Maag’s 1959 “Figaro” Beats Them All

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MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro / Heinz Blankenburg, baritone (Figaro); Rita Streich, soprano (Susanna); Bianca Maria Casoni, mezzo-soprano (Cherubino); Vito Susca, bass (Dr. Bartolo); Nicola Monti, tenor (Don Basilio); Renato Cesari, baritone (Count Almaviva); Marcella Pobbe, soprano (Countess); Fernanda Cadoni, mezzo (Marcellina); Amilcare Blaffard, tenor (Don Curzio); Elvina Ramella, soprano (Barbarina); Leonardo Monreale, tenor (Gardener); Nelly Pucci, Vera Presti, sopranos (Two peasants); Chorus of Teatro San Carlo, Naples; Orchestra “Alessandro Scarlatti” di Napoli alla RAI; Peter Maag, conductor / Arts Archives 43070-2 (live: September 22, 1959, Naples)

Arturo Toscanini, after seeing a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, reportedly said, “Is all very beautiful, but where is the sunshine?,” as a reference to Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

This performance has plenty of Italian sunshine. And moonshine. And all kinds of shine. In fact, it is without a doubt the most effervescent performance of this opera I’ve evr heard. The whole thing absolutely sizzles from start to finish, the singing and the conducting, but especially the incendiary playing of that small orchestra as led by Peter Maag. This is Mozart on steroids, a Nozze di Figaro to beat all comers. But why have we never heard of it?

Search as you will through the internet, you will not find a single review of this recording from any of the “leading” review publications. Certainly not Gramophone or BBC Music, who are still under the spell of John Eliot Gardiner, Theodor Currentzis and René Jacobs, all well-intentioned also-rans, but also neither at Classics Today, Fanfare or American Record Guide. Despite the fact that this recording was issued in April 2007, it has effectively been buried so deeply into a hole that it would probably take your local city sewer district to dig it up. It is a “non-recording,” one that no one listens to or takes seriously except for one reviewer, Christopher Howell at Music Web International. He is the only one who recognized its greatness and said so online.

And why is that? Well, because the label that issued it, Arts Archives, is about as big as your next-door-neighbor’s bootleg CDs of his nephew’s wedding. Until Naxos picked it up for distribution, it has not just flown under the radar but under the plane when it’s on the ground, and because it is an “older” recording they’re not really pushing it very hard. So it continues to languish in no-man’s-land where its brilliance sparkles in a vacuum.

Poor Nozze! Poor Peter Maag! And poor us, for not knowing this spectacular recording. If I hadn’t tripped across it on the Naxos Music Library, I’d still be in the dark like all of you. But allow me to sing its praises, and give you three or four good reasons why you need to own it.

#1: Despite its age (September 1959) it’s in stereo, and surprisingly good stereo at that. I wouldn’t have believed that the Italians, of all people, actually did such outstanding experimentation in live stereo broadcasts at this early a date; certainly, none of the Maria Callas or Anita Cerquetti broadcasts I’ve heard of the same vintage have been in stereo, and certainly nothing as spectacular as this. There is a real “spread” to the sound, following the singers as they moved about and sang, which all comes across as totally natural, and the orchestra always remains clear and sharply-etched no matter what.

#2: This may very well be Peter Maag’s finest three hours of his career. Using a small orchestra, he further refined its sound so that the winds were prominent and “buzzy” in the now-accepted “historically-informed” manner, but without burying the strings as so many HIP performances do. He was able to achieve this by having the strings play with a fast, tight vibrato but NOT with straight tone, which is ahistorical and flat-out wrong. Throughout the performance, he only resorts to more traditional, slower tempos in two instances, Susanna’s aria “Deh vieni, non tardar” and the final denouement when the Count recognizes the Countess, “Contessa, perdono.” I don’t mind it at all in the latter case—in fact, if you take that music too quickly it loses its impact and its ability to catch you by surprise and make you cry (it ALWAYS makes me cry, every time I hear it), but in the former case he really should have picked up the pace a little.

#3: Though not an “all-star cast,” this is a superb ensemble of committed artists who give their absolute best and come up shining. The only three famous names are those of Rita Streich, Marcella Pobbe and Nicola Monti, who I’m sure took the role of Don Basilio as a favor to Teatro San Carlo and conductor Maag—he was surely too big a name to do so otherwise, being more used to performing the leading bel canto roles with such singers as Callas. Pobbe had kind of an unusual voice: creamy in tone but with an Italianate vibrato and a very slight “whine,” like Ileana Cotrubas, but like Cotrubas she was an outstanding musician and interpreter. I’ve heard at least a dozen star sopranos sing “Porgi amor” with a more gorgeous tone than Pobbe, but not one who intrprets the words and touches the heart the way she does.

#4: There are absolutely no “let-down” moments in this performance. Even the secondary arias, such as the Count’s “Hai già vinta la causa” and Figaro’s “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,” sudden;y become highlights not only because of the lively singing but because the orchestra is constantly in there pitching, laughing and/or mocking the characters in their comic adventures in every phrase and scene. Moreover, because most of the cast are native-born Italians, the recitatives also sizzle. They move quickly and deftly, rattling off the tongues of the singers the way Rossini’s recitatives did in the famous and venerable 1929 recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Sunshine, indeed!

As for the singers you haven’t heard of, a few notes are in order. American baritone Heinz Blankenburg (b. 1931) apparently spent most of his career in Europe, particularly in Hamburg where he was one of the very few foreigners named “Kammersinger.” Critic Andrew Porter once described him in The New Yorker as “someone whose performances are to be collected and prized,” but his only commercial recording—until this Figaro was released—seems to have been as Masetto in Erich Leinsdorf’s Don Giovanni. In his online review, Howell pointed out that “a DVD seems to exist of a 1967 Hamburg Figaro, which may be sung in German.” Baritone Renato Cesari, our Count Almaviva, is a wonderful singer with a bright voice who sang Sharpless in Anna Moffo’s recording of Madama Butterfly. Vito Susca, though not prodigious of voice, has a fine basso buffo which he uses to great advantage in Dr. Bartolo’s “La vendetta.” Our Cherubino is Bianca Maria Casoni (b. 1932) who later went on to sing Charlotte in Werther, among other roles. She has a rich voice with an appropriately androgynous sound, perfect for the role, and sings with great sensitivity and expression.

But this is a true ensemble performance, of the sort that is common now but not then, when the “star system” determined what gold-plated voices would be singing, and that makes all the difference in the world. Everyone works as a unit towards the presentation of this comic masterpiece to the best of their individual and collective abilities, with the result that the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.

The only cut in the score is Marcellina’s aria. Howell assumes that it was cut because its technical pyrotechnics were beyond the singer used here, Fernanda Cadoni, but my own opinion is that neither Cadoni nor Maag felt that the aria was appropriate to the character. After all, Marcellina is a rather mature woman who turns out to be Figaro’s mother, and casting a ripe-sounding mezzo in the part is dramatically correct. In the famous Erich Kleiber recording, it was sung by Susanna, but it holds up the action, doesn’t contribute to the unfolding comedy, and simply doesn’t suit the character.

In short, then, this is not only a superb performance of Figaro but in my view a “desert island” choice for the opera. There are two selections in the last act where the sound seems to “phase” a little (meaning that there are moments where one channel or the other sounds less full in volume than the other), but aside from that there are no deficiencies in sound as there are no deficiencies in the performance. If you like this opera, you need to own this recording!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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