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Customer Review

VINE VOICEon September 22, 2009
First let me suggest you also see the reviews under the standard-DVD release of this production.

While it is impossible to say what is the greatest opera ever, "Le Nozze di Figaro" has to be in the running (critical consensus tends to favor "Don Giovanni" as Mozart's greatest, but I'm not so sure about that). In any case "Le Nozze" is hallowed ground for me. It begins with an overture that is a miracle of conciseness, quickly launching us into three hours in which each tuneful delight chases on the heels of another, a virtual non-stop fest of one hit after another! Of course it is a comedy, but it is so much more than that--almost an encyclopedia of human nature at its best and worst, and Mozart's music is the force that drives home all the joy and pathos that mere words and acting cannot; thus the music is so central that one must seek out the best performance possible, not because Mozart's music needs it--it can fairly well survive even indifferent renditions, but because it deserves the best. This means that the musical performance has to take precedence over everything.

In search of the best with which to stock my video opera library I have acquired three different DVDs of this opera. Of those three, this is neither the best nor the worst (avoid the 1973 Glyndebourne Festival Opera production Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro / Te Kanawa, Cotrubas, von Stade, Luxon, Skram, Fryatt; Pritchard, Glyndebourne Opera, which, in spite of its good reviews and all-star cast, is saddled with audio that I found simply unacceptable). The best was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1977 movie Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), not a live production on an operatic stage. I knew that there was something missing musically in the other two, and so I felt that I should delve into my library of old videotapes in search of an excellent stage version to serve as a standard of comparison. I found the Met's storied 1985 production, also by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with Kathleen Battle, James Levine, Carol Van Ness, Ruggiero Raimondi, Thomas Allen, and Frederica von Stade. I also should note that von Stade appears in the same role in that audio-challenged 1973 Glyndebourne Festival Opera production.

At the risk of prejudicing you against almost all other performances, I recommend your hearing the Met's production, which you can do on their Website; alas, it is unavailable for purchase as a DVD or VHS, as far as I am able to determine. I was a little surprised to discover that Levine had not yet honed the Met orchestra into one of the best orchestras in the world (although it was probably the best of all pit orchestras). The singing, however, is the best I heard of all the versions to which I listened, and the audio, while not great, was better than the 1973 Glyndebourne Festival Opera DVD. It is important to spell out in what way they are so good and how they differ from the less successful singers in this recent Covent Garden production. It comes down to these qualities: intensity, strength, fluidity, breath control, and creaminess of voice in addition to all the usual prerequisites of accuracy, quality of vibrato, and timing, to name a few. The women in the 1985 Met production, as well as in the 1977 Ponnelle movie were simply better in each of those aspects than those of this recent Covent Garden production. On the bright side, however, the men of this Covent Garden production are roughly equal to their Met Opera and Ponnelle movie counterparts, and I prefer Erwin Schrott's portrayal of Figaro to that of Raimondi, who seemed a tad menacing at times, even though his singing was certainly both agreeable and formidable. Ultimately the choice between these two Figaros (if DVDs of both were available) is a matter of personal taste.

Now for some more specifics: Except for a supercharged contribution by the tympani, the orchestra proved itself lackluster in the overture. Throughout the opera, however, the pacing was very good. There was a slight hint of historically informed "authentic" period performance, which I didn't find helpful, but not objectionable either. Along the same lines, I thought the ornamentation in Rinat Shaham's "Voi che sapete" was interesting and in good taste.

Miah Persson's (Susanna) voice lacked sweetness. Erwin Schrott was a handsome Figaro, and both were entirely credible as young lovers. Schrott has a strong, rich baritone, with excellent intonation and control. Both Persson and Shaham needed to have had more sostenuto to avoid choppiness. Gerald Finley was excellent as the Count; and Dorothea Röschmann was very good as the Countess; their duets proved the most satisfying of the production. The Countess was just a little disappointing in "Dove sono," however. I could see that the intent was to stay in tempo, but the sound was a little late in making it out of her mouth. Marcellina was the weakest of the main characters in the cast. Philip Langridge was a hoot as Don Basilio and sang well, too.

In addition to the quality of the singing, much of the musical success is determined by the tempi and pacing set by the conductor, who must decide when to let the music sigh and breathe and when to propel it forward, as appropriate to its many moods; nothing turns me off more than a reading that seems merely efficient. Antonio Pappano was not entirely successful in avoiding this pitfall.

Still, this is a handsome production, in terms of staging, video and audio reproduction, and packaging. Although the booklet does not provide a libretto, we are lucky to have any booklet at all--it's a crime how austerely some opera DVDs are packaged. The Blu-ray picture is gorgeous, not only sharp & very detailed, but also warm for a straight-to-video recording, almost simulating film but clearer and without grain. This is 1080i, but it is hard to imagine that 1080p could be any better. And all that clarity is well utilized in showing off the great sets and good looks of the cast. Because this is only a very good, but not great, performance, I recommend it only in this Blu-ray edition, where the visual delight compensates for some of its deficiencies otherwise. As the first or only video of Le Nozze I have to recommend the Bohm/Ponnelle movie with the dream cast and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Just because this is not the best of all performances does not keep it from being a worthwhile addition to one's library. As long as a performance operates on this high a level, there are always a few new things worthy of our attention, even in the performance; not to mention new sets and costumes and superior video & audio reproduction; but I don't recommend this as a first or only version; and I would be particularly concerned if this were one's first exposure to this masterpiece: although they would have had an enjoyable experience, they would go away without a clue as to what depths are possible.

Finally a couple of notes on the Blu-ray product itself: I thought I knew every counter-intuitive way the producers of Blu-ray discs had devised to thwart viewers' attempts to navigate the menus, but this one stumped me; I have yet to figure out how to complete the set-up and proceed to play the disc; instead, I had to have my player reset everything to its default (English subtitles and 5.1 Surround, which is what English-speaking audiences are most likely to want, anyway). Mercifully, it does not utilize the ever-obnoxious Java code that renders so many Blu-ray discs incapable of being resumed at the point you leave off, in the event you decide not to watch the entire disc in a single sitting.
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