Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) is an opera I never grow tired of hearing. The opera is incredibly rich: musically, of course, because it's Mozart, and dramatically, thanks to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and his source, Beaumarchais' play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or the Marriage of Figaro, first performance 1784).
La folle journée had created a scandal, in equal measure because of its subversive social and sexual politics. In the play and the opera, it's the wedding day of the servants Figaro and Susanna. Figaro has been taken into the Count Almaviva's service after the events of Le barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville, 1775), and Susanna is the Countess Rosina's chambermaid. However, the amorous Count is relentlessly attempting to maneuver (or bribe) Susanna into bed with him. So Figaro and Susanna make an alliance with the neglected Countess to try to thwart the Count's wayward desires. The idea of servants and women joining forces to frustrate an aristocratic male wasn't new--it's the basis of many of Molière's comedies. But there's more than a hint of cross-class lust between the Countess and the adolescent page Cherubino (which is even more eyebrow-raising because in both the play and the opera Cherubino is played by a woman), and the play was banned because of Figaro's inflammatory language attacking aristocratic privilege.
That language is toned down somewhat in the opera, but there's still a surprising amount of class antagonism on display. Not to mention that Figaro gets the better of his master several times (only, of course, with the help of Susanna and the Countess). At the same time, Figaro is shown as being a bit too clever for his own good, and all of his schemes come to nothing. It is Susanna and the Countess who are the moral and dramatic centers of the opera, and who demonstrate that trust and forgiveness are essential components of enduring love.
Le Nozze di Figaro contains some of the most brilliantly structured and truly funny scenes in opera. The second act in particular, in which the Count thinks he's trapped his wife's lover in her bedroom closet, swings from near-tragedy to farce and back again several times; whenever the dramatic tension is apparently relaxed it's unexpectedly tightened once again. The final act takes place at night in the garden, where Susanna has finally promised to meet the Count. The plan is for the Countess to take her place, but darkness and disguise create erotic chaos--as though the garden is a miniature Forest of Arden.
But no matter how witty and humane the libretto, it's Mozart's music which makes Le Nozze di Figaro in my estimation the greatest opera ever written. Mozart is able to perfectly express the characters of everyone from drunken gardeners to unctuous music masters to flirtatious servants to the infuriated Count. But it is in the music of erotic yearning that Le Nozze di Figaro achieves its greatest power: the Countess's "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono"; her duet with Susanna, "Canzonetta sull' aria," as they write a letter setting up the garden assignation with the Count; and Susanna's "Deh vieni" as she awaits her lover in the garden are all moments of transporting beauty, tinged (as love inevitably is) with sorrow.
Here's a clip of the incomparable Lucia Popp singing a meltingly sensuous "Deh vieni," courtesy of Muezzab:
A translation of the words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses."
The opera has been recorded many times, but the version conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini with Anna Moffo as Susanna, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess, Guiseppe Taddei as Figaro, Eberhard Wächter as the Count and Fiorenza Cossotto as Cherubino remains unsurpassed. Every choice of tempo, dynamics and phrasing, every vocal performance (with exception, perhaps, of Cossotto's beautifully sung but rather womanly Cherubino), just seems perfectly right. The later Georg Solti-conducted set features an astounding cast, with Lucia Popp, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Thomas Allen and Frederica von Stade in the main roles (and in the smaller roles, unknowns such as Kurt Moll, Yvonne Kenny and Philip Langridge--talk about luxury casting!). My favorite recent recording is conducted by René Jacobs, with Patrizia Ciofi, Véronique Gens, Lorenzo Regazzo, Simon Keenlyside and Angelika Kirschlager. That recording offers excellent singing and Jacobs' vivid conducting of the virtuosic period-instrument orchestra Concerto Köln.
For such a theatrically foolproof opera with so many good recordings, it's a bit of a surprise that there's no fully satisfying version on DVD. Surveying the four I own (I'm open to suggestions for a fifth):
The 1972 Peter Hall-directed Glyndebourne version has a young Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, the delightful Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, a suave Benjamin Luxon as the Count and Frederica von Stade's famous Cherubino. However, Knut Skram is somewhat lacking in charisma as Figaro, the stage of the old Glyndebourne theater is too cramped to convincingly represent the Count's estate, and Hall has Susanna and the Countess actually switch dresses (not just cloaks) during the garden scene. When towards the end of the scene the Countess emerges after a few minutes in a pavilion having changed back into her own gown I find myself distracted by trying to figure out how, given the complexities of 18th-century women's dress, she would have accomplished it. Plus, having her return in her own clothes undermines the Count's recognition scene, when he realizes that the "Susanna" he'd been trying to seduce moments earlier was really the Countess. In short, Hall's changes simply make a mess of Beaumarchais', Da Ponte and Mozart's careful comic design. The audio, picture, and subtitle quality are also sub-par.
The usually reliable Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directed a film version in the mid-70s with Mirella Freni (Susanna), Kiri Te Kanawa (the Countess), Hermann Prey (Figaro), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (the Count), and Maria Ewing (Cherubino), and he makes the class distinctions (and sexual attractions) among the denizens of the Count's estate especially apparent. But although in terms of her delghtfully ardent acting Maria Ewing is convincingly boyish, her voluptuous curves are anything but. Less pleasant distractions are provided by Fischer-Dieskau's unfortunate wig and the decision to stage some arias as inner monologue voice-overs. Still, this earthy version intrigued me when, at Cherubino's age, I saw it broadcast on PBS.
The 1991 Glyndebourne production conducted by Bernard Haitink has a charming Alison Hagley and a young Gerald Finley as Susanna and Figaro, with Renée Fleming and Andreas Schmidt as the Countess and Count, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Cherubino. While strikingly sung and generally well-staged, here the problem is the frankly cheap-looking sets and costumes, including some which manage to make the gorgeous Fleming look dowdy.
Finally, there's the René Jacobs version, featuring Rosemary Joshua as Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as an especially virile Figaro, Annette Dasch as a girlish Countess (in the play she's barely 21, but she's usually depicted as significantly older than that in the opera), Pietro Spagnoli as a violent, wife-abusing Count, and Angelika Kirschlager as Cherubino. Like Jacobs' CD version, it's thrillingly conducted and well-sung, but conceits which (I can attest) worked in the theatre, such as having sets consisting of 18th-century artwork, come across as too artificial on DVD--the drama remains somewhat remote. And the brutality of the Count is such that you wonder why the Countess wants to win back his attention--she's better off without it. Definitely not a first choice.
It seems that the maxim that opera has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated is especially true in the case of Le Nozze di Figaro. But until San Francisco Opera sees reason and agrees to put it on once a month, I'll have to be satisfied with Giulini's superb recording and my own imagination.