Harnoncourt's Figaro from Salzburg
I finally got around to buying Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Le nozze di Figaro (recorded at the 2006 Salzburger Festspiele). At the outset, one can see that Deutsche Grammophon cares little for the contributions of Herr Harnoncourt and the Wiener Philharmoniker. This set, like the DVD that preceded it, is all about Anna Netrebko and, to a lesser extent, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. I understand: the Russian-born soprano is very attractive, and her voice doesn't make me pray for acute tinnitus. Of course, comparing her to Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, or - of the modern crowd - Christine Brewer would serve only to make me look like a jerk whose standards are far too high.
Of course, Netrebko looks far better in a little black dress than any of those women. They might have the tone and the power, but - times being what they are - if you can't be smeared all over some cheap advertising booklets, then you're at a disadvantage. Lest her legion fans tear me asunder, much like the Great Old One would, given half a chance, I'll say this: she isn't bad. Taken on her own. In context, I think we need to get serious. She's very good, but I doubt she'll enter vocal Walhall.
In any event, there are plenty of places to discuss Ms. Netrebko, and this isn't one. What I would like to discuss is Harnoncourt's interpretation, which was not well-received. I understand many reviewers' problems with the orchestral contribution. This is a slow Figaro, the slowest - in fact - of my versions. The only other recording I have that comes close is James Levine's (underrated, in my book) 1991 outing on Deutsche Grammophon. It lacks a certain lightness and verve that a recording like René Jacobs' has, or even Erich Kleiber's Decca set from 1955. This is a heavy and dense Figaro.
I'll be the first to admit it, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a maddening conductor. Some of his recordings are indisputably good, like his Dvořák 9th or Mozart Requiem (his Bruckner, too, is a consistently high quality), and others are indisputably weird - I'm thinking of his Messiah, which still seems, for all the world, to me to be a last-minute Christmas cash-in for BMG. He is variable, and he doesn't seem to have a consistent interpretative stance. From all I gather, it seems that he tries to approach each work on its own terms and in its own style. As I recall from the notes to Messiah, he consulted with musicologists and graphologists, trying to get to Handel's intent when writing the score.
His Figaro is as maddening, no doubt, for folks accustomed to Jacobs', Kleiber's, and any of the other, lighter sets out there. I don't agree with their assertions. It's taken me a while to get to that point, but I just cannot accept their abuse of Harnoncourt's set. René Jacobs is a rare exception to my general view of hardcore HIP recordings. John Eliot Gardiner might be hip, but he is miles away from the one-voice-per-part, play-it-exactly-as-first-performed school of interpretation. Indeed, Jacobs' interpretations are so singularly wonderful as to say that, assuming he could pull it off, he could perform the works on kazoos and still retain some of the artistic merit. He is, then, a pathological case in the best possible sense.
As to Harnoncourt, though, I believe that he has - in a sense - rescued Figaro from the "faster, leaner, and lighter" school of thought. Now, he achieves great clarity and precision, but never once did I get the sense that his Figaro was anemic. I have already registered my objections to period performance taken too far from what were pretty good ideas. Harnoncourt's recording seems to meet my specifications: intelligent adoption of period ideas, but respecting the music and the intervening performance tradition enough to allow for some amalgam of the two. The Wiener Philharmoniker, drawn from Wiener Staatsoper players and at Salzburg every year, has Figaro in their veins. They know this music forward and backward, and, as performers familiar with the material, they respond well to various interpretations. Indeed, I imagine rehearsals were spent working out the orchestral concept to the piece, rather than polishing their sound or performance.
That orchestral concept is the weird part. Apparently, Harnoncourt and the director Claus Guth approached Figaro as a sort of psychodrama. That's an approach, but not likely what Mozart had in mind. I could see it with Don Giovanni, which is, after all, a dramma giocoso. A jocose drama, whatever that means, is not how I would describe Le nozze di Figaro. Indeed, I would say that - while Figaro is dramatic - one has to appreciate Da Ponte's and Mozart's use of irony and subtlety. It's a comedy and it doesn't start off with blasting diminished sevenths (I think, which makes the Commendatore's entrance music so interesting since it repeats the overture, more or less: We find out that, as Eliot might have said, "In Giovanni's beginning is his end."). That might be a leading indicator that it's a pretty standard comedy. As best as I can tell, Guth decided to play Figaro 'straight,' which made for interesting outcomes. The slowness seems to complement the staging, so if psychodrama it is supposed to be, then psychodrama it is.
I don't buy Guth's Konzept, for what it's worth. It's an interesting take, but any attempt to suck the joy out of Figaro goes against, well, everything ever about this comedy. The plot has its ups and downs, but everything ends more or less on the level and happily. Harnoncourt might have been following the staging in his interpretation, but he achieved something ultimately more interesting with his reading of the score. What he did was let the score breathe. He seems to say that it's OK to let a score of the Classical period expand and fill space. He doesn't take Wagnerian liberties with scoring and scope, but neither does he confine Mozart's genius to a period-specific box. To me, that is the sort of interpretation Mozart needs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a great composer on a lot of levels in most genres, and he deserves neither to be fettered with the conventions of his time nor to be expanded upon using language that wasn't his own. Harnoncourt comes close to that ideal, though he might miss the mark at times (the full pauses for tintinnabulation strike me as unnecessary, for example).
In other words, I like this recording, if only because it lets Mozart do the legwork. Harnoncourt gives him the room to do so.