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Figaro – It’s A Man’s World

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Review – Le Nozze di Figaro (W. A. Mozart)

Figaro – Christian van Horn
Susanna – Fanie Atonelou
Count Almaviva – Andrei Bondarenko
Countess Almaviva – Simone Kermes
Cherubino – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Marcellina – Maria Forsstrom
Bartolo – Nikolai Loskutkin
Don Basilio – Krystian Adam
Don Kurzio – James Elliott
Barbarina – Natalya Kirillova

Music Aeterna
Teodor Currentzis (Conductor)

In the twelve minute film that accompanies his new recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, Teodor Currentzis is undoubtedly passionate about music and music making – it is “not profession, not a reproduction, it’s a mission”.

No arguing with that.

There’s also no arguing with the idea that the problems that Mozart captures in this opera are the same problems people face today. There’s passion, love, betrayal and forgiveness within the span of this magnificent work.

So why does this recording sound so old fashioned, dry and most importantly lacking any sense of emotion – passion or otherwise – at all?

Perhaps it’s to do with his theories in terms of how singers should sing. In interviews he has criticized the “lifeless perfectionism” of classical music; that operas have been disfigured by the diktat of “volume at all cost” and “simplification” and that the original vocal palette of colours has been lost and that opera recordings today contain the “least operatic singing”.

Of course there are times when voices – both on stage and in recordings – don’t fit that particular music, but listening to this recording I did wonder if Currentzis had his own balance quite right?

During the course of the video interview Currentzis refers to Le Nozze di Figaro as a “fantastic monument of architecture with the finest lines … [into which] Mozart puts the defect inside”. By defect I assume he means the twists of the social commentary within the story itself and how the music underlines this commentary.

But in reality, Currentzis missionary zeal has injected the opera with a greater defect – his own in terms of the performance.

The opera starts well enough with a well-paced overture and with an attention to the orchestral detail that is immediate. Indeed the orchestral playing throughout is exemplary with a vigour and muscularity that shines a spotlight on the beauty and skill of Mozart’s scoring. There is a warmth of tone to the strings, the wind playing is light and airy and the trumpets and horns are more audible than normal, adding a frisson to the texture which is – when their enthusiasm doesn’t get the best of them – exciting. I have to admit that I am not convinced about the authenticity of the orchestra playing on their feet throughout and there were times when the orchestral volume threatened the chance of the singers being clearly heard.

Sadly however it’s the ‘over-attention’ that Currentzis pays to the singers that undermines the totality of this recording.

There is no doubting the forcefulness of the men in their roles. The Figaro of Christian van Horn and Andrei Bondarenko’s Count dominate the proceedings and it was sometimes be difficult to tell them apart, not only because of the – if at times one dimensional – forcefulness of their characterisations but because they often seem to be exceedingly loud. Take the trio Susanna or via sortite in Act One – it lacked an equality between the Count, Countess and Susanna that’s so necessary to impart the drama of this moment.

Indeed the only moment when Bondarenko does rein in the volume is at that critical moment in the Fourth Act finale when he begs Rosina’s forgiveness. In what should be a magical moment, this Count strangles his voice to such a diminuendo that the impact is lost.

Van Horn makes for a strong Figaro vocally. All his arias demonstrate his robust vocal ability and there’s a pleasant rhythmic spring to both his singing and his diction. But it seems that Currentzis cannot but tinker – the weird sound effect at the end of Se vuol ballare – I think created by holding down keys no the fortepiano so that they resonate – was simply distracting.

Bartolo fares a little better even if La Vendetta was a little faster than unusual. But in the ensembles Loskutkin seems forced to compete with the two other alpha males and the finesse of the music is lost.

But it is the women who suffer the most from Currentzis’ approach. There isn’t the ‘original vocal palette of colours’ that he refers to in the interviews he has conducted. Almost to a person, Currentzis has stripped these singers of their individuality and character, their vibrato-less voices bled of any emotion range or tone.

