal wedding of vocal command and dramatic intent. These include—to restrict myself to a single act, the third—the marvelously timed duet between the Count and Susanna, Lisa Della Casa’s exquisitely floated yet fully characterized “Dove sono,” the duet “Sull’aria”—with a nicely flowing accompaniment that somehow manages to suggest Susanna’s act of writing the Countess’s dictated words—and the scene in which, while a fandango is being danced, the Count surreptitiously receives the letter from Susanna and inadvertently pricks himself with a pin. (Leinsdorf conducts that fandango with an air of electric anticipation.) OK, I have to add Roberta Peters’s marvelous “Deh vieni” in Act 4, in which she marvelously suggests that she is at once trying to imitate the Countess’s (creamy) voice and also that she is expressing her own abiding love for Figaro, who, she knows, is hiding in the shadows, overhearing her. No wonder many people have loved this whole recording across the decades. I’m a little embarrassed that, until now, I had never heard it in its entirety. The orchestra and chorus, from the Vienna State Opera, do their jobs superbly (except for some slight problems with wind intonation in “Deh vieni”).

The set’s third CD has enough free space to permit inclusion of an entire three-movement instrumental work: what used to be called Mozart’s Symphony 37, which we now know was composed by Michael Haydn (brother of Joseph; it’s variously numbered Perger 16, Sherman 25, and MH 334). Mozart simply wrote a slow introduction for the first movement. As played by Leinsdorf and the Royal Philharmonic, the piece feels tuneful, compact, and consistently engaging. The performance is presumably the same one found in the conductor’s long-prized recording of the “complete” Mozart symphonies. This meant, at the time, the 41 works that had long been available in the Breitkopf und Härtel Gesamtausgabe. Since that time, additional early symphonies by the composer have become known and recorded. Originally available in the US on Westminster LPs, Leinsdorf’s symphony set is currently available on Deutsche Grammophon, 7 CDs. The early symphonies are in stereo. The symphony heard here is in relatively clear mono, with a nice balance between winds and strings. On the original releases the Royal Philharmonic was—presumably for contractual reasons—renamed the Philharmonic Symphony of London.

But to return to the main work here: Leinsdorf’s 1958 Figaro remains dramatically vital and musically gratifying and could easily be anybody’s first choice, especially if they own a copy of the score or libretto. (The booklet contains nothing but a track list, which, by the way, erroneously assigns Basilio’s aria to Bartolo.) Frequently recommended also are recordings conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (the one I know best, though the Count shouts too much), Erich Kleiber, George Solti, Bernard Haitink, and both of those that are conducted, with keen attention to theatrical effect, by Colin Davis. (Further, see the two books mentioned above and the Mozart Operas Overview, by Ralph Lucano, in the January/February 2002 issue of American Record Guide.) The René Jacobs recording has special attractions for its intimate atmosphere and quick interactions between cast members and for some bracing freedoms taken in the vocal parts. I have not heard the recent recording by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press).

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