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Opera on DVD: Salzburg Marriage of Figaro

This is a continuation of a review of the M-22 collection, the DVD set of all of Mozart's operas, produced at last summer's Salzburg Festival. Recently, I also reviewed the Salzburg Magic Flute.

available at Amazon
Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, directed by C. Guth, Salzburger Festspiele, N. Harnoncourt
(released June 12, 2007)
Le Nozze di Figaro
The blockbuster event of last year's Salzburg Festival was the devastating new production of Marriage of Figaro, not only for its stellar cast but for the challenging and pointed staging -- Opera Chic memorably labeled it "bafflingly Strindbergian" -- by the young German director Claus Guth (b. 1964). Even if the full box set is beyond your budget, the single DVD of Figaro is worth buying for anyone who is ready to have his thoughts about this most popular of Mozart operas shaken up a bit. (The production is on the Salzburg stage again this month, with a largely different cast.) The action has been updated to a wealthy mansion at the turn of the 20th century, and the modern costumes and sets (by Christian Schmidt) make the social strata of the opera immediately perceptible in a way that 18th-century ones do not to modern eyes. Susanna is instantly recognizable as a servant, in a maid's uniform. True, this is not exactly what Susanna's function was, to clean house, but it is crucial to the story to understand that Susanna and her mistress, the Countess, do not walk through the same doors or use the same staircase.

Non so più cosa son, Christine Schäfer, Salzburg Festival 2006
Also -- Voi che sapete

Cherubino is subjugated in a different way, costumed in the short pants and high socks of a private school brat. The adolescent's crazed sex drive -- if no one is around, I will sing of love to myself (whatever you do, do not watch this video) -- pervades the story, literally, as Cherubino's Doppelgänger, the actor, juggler, and acrobat Uli Kirsch, costumed just like the singer but with Cupid's wings (credited as Cherub). He appears periodically, pulling the characters about like a puppet master, sometimes seeming to wake others up from a trance or put them into one, even choreographing little show-choir routines. The entrance on a unicycle, showering the ensemble singers with confetti, was a bit much.

Some critics have called the staging too depressing, and it is true that the comedy takes a back seat to the dark undertones of the scenario. While I would not recommend this for anyone wanting to get to know Figaro for the first time, let us remember that the eponymous marriage is not at all assured. The story occurs at the uncomfortable nexus between the ruling and servant classes, and in many ways Guth is taking Mozart back to his source text, La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro, the middle play in Beaumarchais's acidic, revolutionary trilogy. In the French plays, the Countess ends up having Cherubino's bastard child. It only strengthens the story that the Count's anger actually leads to physical violence against Cherubino (the page gets cut with a knife during Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso -- see video below), or that the Count may indeed bed Susanna before Figaro can.

Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso (Act I), Salzburg Festival 2006

Christine Schäfer is boyish and dulcet as Cherubino, and Dorothea Röschmann is a dusky and neurotic Countess, her vibrato a shade too fluttery for my taste. She and the tall, menacing Bo Skovhus as the Count make quite a couple -- think of Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close as the amoral blue bloods in Reversal of Fortune. Anna Netrebko is not going to become my favorite Susanna, but she sings well and looks beautiful. In dark vocal color she is matched well with Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, who is the most desperate, angry Figaro I have seen. The rest of the cast is notable more for their acting abilities, although they all sing well, too. At the podium of the Vienna Philharmonic, Nikolaus Harnoncourt made some extremely unconventional tempo choices, both on the fast and slow side of what you might expect. Still -- pace Opera Chic -- how boring music would be if there were only one way for it to be performed. It is always interesting to hear a new take on an old classic, even if you end up not liking it. In many cases, Harnoncourt's slow tempi encourage, even force, the singers to draw attention to important words. Many other videos are available on YouTube, so you can see if you like it before you buy.

Decca DVD 073 4245


JRD said...

Amen, Mr. Downey! Opera Chic's blunt dismissal of Baroque opera is as misinformed and frankly, as futile as her blog.

Charles T. Downey said...

I wouldn't go that far, but I do disagree with Opera Chic about Harnoncourt. He's not the best conductor around, but it is wrong just to dismiss him.