Back in 2014 Nikolaus Harnoncourt launched a project to present all three Mozart/da Ponte operas, concert style, on the stage of the Theater an der Wien in a single month. They are now being released on DVD/Blu-ray. The first is Le nozze di Figaro and it comes with a 52 minute documentary by Felix Breisach; Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Between Obsession and Perfection – part 1.
The documentary and the essay in the booklet are really essential viewing/reading because they really do give insight into what conclusions Harnoncourt had come to about performing Mozart in the course of his long and distinguished career. It also shows how detailed the man was in rehearsal; demanding but not in a dictatorial way. The main theme of the film is Harnoncourt’s views on recitative. To summarize, and over, simplify he believes that historically the recits were performed more like natural speech. He encourages his singers to use the speech rhythms they would use if they were speaking and makes it clear that pitch values can be altered if necessary. The accompaniment too is much sparser than usual. It’s an interesting effect. Personally, I like it better than the approach one often hears which is for both singer and harpsichordist to run through the words as fast as possible! Is it “authentiic”? Harnoncourt thinks so. I have no idea.
The performance itself is very interesting. The back wall of the stage is decorated with portraits and that’s about it. There are music stands and the singers sing in concert dress with a few minimal nods to stage directions. For me, the minimalism effectively concentrates one’s attention on the music and the characterizations. As in the other Harnoncourt recording of Figaro that I’ve seen (Salzburg 2006), his tempi are very personal; often rather slow. A good one to listen to here is Voi che sapete. He’s also very deliberate and quite incisive. The entry of the winds, for example, is often a bit startling. It’s the Concentus Musicus Wien in the pit so it’s also very much a period sound. The overall effect is a bit unnerving. It’s a combination of the music and how it’s performed and Harnoncourt’s dramatic view of the piece. He sees it, I think, as a rather sad story about rather unpleasant people which makes it a lot darker than most productions.
The singing is really good. Bo Skovhus is a very good Count. He has a wide range of registers and uses them to good effect. Christine Schäfer sings the Countess. She’s not a typical sounding Countess. It’s not a rich sound but very clean and pure. It probably won’t suit everybody but I rather like it. Andrè Schuen is quite a muscular Figaro with a good emotional range while Mari Eriksmoen’s Susanna is quite broadly painted. She gestures wildly rather more than i might prefer but her singing is excellent. Elisabeth Kulman has a lot of fun as a very knowing, rather mature, Cherubino. The minor roles are nicely done too. Ildikó Raimondi makes a surprisingly sympathetic Marcellina. Mauro Peter doubles as a rather arch Basilio and a st st stuttering Don Curzio. Peter Kálmán also doubles as Bartolo and Antonio; both to good effect. Finally, Christina Gansch makes a very appealing Barbarina.
Then there’s the Concentus Musicus Wien. They are, of course, Harnoncourt’s instrument and the soft strings and incisive winds are very much a factor in this performance. The chorus is the Arnold Schoenberg Chor who never disappoint in my experience. As a final comment on the performance, I noticed that applause early on in the piece was quite thin but it became noticeably louder and longer act by act. I get it. At first one doesn’t quite know what to think of what Harnoncourt is doing but he sucks you in to the point where you are wondering why it isn’t always done this way.
Technical quality is all good. Felix Breisach directed both films and “arranged” the stage action for the actual performance. He rightly doesn’t distract apart from a few close-ups on the man himself which are well justified by the intensity they reveal. The picture and sound (DTS-HD and 24 bit stereo) on Blu-ray are first class. Besides the essay, the booklet contains a synopsis and a track listing. Subtitle options are English, Italian, German, French, Korean and Japanese.
A concert performance, even an extraordinary one, wouldn’t be most people’s first choice for a video recording of Le nozze di Figaro. There are excellent recordings of fully staged performances toto suit all tastes available. This one is for the person who has seen Figaro many times and is asking themselves is there anything new that I can get out of it. For me, the answer was a resounding yes and I look forward to seeing the other two operas. The set is shaping up as a fantastic swan song for one of opera’s most interesting figures.