Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mozart at the Met: Le Nozze di Figaro

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The Metropolitan opened its 2014-15 season last Monday evening, September 22, with a new production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. (If you wish to read our review of the Met's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro, please use this link:  This year’s program also shows a revival of Die Zauberflöte a little later in the fall and the revival of a recent production of Don Giovanni in February.  Cosi fan tutte, Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail have all been presented within the last several years.

It was not always so. In fact, with the exception of Don Giovanni, on the calendar in the Met’s very first season, 1883-84, Mozart was heard only sporadically on 39th Street until the 1940s. And even this, his most popular work, was absent for long stretches. It was only in 1929 that the ultimate libertine, having resumed his amorous pursuits along Broadway after a twenty-year interruption, would stray no more. As for Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte, they would enter the Met repertoire to stay in the 1940s.  In the early 1950s they were joined by Cosi fan tutte.  Die Entführung, returns now and then, as do Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito.

The role of conductors in the long Mozart wave, and the support lent by Edward Johnson, the Met general manager from 1935 to 1950, cannot be overstated.  Its champions were Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch, both anti-fascists, one Jewish, the other not.  Like so many of their cohort, they had fled European podiums and eventually made their way to the Metropolitan. As the first music director of Glyndebourne, Busch had spearheaded the Mozart revival that had begun abroad in the 1930s; Walter conducted sixty-four Mozart performances In New York between 1941 and 1959. The last of Mozart’s champions has been James Levine, the Met’s music director, who introduced Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito to the repertoire, and led the orchestra in this year’s gala opening.

The subject of today’s post, Le Nozze di Figaro, returned to the Met in 1940 after an absence of more than two decades. Since then, Nozze has received more Met performances than even such old favorites as Lohengrin and Faust. Reviewers of the 1940 production took issue with excessively broad stage direction, an awkward décor, and a first-night cast that seemed still at dress rehearsal level. But the importance of the occasion was uncontested and the audience had a wonderful time at what had until then been considered fare for the cognoscenti. Ezio Pinza as Figaro and Bidú Sayão as Susanna formed the nucleus of an ensemble that fixed the opera’s place in the repertoire.

In 1950, Cesare Siepi inherited Pinza's mantle as the Met's principal bass. He went on to amass an even greater total of Nozze Figaros than his illustrious precedessor. In a clip from an Austrian TV concert, we hear why Siepi's mellifluous basso cantante, sparkling diction, and panache became the gold standard for the rebellious valet. In the Act IV aria, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,” believing that his bride has betrayed him with the Count, his master, Figaro rants against the faithlessness of all women. 

Moments later, Susanna, pretending to pine for the Count, teases her beloved bridegroom in the aria “Deh vieni, non tardar.” Sayão’s wraps this seductive night music in her tangy soprano, her playful inflection of the text, and her impeccable legato. This is a studio recording made at the time of the 1940 Met performances.

Eleanor Steber did not take on the Countess until 1942, but for the remainder of the decade the role was essentially hers. She sang it more often than has any other Met soprano, before or since. She made a commercial recording of “Porgi, amor,” the Countess’s difficult entrance aria, in 1945, a moment in which her voice was in full bloom. Her seamless line, even articulation of fioritura, and silvery timbre identify her as an exemplary Mozart practitioner; she finds the rich, doleful tone to fill the music of the sad wife who implores Love to return her wandering husband to her.

Mildred Miller is the Met’s record-holding Cherubino. In the 1950s, she held a monopoly on the impetuous, love-sick youth. Alas, there is no commercial recording of Miller in the music. Runner-up in the Cherubino sweepstakes is Frederica von Stade whose warmth, subtle interpretation, and endearing personality are unforgettable. She took part in a wonderful 1980 Paris production that, happily for us, was captured on video. In her act II ballad, “Voi che sapete,” the randy page sings his heart out to the Countess and Susanna.

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