Pulp Figaro

Today’s Ponelle production is the 1976 Le Nozze di Figaro.  It has the starriest cast of any of the Ponelle films I’ve seen to date; Herrman Prey in the title role, Mirella Freni as Susanna, Kiri Te Kanawa as the countess and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the count.  It even, rather bizarrely, has Maria Ewing as Cherubino.  To round things out Karl Böhm conducts with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Staatsopernchor.  As we shall see, musically it lives up to the casting.  

Superficially the production looks conventional enough; wigs and crinolines and naturalistic period sets but there’s a lot going on.  Even during the overture we see Figaro packing fr his move into the room the count has offered.  He has his barber’s gear, a broad range of Enlightenment texts and a signed portrait of the count which will preside over the following scene.  On first impression one could see Prey’s Figaro as a “cheeky chappy” but there is something edgier lurking in there.  This feeling is reinforced with the first appearance of Fischer-Dieskau,  His count is more Prussian than Castilian and has a real sense of something very unpleasant lurking under a very suave exterior.  He reminds me of Christoph Waltz’s Oberst Landa in Inglorious Basterds.  In fact the whole production has a curiously Tarantino like air to it; the sense that manic violence could break out at any moment.  Of course, this being the opera it is nobody starts firing machine guns or tossing grenades but there are some quite disturbing bits of violence as when the count actually hits the countess during Tutto è come il lasciai.  This aspect is reinforced when Ponnelle holds on a longish freeze frame after Susanna slaps Figaro during the Act 3 sextet.  Oddly, given the tension in the first three acts, a rather funny last act rather undermines the pathos of the denouement but it’s a minor quibble.

This dark undercurrent is set against a more broadly comic element.  As in Ponnelle’s Barbieri Bartolo (Paolo Montarsolo) is played in very broad comic terms as is Marcellina (Heather Begg).  Ewing’s Cherubino seems to be very much in the comic camp.  It’s an odd performance not helped by the fact that Ewing is one of the least boyish Cherubinos that I have seen. She is given some very odd things to do including a sort of rag doll impersonation during Non più andrai and a sort of zombie walk with Susanna during Aprite, presto, aprite.  Often she’s just too broadly comic as in the duet with the countess which is just plain irritating.

Te Kanawa’s countess doesn’t project any great individuality beyond the stereotypical put upon wife although she does manage to generate a sense of both teasing and of being afraid in Act 4.  Before that we get a lot of religious symbolism and some gorgeous singing of the two big arias.  Porgi amor is trademark Kiri with the emphasis on beauty of tone rather than meaning though Dove sono, accompanied in part by black and white flashbacks, is a bit more animated.

Perhaps the best performance of all is Mirella Freni’s Susanna.  She sings beautifully both alone and in the ensembles.  The duets with the countess are gorgeous and Deh vieni, non tardar is really lovely.  It’s quite something when a singer produces an even more beautiful sound than Te Kanawa!  The real glory though is her acting.  This is a performance that has real range and depth to it.  She can be very funny as in Act 4 where her impersonation of the countess is quite manic but more generally one senses this Susanna as one very much in control of her own destiny.  Indeed one sees trouble ahead for Figaro if he fancies asserting any traditional matrimonial authority!  And have i got this far without mentioning that she is gorgeous.  She is!

The ensemble work is all very crisp and sounds really good.  It’s Böhm conducting so it’s fairly traditional, well executed Mozart with no real musical quirks just fine singing and playing from all concerned.  Overall, musically, this is about as good asit gets.

The cinematography shows  more elements of Ponelle’s later work than his Madama Butterfly.  There is a lot of mugging to the camera and quite a bit of the camera circling the action as well as some odd angles and fast cuts.  There are some flash back sequences and freeze frames so it’s still more cinematic than the later films and it doesn’t have the contrived staginess of La Cenerentola. As in Butterfly, interior monologues are not lip synched.   It does have the sense of being filmed for the small screen (reinforced by a short interview in the booklet) and the picture is 1970s film to TV quality; 4:3 aspect ratio and rather soft focussed so stressed a bit on a modern large screen.

The sound quality is a bit mixed.  There’s a choice of LPCM stereo or synthesized DYS 5.1.  Both sound pretty good most of the time but there are some oddities.  I think the arias were recorded in the studio but the recits on set.  Certainly there are times when the acoustic changes audibly.  Occasionally too the engineers seem to have injected their own bit of weirdness.  Voi che sapete seems to have an acoustic all of its own, projecting a sort of resonance around what appears to be deliberately “fluttery” singing.  I found the changing acoustic somewhat annoying.  In all other respects it’s a typical DGG DVD release with Italian, English, Spanish, German, French and Chinese subtitles.  The booklet has synopsis, track listing and a short, not very interesting, interview with Ponnelle on directing for the small screen.  Bonus material is limited to some trailers.

This is a production with some dramatic depth to it and the performances, Ewing aside, are very fine.  Despite the acoustical oddities t’s definitely worth a look.


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