Christmas Playlist - A Guide to Marriage of Figaro Videos on Youtube
Metropolitan Opera 1999 - Conducted by James Levine, Directed by Jonathan Miller, starring Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli et al - The Modern Met in its golden era and a Figaro which Mozart would have killed for. Amazing big band Mozart in every way, singing, orchestra, conducting, production. The largeness of the production belies its lightness and agility - rendered with so much skill that it all seems like the most graceful, most intimate imaginable production. Jonathan Miller is, to my mind, an inestimable blessing to the opera world - taking the histrionics and outlandishness of other directors and putting opera productions, however avant-garde, squarely in the realm of good sense (mind you, I didn't see his Cosi fan Tutte in DC, which I hear was a fiasco). James Levine may have declined as a conductor in virtually everything else, including Verdi, but his Mozart seems to get better and better with age. Bryn Terfel plays Bryn Terfel in virtually everything, but fortunately Terfel's personality is just about the same as Figaro's. Renee Fleming produces gorgeous sounds as the Countess, and Dwayne Croft's Count is rendered in three dimensions rather than the usual cartoon villain. But the joy of this production is Cecilia Bartoli, who gives the performance of anybody else's career but her's, because this level of dramatic involvement is simple routine for her. Apparently she and Miller clashed during the production, but you could never tell here. Probably my all-time favorite opera video. Done as a playlist so you have to click every ten minutes or so.
1976 Movie - Directed by Jean-Pierre Ponelle - Vienna Philharmonic Conducted by Karl Bohm - starring Herman Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mirella Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa et al - A very, very fine movie compromised by thousands of old-fashioned details which clearly date it from an era that didn't understand Mozart. It must have been a brilliant theatrical production, but it's rendered for the screen with lots of heavy-handed cinematic touches done by a director who's trying to fuse Ken Russell with Ingmar Bergman. There's brilliance all over the place, but everything about this performance is too heavy - conducting too wooden, with voices too lush, and an orchestra too polished. The music's overseen by the old school Mozart champion Karl Bohm - who viewed Mozart through Wagnerian lenses and managed to make it convincing even so. Whatever choreography clearly originates in the theater is fantastic and masters all Da Ponte's/Beaumarchais's various levels of meaning with virtuosic skill. Fischer-Dieskau, who would be this century's greatest singer of classical music if he ever lightened up, makes the part work for him. As the Count, he plays a stern and charmless Prussian authoritarian, and is rather terrifying. Hermann Prey was a Figaro of note, along with many other Mozart roles for baritone, and he acts the part splendidly, but if he were beginning his career today, someone would advise him to take on Osmin or Sarastro. Everybody's voices are too big, and no matter how much technique and intelligence they can utilize, they trudge through Mozart's quicksilver vocal writing like the proverbial bull in a china shop.
Glyndebourne Festival Production 1994 - London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink - Directed by Stephen Medcalf - Starring Gerald Finley, Renee Fleming et al This video is recommended everywhere. And yet I just don't see/hear it. Bernard Haitink does many things well, but if there is a more unjustly worshipped conductor in the world today, I don't know who it is. As so often happens, Haitink, the great conductor of Shostakovich and Bruckner, leaves the pleasantries at the door and warmth is in scant supply. If there's a greatness here, it's the Great Gerald Finley. Finley is one of the only true 'stars' in this production, and only became one years after appearing here. His singing and acting leave absolutely nothing to be desired - perhaps as great as will ever appear in any DVD/video version. Alison Hagley is a very fine Susanna, and Renee Fleming does what she can to bring warmth to the show. But it's all ruined by a second-rate, unnuanced, but mannered, traditional direction. Some very nice things here, ruined by its weaknesses.
Glyndebourne Festival Production 2012 - Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment conducted by Robin Ticciati - Directed by Michael Grandage - Robin Ticciati is clearly a very talented young conductor, and he gets a 'new' Mozart reading here, unencumbered by traditional notions of Mozart's Dresden Doll fragility. It's not a perfect fit - a bit too much of the baby with the bathwater; all that rhythmic elan doesn't quite cover up for the warmth lost, and it's all a shade too fast for me, but perhaps that's quibbling. None of the principal singers are particularly famous, save perhaps Sally Matthews as the Countess, but except for Sally Matthews, they're all wonderful. Matthews is a very fine actress who's voice is too large and unwieldy for the part. The production updates the action (I think...) to the 1970's, with the Count being a Key Party Swinger. It doesn't quite work, because the director clearly doesn't understand the power dynamics at play, but there are worse ideas. It's a 'different' Figaro, but certainly one that works.
Salzburg Festival 2006 - Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Directed by Claus Guth - Starring Illibrando D'Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko, Bo Skovus, Dorthea Roschmann, Christine Schafer - I really, really want to hate this production - but I can't quite... It really is the worst of the 'Eurotrash' school on screen - an almost incoherent production which clearly is obfuscatory to the plot by intention, populated with lots of 'big name' singers who aren't quite right for their parts - except for Dorthea Roschmann as the Countess, who sings beautifully. Bo Skovus's voice sounds particularly out of sorts as the Count. The production strips Figaro of all its warmth, and leaves a desolate stage of violence in its wake. When the production stops intellectualizing the content and focuses on accentuating the brutal barbarism which always operated beneath the show's surface, it becomes extremely compelling in a particularly disturbing way. But the saving grace here is Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who is, to my ears, the greatest of all Mozart conductors in the recorded era, and perhaps the only one who consistently comes within striking distance of Mozart's true intentions. Time and again, Harnoncourt chooses tempos, dynamics, phrasings, which seem crazy, only to find upon checking the score that, more often and not, Harnoncourt's tempos, dynamics, and phrasings are Mozart's. For all Harnoncourt's weirdness and obvious departures from the score, he honors more of Mozart's instructions than virtually any other conductor - most of whom ignore Mozart's markings for no other reason than sheer laziness. Where his directions are not Mozart's, Harnoncourt has done something which seems complete anathema to so many musicians of today - he uses his imagination! No doubt, Mozart expected his scores to be 'improved upon' performance by performance, and there's little doubt that Mozart, the flagrant rearranger of Handel, would have warmed to the spirit of Harnoncourt's departures, even if he'd have disagreed with many details. By disregarding tradition so thoroughly, Harnoncourt created a new tradition which puts us closer than ever to seeing Mozart on his own terms - a Mozart whose powers grew out of the world of exceedingly minor masters like Hasse and Johann Christian Bach and superseded them by exponential factors; a Mozart surrounded by competent mediocrity during an era during when music almost completely forgot what genius sounded like. When listening to Harnoncourt's Mozart, we finally hear why his contemporaries found him to be such a difficult composer to understand. Does it work? Not quite... but you'll never hear Figaro the same way after this, and you'll always wonder when future performers will come along to make sense of all those unknown crevasses which Harnoncourt illuminated.
- This is not counting the many, many complete productions on youtube that do not have English surtitles or video.