Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro / Mattei, Oelze, Cambreling

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MOZART Le nozze di Figaro Sylvain Cambreling, cond; Heidi Grant Murphy ( Susanna ); Christiane Oelze ( Countess ); Christine Schäfer ( Cherubino ); Lorenzo Regazzo ( Figaro ); Peter Mattei ( Count ); Helene Schneiderman ( Marcellina, Barbarina ); Roland Bracht ( Bartolo ); Burkhard Ulrich ( Don Basilio ); Frédéric Caton ( Antonio ); Paris Natl Op O & Ch BBC/OPUS ARTE 960 (2 DVDs: 192:31)

Contrary to appearances, not every Mozart film released in 2006 and 2007 was connected to the Salzburg Festival’s attempt to film all his theater works in one season. This particular film, though recorded at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2006, nevertheless documents the same Christoph Marthaler production that garnered some grumbles at the Salzburg festival in 2001, with much the same cast and conductor. In the interest of presenting all the works in fresh productions, Peter Ruzicka decided to replace this production with a less “experimental” one, a film of which has already been released in the complete M22 DVD box and will be available separately in summer 2007. One guesses that the delay in the release of that newer production was designed to capitalize on the star power of its principals, including Dorothea Röschmann, Bo Skovhus, Christine Schäfer, and the Susanna of Anna Netrebko, opera’s golden girl of the moment. Some speculated that replacing the Marthaler production amounted to admitting its failure. Many of the initial press releases greeting this 2001 production, seen as part of Gerald Mortier’s swansong as festival director (his departure was warmly welcomed by the conservative Austrian press), focused on its “dreariness,” the fact that Cherubino (then as now played by Christine Schäfer) has a fetish for women’s undergarments, and the Countess is an alcoholic. In the New York Times , Bernard Holland doubted whether Mozart’s conception had survived all the funny business (it is updated to a present-day retail bridal and tailor establishment).

In fact, and with the hindsight of many Mozart productions that have wreaked far greater havoc with the text, this production is an engaged, enjoyable, well-sung (on balance), and highly recommendable version. The chief, obvious objection of many viewers will be to how the recitatives are treated. Instead of the expected harpsichordist, Marthaler employs a roving musician, a “recitativist” in his words, to perform the keyboard recitative accompaniments on a variety of instruments. Jürg Kienberger plays this part (in Paris as in the Salzburg original), wearing oversized Elton John glasses, wandering around on stage, and occasionally interacting with the principals. In most cases he uses a portable Casiotone (or the equivalent) held by a neck strap, and set either to a harpsichord stop or, strangely, to wind stops (clarinet, bassoon). Elsewhere, he employs an electric guitar, mouth organ, accordion, glass harmonica, or even tuned beer bottles (Stiegl brand, Salzburg’s own). The Swiss Kienberger, who has a long-standing collaboration with Marthaler in spoken theater as well as in opera, occasionally also employs his voice and lip buzzes to comical, cartoonish effect at cadences, imitating muted trumpet or kazoo, and, on one exit, yodeling. Some of these interludes are conventionally effective, some aptly comic, others just as often inappropriate and distracting. The end effect, though, is that the “recitativist” emerges as an important player in the ensemble, to the extent that Marthaler gives him extra things to do. Between the third and fourth acts, Kienberger performs the Lied der Trennung , K 519, on glass harmonica, and sings another song in falsetto as a melancholic parody ( Die Alte , K 517). Clearly, this “recitativist” would be a deal-breaker for those seeking conventionality in their Mozart. I find it entertaining and stimulating, chiefly because Kienberger maintains a balance between stage presence and remaining in the background, but also because it presents a fresh twist on the routine of this ubiquitous opera.

The star of the youngish cast is certainly Peter Mattei’s winning and energetic Count, tall, swaggering, shading his dark baritone authoritatively from a suave, heroic brightness to an incisive menace. Mattei is also a constantly engaged actor, rendering his character’s bluster and discomfort realistically, notably during much of act III, when he must watch the pleasures of the other characters without having opportunity to respond. He is matched by Lorenzo Regazzo’s gruff but firm-voiced Figaro. Regazzo has less range of color and acting nuance, but remains constantly engaged, and would shine the more brightly were Mattei’s performance less athletic and dynamic. Interestingly, his Figaro is the only one of the “male” characters (Cherubino included) who is not bespectacled most of the time.

Less contrast is shown on the female side of the cast. A typically pert Susanna, Heidi Grant Murphy’s soprano is often shrill and wispy, though she warms markedly by the final act, her “Deh vieni” warm toned and affecting. She also employs some impressive breath control in shaping her recitatives in the third act. Christine Oelze is a lightweight Countess (particularly by comparison to Angela Denoke, who originated the role at Salzburg), the bright edge of her tone constantly threatening to drift upward without ever actually doing so, She succeeds in projecting the underlying melancholy of the role in her two arias, but hers is actually a Susanna voice, so much so that it would be difficult to tell her apart from Grant Murphy in the last act were it not for the visual.

By contrast, the richly textured voice of Christine Schäfer (Cherubino) is a marvel, her command of boyish pubescence astonishingly natural and unforced, her phrasing a model. But, she is a soprano assaying a part usually undertaken by mezzos; the bright coloration of her voice contributes to the general brightness of the female cast. Fortunately, all of the principals intensify and refine their performances vocally and dramatically as the evening progresses, so a timbral sameness that I found problematic at the outset does evaporate.

The Marthaler/Cambreling approach offers a relatively complete text. Both Marcellina’s and Don Basilio’s act III arias, usually cut, are presented, delivered directly to the audience as broadsides (with Helene Schneiderman actually urging the audience to clap along with her verses).

Among the strengths of Marthaler’s production is its motivic use of images. For instance, a lectern is employed as a podium for the more public utterances of the noble characters. Roland Bracht’s Bartolo, portrayed as an academic, delivers his act I “vendetta” aria almost like a conference paper, pausing occasionally to sip from the water conveniently placed at the lectern. Later, the Count steps up to the lectern whenever he needs to assert his authority or make thunderous pronouncements, though, thankfully, Marthaler employs it sparingly once the basic idea has been established. Sylvain Cambreling’s conducting is sometimes rhythmically diffuse, accents blunted, tempos somewhat de-energized, resulting in a soft-grained and monochromatic texture. The energy does build, however, in the third and fourth acts, indicating that he is attempting to convey an overarching concept of intensifying pace.

The DVD package also includes an hour-long documentary, A Day of Real Madness , by Reiner Moritz, which features useful interviews with the cast, conductor, and director. Particularly interesting is the discussion of the use of the “recitativist,” which, in Cambreling’s view, is a way of mirroring Marthaler’s characteristic departures from dramatic convention in a way that a conventional keyboard continuo-player would not.

In terms of dramatic energy and cogency, and raw entertainment value, this Figaro holds its own with other recent productions. It is less mannered, more energetic, and even better sung than the Peter Sellars film. However, some of the updatings and the “recitativist” would make it a Figaro for traditionalists to avoid. They would be better advised to explore the John Eliot Gardiner version with Bryn Terfel and Rodney Gilfrey. Warmly recommended, nevertheless.

FANFARE: Christopher Williams
Picture format: NTSC 16:9 Anamorphic
Sound format: DTS Surround / LPCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (All Regions)
Languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 261 minutes

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: OA 0960D

  • UPC: 809478009603

  • Label: Opus Arte

  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Paris National Opera Chorus, Paris National Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Christiane Oelze, Christine Schäfer, Heidi Grant Murphy, Lorenzo Regazzo, Peter Mattei