Wednesday, February 18, 2009


What is it with Mozart? His symphonic music and concertos are charming but, after so many years, do rather show their age. Yes, everything is wonderful and the notes are all in the right place, but somehow it's all a little too formal, formulaic even. It's nice music to dance a waltz to or introduce a tone deaf friend to the riches of classical music with, but...sometimes you feel if you've heard one piano concerto you've heard them all.

Now this is definitely not the case when we examine Mozart's operas--and particularly the three almost perfect operas he wrote with the Italian librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. These three works are as alive today in the operatic repertoire as they were in Mozart's day: or even more famous now really as, at the time of composition, Mozart was in a largely losing battle with Salieri and Martin Y Soler for courtly recognition. The Duke of Vienna famously remarked to the composer on hearing Figaro: "A beautiful work maestro, but too many notes", to which Mozart (equally famously) replied: "Just as many as necessary my lord". It seems amazing to us now that the ears of the listeners of the time didn't immediately inform them that this was the work of a majestic genius and that the tinkling tunes of Salieri and Co. were no more than workaday stuff. Yet as Ezra Pound informs us in his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, "no one knows at sight a masterpiece".

With Figaro, probably for the first time, Mozart fully realised the intricate complexity of his musical art. This is exciting music. This is character driven music. This is music where the intertwining vocal lines express cynicism, hope, love, hate, ambition and sly craftiness. Each individual vocal and instrumental line perfectly unfolds the inner drama of a character, yet at the same time adds something to the contrapuntal and emotional whole. Duets and trios abound and slowly but surely Mozart builds up to his overwhelming sestets and octets that usually close an act with sublime confusion, joy or fear. The orchestra in Mozart's operas is never merely present to give an "oom-pa-pa" accompaniment, but interacts in a symbiotic way with the vocal lines: gurgling woodwind underscores the irony of Musetto's claim that he knows Don Giovanni to be a "cavaliere" or gentleman and flashing, firework-like strokes of the violins bring Figaro to its joyful conclusion.

So what about this 1973 Glyndebourne production? As a teenager, it was this televised production that fully stirred my interest in Mozart and opera in general. Yes, I fell a little bit in love with the Countess, Susanna and Frederica Von Stade's stunning Cherubino; yet looking back after all these years I can only commend myself for my good taste. The leading singers--Kiri Te Kanawa, Ileana Cotrubas, Von Stade, and Benjamin Luxon--really are superb. Knut Skram is very good as Figaro and the fact that he subsequently decided to spend most of his time in Norway should not blind us to the fact that he is an extremely good singer. The secondary roles are also exceptionally well sung. Nucci Condo as Marcellina comes in for a special mention because she brings this somewhat dull part to multi-faceted life with her protestations and sly exclamations. John Pritchard conducts the orchestra with a keen ear for sonic effect within a small auditorium, and the costumes and direction (the latter by Peter Hall) are both quite superb.

If you don't have any other performance of Figaro on DVD, then this is the one you should get.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heavenly Mozart!

11:04 AM  

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