Discography and Videography
With modern instruments:
Norman, Freni, Minton, Ganzarolli, Wixell; BBC Symphony, cond. C. Davis. (Philips)
Te Kanawa, Popp, von Stade, Ramey, Allen; London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Solti. (Decca)
Gencer, Freni, Mathis, Blankenburg, Bacquier; Royal Philharmonic, Varviso. (Glyndebourne)
Janowitz, Mathis, Troyanos, Prey, Fischer-Dieskau; Deutsche Oper Berlin, cond. Böhm. (DG)
Schwarzkopf, Moffo, Cossotto, Taddei, Waechter; Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Giulini. (EMI)
Te Kanawa, Upshaw, von Otter, Furlanetto, Hampson; Metropolitan Opera, cond. Levine. (DG)
Vaness, Evans, Mentzer, Miles, Corbelli; Scottish Chamber Orchestra, cond. Mackerras. (Telarc)
Margiono, Bonney, Murray, Scharinger, Hampson; Amsterdam Concertgebouw, cond. Harnoncourt. (Teldec)
M. Price, Battle, Murray, Allen, Hynninen, Vienna Philharmonic, cond. Muti. (EMI – available only in package with Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte)
With original instruments:
Gens, Ciofi, Kirchschlager, Regazzo, Keenlyside; Concerto Köln, Jacobs. (Harmonia Mundi)
Martinpelto, Hagley, Stephen, Terfel, Gilfry; English Baroque Soloists, cond. Gardiner. (Archiv)
Della Casa, Güden, Danco, Siepi, Poell; Vienna Philharmonic, cond. E. Kleiber. (Decca)
Jurinac, Sciutti, Stevens, Bruscantini, Calabrese; Glyndebourne Festival Opera, cond. Gui. (EMI)
The abundance of recorded Figaros can leave the prospective listener at a loss as to which performance to choose. An easy solution is to let the accompaniment be the determining factor -- that is, original instruments vs. a modern orchestra. When it comes to the latter, the finish and polish of the Deutsche Oper Berlin forces under Karl Böhm create a satisfying experience, with a cast of Mozart specialists led by a particularly lovely female trio of Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis, and Tatiana Troyanos. The London Philharmonic performance under Sir Georg Solti boasts probably the most vocally glamorous cast of any Figaro ever recorded. Many of these artists were among Sir Georg Solti’s most beloved colleagues, and it shows in the performance. The formidable Ramey/Popp/Te Kanawa/Allen/von Stade lineup is a true ‘ensemble of stars,” memorably supported by two fabulous scene-stealers, Kurt Moll and Michel Sénéchal, as Bartolo and Basilio, respectively.
What a wonderful surprise it was when Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s own label and recently issued a live performance from 1962. In more-than-presentable sound, an effervescent ensemble cast works real magic under the baton of Silvio Varviso. In addition to the vocally delicious and interpretively ever-resourceful Freni, there are extraordinary portrayals from a polyglot team from Turkey (Leyla Gencer, a warm and radiant Countess), Switzerland (Edith Mathis again, as charming a Cherubino as she had been as Böhm’s Susanna), France (Gabriel Bacquier’s dangerous Count), and America (Heinz Blankenburg, whose expert vocalism and varied ,idiomatic way with the text are a joy).
Ideally, one should have both Solti’s Figaro and that led by Sir Colin Davis on Philips; the British conductor’s extraordinarily characterful and human performance exudes a captivating sense of humor, but also an unexpected passion and a constant sense that the Count’s designs on Susanna are, after all, no laughing matter. Highlights are Jessye Norman’s voluptuous Countess, Ingvar Wixell’s incisive Count, and, above all, Mirella Freni’s warm, witty Susanna. If I give her the edge among all recorded exponents of the role, it has much to do with her coloring the recitatives with a native’s natural feeling for the Italian text. There is also, however, her ability to bring Susanna’s cleverness, impudence, and sheer lovability so much to the fore that the character becomes the true linchpin of the opera (and rightly so).
If you choose to listen with the sound that Mozart himself heard in performance, original instruments will offer drier and more biting strings, brighter and slenderer brass, and overall a crystal clarity that offers constant musical rewards. Try Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s theatrically riveting leadership in the Archiv performance, with Bryn Terfel leading the way in his unsurpassable portrayal of the title role.
Fleming, Hagley, Todorovich, Finley, Schmidt; London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Haitink, dir. Medcalf. (Kultur)
Te Kanawa, Freni, Ewing, Prey, Fischer-Dieskau; Vienna Philharmonic, cond. Böhm., dir. Ponnelle. (DG)
Te Kanawa, Cotrubas, von Stade, Skram, Luxon; London Philharmonic, cond. Pritchard, dir. Hall. (ArtHaus Musik)
Röschmann, Persson, Shaham, Schrott, Finley; Royal Opera House/Covent Garden, cond. Pappano, dir. McVicar. (Opus Arte)
Watson, Grist, Mathis, Berry, Wixell; Vienna Philharmonic, cond. Böhm, dir. Rennert. (TDK)
Röschmann, Netrebko, Schäfer, D’Arcangelo, Skovhus; Vienna Philharmonic, cond. Harnoncourt., dir. Guth. (DG)
Martinpelto, Hagley, Stephen, Terfel, Gilfry; English Baroque Soloists, cond. and dir. Gardiner.
Any of the above-mentioned performances provides an apt audio/visual introduction to Figaro. Certainly one wouldn’t want to be without the production that opened the new theater at Glyndebourne, with the heavenly Renée Fleming as the Countess and a marvelously responsive servant couple, Gerald Finley’s Figaro and Alison Hagley’s Susanna. The Karl Böhm/Jean-Pierre Ponnelle Figaro is an actual movie, but is heavily based on Ponnelle’s now-legendary staging seen in Salzburg, Washington, and elsewhere. There has surely never been a starrier group than the artists appearing here, with the greatest achievements coming from Mirella Freni (Susanna) and the adorable young Maria Ewing (Cherubino). The interpretive imagination one has come to expect from director David McVicar is constantly in evidence in Covent Garden’s performance, the most overtly passionate of them all where the two central couples are concerned: Erwin Schrott and Miah Persson as the servants, Dorothea Röschmann and Gerald Finley as their masters. This quartet's dramatic involvement is as complete as their musicianship.
If you crave a contemporary staging, go to Salzburg’s, with the unexpected casting of Anna Netrebko (Susanna) opposite Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s irrepressible Figaro. Salzburg has another DVD – a performance from more than four decades ago, with one of the most sparkling Susannas ever seen or heard, Reri Grist, leading a cast of top-flight Mozartians. Glyndebourne, too, has another delightful performance, which documents the premiere cast of Sir Peter Hall’s production. It features glorious teamwork from Ileana Cotrubas, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Frederica von Stade, all in their youthful prime. The choice is a difficult one and will come down to a matter of personal taste. The standards for both singing and acting in all these performances is very high indeed.