Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Conductor Taste Test: FIGARO Act 2 Quartet

It’s fun to do the singer taste test, like we did last week with Cherubino; but what about the great Conductor Taste Test? That’s when you compare recordings or performances of a passage featuring much more than one singer’s voice. Today, three contrasting takes on one of my all-time favorite moments, the end of the quartet movement embedded in Figaro’s Act 2 finale.

That finale, famously, goes duet/trio/quartet/quintet/septet. The quartet, after beginning in a bustling 3/8, settles into this gavotte-rhythm when the Count tries to interrogate Figaro about a letter casting suspicion upon the Countess. Figaro deflects the Count’s attempted gavotte just as he sidesteps his questions; he improves upon the Count’s tune and then, at the end, when they all sing simultaneously, Mozart adds a musette figure in the bass, a wondrous droning-bagpipe effect.

Here’s the amusing text for this passage:
F: Mente il ceffo, io già non mento.
CTA & S: Il talento aguzzi invano;
palesato abbiam l'arcano, non v'è nulla da ridir.
CT: Che rispondi?
F: Niente, niente.
CT: Dunque accordi?
F: Non accordo.
S & CTA: Eh via, chetati, balordo, la burletta ha da finir.
F: Per finirla lietamente e all'usanza teatrale
un'azion matrimoniale le faremo ora seguir.
CTA, S, & F: Deh signor, nol contrastate,
consolate i lor/miei desir.
CT: (Marcellina, Marcellina! Quanto tardi a comparir!)

F: My face might lie, but I don't.
CTA & S: Your cunning is useless here.
The secret is already revealed. Give it up!
CT: What do you say?
F: Nothing, nothing.
CT: You confess?
F: I do not confess.
S & CTA: Shut up, you blockhead. This comedy is over.
F: To end it happily, in accordance with theatrical custom,
we should close with a wedding.
CTA, S, & F: Oh, my lord, do not quarrel,
fulfill my/their desires.
CT: (Marcellina, Marcellina! You're late!)

And now, let’s compare some conductors and their ensembles! We begin with the classic Giulini 1960 recording of Le nozze di Figaro, featuring the brilliant Italian comedian Giuseppe Taddei as Figaro:

(Taddei, Wächter, Moffo, Schwarzkopf; Giulini, Philharmonia Orchestra; EMI 358602-2)

And from the early 1980s, the beautiful Solti recording:

(Ramey, Allen, Popp, Te Kanawa; Solti, London Philharmonic; Decca 410 150-2)

And, from 2004, a perhaps more authentic version by early music specialist René Jacobs, with a lower pitch and quicker tempo:

(Regazzo, Keenlyside, Ciofi, Gens; Jacobs, Concerto Köln; Harmonia Mundi B0001HZ728)

Can you make up your mind which recording to buy? Or, like most opera fanatics, do you want to hear them all?

ADDED IN 2015:Live recording of this passage from Seattle Opera's 2009 performances, starring Mariusz Kwiceien, Oren Gradus, Twyla Robinson, and Christine Brandes


  1. It's difficult to choose! My favorite was whichever one I was listening to at the moment. :) The Solti was beautiful, esp. the very end, but I think if I had to choose, it would be the Giulini. I like the style of the 50s and 60s (soaring, romantic?) and that the singers' voices are so distinct.

  2. I vote for the third one by Rene Jacobs!

  3. I think the slower tempo of the Giulini and Solti recordings is better for this passage, because it brings out the deep feelings under the comedy and the contrast between the motives of the Count and those of everyone else. This effect is especially wonderful when the Countess, Susanna, and Figaro sing "Deh signor, nol contrastate,
    consolate i lor/miei desir" while the Count can think of nothing but his scheming ("Marcellina, Marcellina ...").

  4. I liked the second one most of all!
    Solti is a great composer!

  5. If you can survive Battle's ridiculous accent, the sound of the Vienna horns in Muti's recording is the single greatest timbre in the entire world.

  6. Me, I still go back to Erich Kleiber's 1956 recording with Hilda Gueden as Susanna and the incomparable Lisa della Casa as the Countess.

  7. The melody of "Deh signor" is unearthly -- an unexpected whiff of Heaven in the midst of deceit and farce. Alice Bloch astutely comments:

    "This effect is especially wonderful when the Countess, Susanna, and Figaro sing "Deh signor, nol contrastate, consolate i lor/miei desir" while the Count can think of nothing but his scheming ("Marcellina, Marcellina ..."

    I think Mozart is the only composer ever who could have created such a moment. (And all three versions above are beautiful to my ear.)