Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro
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Almost one thousand miles east of Moscow, in the Russian city of Perm, the charismatic and provocative conductor Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna, the orchestra and choir he created, are recording Mozart s Da Ponte operas. The first release of these three opera recordings is Le Nozze di Figaro. These no-compromise studio recordings are the fruit of a unique way of living and working which Currentzis has established in this remote, formerly closed city, which was dedicated to arms manufacturing in Soviet times.
The recording of Le Nozze di Figaro represents an unprecedented commitment by Currentzis and MusicAeterna in terms of preparation, session and postproduction time, to create the best possible sound. The recording embodies a radical new approach to orchestral virtuosity, score fidelity, vocal style and performance practice. Figaro was recorded over eleven straight days and nights for up to fourteen hours a day. Currentzis has tried to create an environment for those who search for what he calls a real life in music. His approach to the Mozart score is based on the conviction that it is virtually impossible today to hear it performed precisely and in full. His stated intention is to undo what he considers the effects of the 20th-century operatic tradition that is focused on simplification and vocal volume. For Currentzis, this recording represents the culmination of a decade-long research project dedicated to the discrepancies between the composer s will and what our ears have become used to. Says Currentzis, There are so many recordings which convey the general spirit of Mozart s music. The only point in making a new one is to give the audience a chance to hear and learn about all the magic which this score holds.
Born in Athens, Greece in 1972, Teodor Currentzis has been calling Russia his home since the beginning of the 1990s when he began studying conducting at the state conservatory of St. Petersburg under the tutelage of legendary professor Ilya Musin. He s outspoken, provocative and passionate and, as artistic director, he has quickly turned the Perm State Opera and Ballet Theater into Russia s most innovative and talked-about theatrical music venue.
Le Nozze di Figaro is available as a 3-CD Deluxe Edition featuring a 300 page bound book that includes tracklist, full libretto and liner notes. A Super Deluxe Edition is also available which includes everything from the Deluxe Edition plus a Blu-ray audio disc with the complete opera in high-resolution 5.1 surround audio.
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As is demonstrated by the other reviewers, the response has been somewhat bipolar. The truth, it seems to me, lies somewhere in the middle. First of all, I'd like to argue that this is NOT and *HIP* performance as that term is generally understood. To be sure, Currentzis claims that it was his goal to restore Mozart's authentic ideas to a public who had been blinded by the performance practice of the bad old twentieth century. But he also admits that many of his choices are "distortions" that Mozart wouldn't have recognized. He uses instruments, (a lute, a guitar, a hurdy-gurdy) that Mozart would not have used, to create effects. The lute, for example, according to TC, is largely inaudible, but when it is added to sforzandi chords, it adds an emphasis that TC finds convincing. Nothing wrong with that, and nothing that Mozart would have *necessarily* vetoed, at least not in principle. But it isn't *authentic*; i.e., "because it sounds good" isn't a generally accepted raison-d'etre in HIP circles to base performance decisions on. Tellingly, the passionate auteur - and this production is nothing if not a product of Teodor Currentzis's musical passions and obsessions - allows that, although the musicians all use period or copies of period instruments and employ what, by description, could be described as historically informed performance practice (I would quarrel with that description, but...), it isn't to fulfill some historical ideal; on the contrary, it's because that's what sounds best to him. He further claims that if he thought that it would sound better on electric guitars, he'd play it on electric guitars. René Jacobs he's not.
Secondly, it seems to me that in order adequately to evaluate the merits of this artifact, the listener has to be first willing to accept Currentzis's program and decide to what degree he succeeds with that program in communicating the wonder and delight that Figaro is capable of delivering. If you aren't the experimental type, you're probably well warned to stay away from this. If you do spend, at the very least, time listening here, I guarantee you will hear things you've never heard before, of questionable "authenticity" as that term has been traditionally used, and reflective of a distinctively youthful and large personality at the helm. If you are okay with this, I think you will mostly like this recording, with some noteworthy flaws that subtract from a perfect score. I say it that way because I want to emphasize that my overall response to this recording is positive, but I do believe there's something of the charlatan about Currentzis and it is his audacity that not only makes for some wondrous, effervescent, at times even visionary music making; it also raises questions about the wisdom of what turns out to be a rather idiosyncratic approach on Currentzis's part to making music in general. (See, for instance his recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 and the Santa Fe Listener's excellent review).
Although I am not as enthusiastic about this as the lead 5-star reviewer here, I do generally think Currentzis and friends have breathed life into this great opera. This is, however, something that, and here's where TC and I part company, wasn't really as necessary as Currentzis makes it out to be in the interview included with these CDs. The world is full of wonderful performances, both recorded and otherwise, of K. 492, some even from the 20th century! Although you may not have heard of these singers, that is of no significance: now you have. Although Currentzis's charge that the twentieth century created a perverse kind of opera singing that stressed the use of excessive vibrato is patently absurd, what really counts is the result. As it happens, but for Simone Kermes, who is the weak link (if not the sore thumb) of this cast, all the singers employ a technique that uses vibrato, albeit judiciously, and the result is, for the most part, lovely. Fannie Antonelou's Susanna and Mar-Ellen Nesi's Cherubino are both noteworthy for their lively and appropriately soulful sounds. Andre Bondarenko is alternately menacing and pathetic in a nuanced and carefully sung Count Almaviva, and bass Christian van Horn is convincing, if somewhat pedestrian, in the eponymous role.
As I said, I didn't like Kermes, but she's better in ensembles than in her solo numbers, and her voice isn't unpleasant in any case. It turns out that and ideal soprano for Currentzis is someone whose voice sounds more like a clarinet than like a person of flesh and blood, and to tell the truth, I'd rather hear that many some of the spintos I've heard over a lifetime of hearing this both on record and in the theater. Another intervention, the importance Currentzis et al. place on the role of the fortepiano, both in the recitatives and throughout. Extensive improvisation is the order of the day and it gives the whole recording a unique sound that I found refreshing, but others may have a different reaction. The sonics are excellent, as has been repeatedly pointed out, but it isn't flawless. I have listened to the CDs 3 times now, through headphones, through very high end computer speakers, and through full sized stereo speakers. There are moments when it sounds like microphones are jostled (the end of "Voi che sapete" for instance) and, sometimes, the fortepiano seems a bit too much in the foreground, but this last is very minor, and it may just be the novelty of the very individual character of the continuo playing in this recording that I'm hearing.
Since this review got long-winded a while back, let me conclude by saying that this would be an odd choice, I think, for a desert-island Figaro, but, if you're willing to open your ears and heart to a sometimes brash, but undeniably devoted and brilliant group of young musicians, I think you'll be glad you did.