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