A Figaro that Lives and Breathes
Amethyst Gold | 10/02/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In my search for a perfect Nozze di Figaro--not one that was flawless, but one that suited my taste best--I listened with a merciless ear to several choices. I was given a copy of the Karajan recording with Schwarzkopf--not because my parents thought I would like it, but because they didn't want it--and decided to replace it, as I find the Susanna in that one very irritating (if you don't like the Susanna, you don't like the recording), and the sound quality bad enough that even Elizabeth Schwarzkopf is difficult to appreciate (Schwarzkopf recorded another Figaro with Giulini, which is the recording you will hear about most of the time, not the one I'm whining about).
I listened to the Bohm recording when it came on satellite radio one day. That one is ear candy, but honestly, it's not much else. Hermann Prey just might be the best Figaro on record, but as glorious as Dietrich Fischer-Diskau sounds, he seems too dark and angry, and if the Count is that nasty, the critical "Contessa, perdono" section is far less convincing. Other than that, the Bohm recording is ponderously conducted without any great personality from anyone else.
I admit to being reluctant about the Levine recording when I decided to try it. I wasn't sure if Thomas Hampson would be more secure than I've heard him in the past (although my experience with him is limited), or if Dawn Upshaw would be as irritating as the Susanna I was attempting to replace. Knowing my preference for James Levine's tempi (although in this recording they can be a tad contemplative, but not as contemplative as Bohm's) and certain that Kiri te Kanawa was the Countess I wanted, I purchased an inexpensive copy, thinking that, if I didn't like it, it would make a great Christmas gift.
No one's getting this for Christmas.
What I found on these three discs was a welcome relief from the view that glamorous voices and Verdian tempi are all that make a great recording. All you who like live recordings? This has the personality of one, without the drawback of audience noise (so the same guy isn't coughing in exactly the same spot in "Dove sono" every time you listen to it). You can hear Marcellina's knock at the Countess' door when she storms in to drag Figaro to court. You can hear the Count's embarrassed cough when Barbarina speaks of his promise that she can have whatever she wants. When Susanna hits Figaro, you hear not only the slap, but his startled "Ooh!"
My experiences with Ferruccio Furlanetto have not previously included his Figaro. I was familiar enough with his Leporello and Guglielmo, however, to know that he would be a wonderful Figaro. Anyone unfamiliar with his voice should be aware of something: while he has a truly beautiful sound, it is very unusual, and definitely an acquired taste. It is not glamorous in the sense of the trumpet-clarity of Samuel Ramey or the thunderclap-resonance of Siepi or Ghiaurov. It is almost opaque, very dark, very rich and creamy, like hot chocolate with marshmallows and cinnamon--sweet and spicy. He does not, to my ear, sound old, especially as he would have been in his early forties at this time. Either way, he is a delightful Figaro, true not only to Mozart and da Ponte's view, but to Beaumarchais', who stated that Figaro must be played with only intelligence and high spirits. Furlanetto achieves a laughing tone to his voice in his tongue-firmly-in-cheek portrayal, but can as easily be bitter ("Aprite un po'") or sentimental ("Riconosci in questo amplesso") in such a way that you can actually see the expression on his face.
Dawn Upshaw is a little strawberry in this, and if you can get past her giggle, you will find her a very animated Susanna. I would not worry about Furlanetto's dark bass in relation to her light, bright little voice. I never in my life before this would have put her and Furlanetto together, but somehow, their voices compliment each other--very distinct from each other, but very fitting. Her bright timbre stands out enough that his darker, heavier voice does not even threaten to overpower her (Furlanetto, like most, is a sensitive enough musician that he adjusts to the voices around him and never overpowers anyone--I'm not sure why another reviewer complained about it). Upshaw is easily distinguished in larger ensembles, as well, without interfering with the overall quality of the ensemble. I still prefer someone like Barbara Bonney in this role, but Upshaw is well-suited to it. Her "Deh vieni" is soothing and beautiful.
Kiri Te Kanawa is amazing. Her "Porgi, amor" on this CD is miraculous, surpassing even her other performances I have heard. I believe I was clutching my bedspread and oblivious to all else when I first heard it. There isn't anything else to say. If no one else on this CD will make you happy, Kiri Te Kanawa will.
Thomas Hampson's creamy lyric baritone is strong in this recording, his portrayal more sympathetic than that of Fischer-Diskau, but still a jerk. Beaumarchais, the original playwright, was explicit that the Count have a great deal of humanity to him. In the text of the play itself, the character is summed up by Bartolo: jealous because he's proud and a rake because he's bored. This is Thomas Hampson's Count; this and gorgeously-sung, with a fiery "Vedro mentr'io sospiro."