Personally I don’t believe that the use of vibrato didn’t exist in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Books on both performance practice and singing from the period refer to vocal techniques that clearly relate to the use of vibrato and it is remarked on by the commentators of the day. I don’t deny that vibrato has to be used sparingly in music of this period therefore to remove it completely as Currentzis has encouraged his singers to do effectively strips them of a fundamental and critical emotional dimension to their voices.

This is particularly evident in the Countess of Simone Kermes. In other recordings of music of this period and earlier, Ms Kermes demonstrates that she is an expert at using vibrato most effectively to colour the vocal line and add a real sense of emotional intensity. While listening to this recording I fancied that perhaps as her character developed from Porgi Amor onwards, she would begin to slowly but surely colour her singing to reflect her growing characterisaton. Sadly, it wasn’t so. Dove Sono was a particular ‘low-light’ – not only was the voice bland but the expected fluidity of the vocal line was uneven as a result. Essentially we have been given a Countess singing the notes without communicating them.

It was a similar case in point with Fanie Atonelou’s Susanna. A lack of vocal characterisation made this a bride-to-be without any bite. This was evident from the opening numbers when she is clearly not Figaro’s musical equal but also highlighted in numbers such as the sextet of the Third Act when we all discover Figaro’s parentage and she lacks the necessary vocal weight. Venite, inginocchiatevi was beautifully paced, but the use of ‘sound effects’ only served to highlight the blandness of the singing itself.

And the beautiful almost sensuous Che soave zeffiretto of the Countess and her maid passed – as it definitely should not – without any notice. A tragedy.

I admit to being most disappointed with this recording’s Cherubino. Mary-Ellen Nesi is an incredible mezzo but casting her in this role was a mistake. I’d like to think that perhaps Currentzis was trying to underline the fact that Cherubino is an adolescent boy whose voice is breaking which is why Nesi was given the role, as there was undoubtedly a ‘huskiness’ – almost a matronliness – to the vocal delivery. But in reality her voice is not suited to this role. Voi che sapete sounding particularly uncomfortable with embellishments that pushed Nesi’s voice uncomfortably at points.

Indeed of the women, only Maria Forsstrom‘s Marcellina was strongly cast, well characertised and it was a nice surprise to hear Il caro e la capretta.

Currentzis follows the vogue of embellishing the fortepiano line. There are contemporary reports of Mozart embellishing from the fortepiano himself and I have to say that the recitatives are handled well and are fleet of foot, with the improvisations on the fortepiano adding to the detail rather than distracting.

I can’t deny that once my ear had got used to Currentzis approach it was refreshing. But I did rather listen to this performance in terms of its ‘theoretical’ approach and argument rather than as a performance in its own right.

Ultimately however it is Currentzis’ theorising and the resultant unevenness of the voices that – despite well-judged tempi – undermines this Figaro. Le Nozze di Figaro and Beaumarchais’ original play discomfited the ruling classes not only because Figaro was an ‘upstart’ but because it offered a glimpse of women – of all classes – as equal both in intellect and power.

Currentzis has undermined the very “defect” that he himself recognizes that Mozart wrote into this opera.

It will be interesting – and hopefully not as disappointing – to hear Currentzis’ Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni due later this year and next.

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  1. Hi, I liked your review 🙂 Although I have not heard this recording, there are two things I especially agree with you: the obsession with vibrato being anathema and (most?) mezzos as Cherubino. I don’t understand this trend of banishing vibrato. Considering it’s a technique like any other, it seems like they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Even more strange asking somebody like Kermes to sing in a “behaved” manner. Then again I think she’d be better as Susanna but that might just be me. In regards to mezzo Cherubinos I find that most of them sound too old for him, save for the highest and brightest ones out there. Nesi is lovely but it’s almost too funny to think that the same person could win at both Polinesso and Cherubino.

  2. […] of her Giunse al fin il momento … Deh vieni, non tardar, I would take her Countess over that of Ms Kermes any day. There is a lightness to the accompagnato with words delivered with laser-like precision […]

  3. […] recital discs by Bejun Mehta and Philippe Jaroussky stood out for me as did Teodor Currentzis’ Le nozze di Figaro. His over-intellectualised approach occasionally intruded but there is no doubting his enthusiasm […]

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