The supporting cast is as luxurious as one can expect to find in a Levine recording, with Paul Plishka's wonderful Bartolo and Tatyana Troyanos' marvellous Marcellina. Anne-Sofie von Otter is richly voiced and offers up an endearing Cherubino. The air-tight casting continues even in the smallest roles, and Barbarina's canzonetta is as gorgeous as Susanna's "Deh vieni, non tardar." Levine's ear for vocal blend is impeccable, all voices distinct but working together like cogs (in the final ensemble, I can hear Dawn Upshaw and Kiri Te Kanawa's voices, but can't quite tell where one begins and the other ends--I never would have expected that from their voices). My only gripe is that the chorus could have been better prepared--they're a tad choppy during "Amanti costanti."
The humanity in this recording is revelatory. "Riconosci in questo amplesso," to me, was always such a funny and absurd little scene, a random deus ex machina expertly pulled off by a great comedian. It is this in the recording, until all has been revealed to Susanna and Figaro dwells in the melody of "Mia madre, che a te lo dira, mio padre, che a te lo dira." The way this was done was heartbreakingly sentimental, and the moment, in spite of the absurdity of the situation, became about the joy of a man who has found the parents he has been searching for his entire life. I had never heard it this way before.
This particular edition does not include the libretto, although there is another edition which does. There are more glamorous casts (not much more glamorous, mind you), more generally accepted voices, but keep in mind that there are many recordings out there, and the one which satisfies you may not be the favorite of those who believe that no good singers have arisen since 1977."
A First Class Figaro
Amethyst Gold | 01/25/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Recorded in the 80's, this recording of Le Nozze Di Figaro has fast become a popular classic. It's on another label but re-released on Deutsche Grammophone for an affordable price. It stars Ferrucio Furlanetto as Figaro, Dawn Upshaw as Susanna, Thomas Hampson as the Count, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Anne Sophie von Otter as Cherubino and the late Tatiana Troyanos as Marsallina. The Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus as conducted by James Levine. The sound is fantastic, fresh and crisp, thanks to modern sound engineering. While there are certainly better choices for a supreme Figaro recording (I recommend put the Karl Bohm Figaro with Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Edith Mathis and Gundula Janowitz and the Giulini version with Anna Moffo, Giuseppe Taddei, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Fiorenza Cossotto), this recording is nevertheless a stunning piece and a document of Maestro James Levine's versatility as operatic conductor. Levine has no problem with Mozart's music and finds himself the equal of all the great conductors who have taken on Le Nozze Di Figaro, and he is certainly far better than George Solti.
The singers sing with enormous commitment to their respective roles. Furlanetto has excellent Italian diction being a native Italian and only ocassionally makes Figaro rather rough and snarling, Thomas Hampson as the lusty and domineering Count is impressive and perhaps the only true interpretor of the role, Dawn Upshaw's pretty soprano voice is wholly suited to the very feminine Susanna. She shades her voice throughout the opera so she is simultaneously hot and cold. Prior to this 80's recording, Kiri Te Kanawa had sung the Countess countless times and was by this time an experienced Mozartian soprano. Her Countess is largely considered as her best role and her signature role. She has had as much success in the role as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf before her. The voice is purely lyric, with honey tones and radiant high register and a warm round richness. She lived the part as well. Even in this recording, it shows and she is still as fresh and brilliant as when she first sang the Countess. It's a pity Tatiana Troyanos sings a minor role (Marsallina) in this recording when she is better suited to the part of Cherubino. Hers is a deep, velvety mezzo soprano and she was always in vogue during her day. Her life was cut short from an attack of cancer. You can hear Tatiana Troyanos sing a superb Cherubino in the Bohm recording with Hermann Prey, Edith mathis and Gundula Janowitz. This is a fine recording. The only complaints are that the recording (a good 3 hours long) is conducted at a brisk pace and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is rather huge and lacks the intimate subtleties from smaller chamber ensembles with period instruments that make for a fine Figaro."
An efficient, if humorless Figaro with fine singers in their
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 02/25/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Levine starts off badly with a punchy, graceless overture, and although his conducting settles down a bit later on, it's never relaxed or smiling. Too bad, since his singing cast boasts an incomparable roster of Metropolitan stars (Te Kanawa, Upshaw, Hampson, von Otter) at or near their prime. At the time this recording was made in New York (1990) the equally humorless Solti set dominated the catalog, at least according to British critics. Levine is certainly a shade more human than Solti. I sorely wish he hadn't cast a beefy, old-sounding bass as Figaro. Furlanetto does his best to sound jovial, but his pompous voice belongs to Dr. Bartolo, not Figaro, and it crushes Upshaw's slender soprano in the duets.
Enough of the flaws--this set has many virtues and belongs at the top of a short list of excellent Figaros, even if it comes nowhere near the classic Giulini on EMI. Levine and company do much better in Cosi."