In all that great outpouring of music that is Mozart, he appears to have reserved his greatest creations for the operas. The demands of the stage seem to have stimulated his imagination to bring forth its most sublime inventions.
"Figaro, Figaro, Fee Ga Row." Everyone knows the famous aria Largo Al Factotum - only it's from another opera, Il Barbiere (by another composer yet). Figaro is the sequel and follows the fortunes of the barber as he enters into the service of the Conte Almaviva after having secured for his aristocratic master the hand of Rosina and in the process, dishing her guardian and would be suitor, the stuffed shirt Dr. Bartolo and his sidekick Don Basilio.
From the first note, Figaro bubbles over with good humour. It is a wonder how Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte, can be so funny across the gulf of two centuries and the language barrier. Of course, you have to be willing to follow along in the translation as the opera unfolds but you will be rewarded with big laughs. I'm not talking subtle, wry, witty, smiles. I'm talking rolling in the aisles, holding your sides laugh out loud till it hurts funny. Mozart may have been writing for the aristos, but he was a man of the people and they liked their humour broad, coarse and obvious.
Kleiber's 1955 recording would be my desert island choice. There's a reason Decca waited almost a quarter century before recording Figaro again (with Karajan). The Kleiber was so good; there was no need to record another. This recording can be summed up in a single word: joy. The singers are having a good time. The orchestra is having a good time. The entire performance brims over with bonhomie. Guilini gives us a performance that, characteristically of this conductor, underlines the humanity of the characters. Equally characteristic is Solti's patented orgasm per minute style of conducting. All three recordings are sonic masterpieces with the nod going to the Kleiber.
There are more than a score of Figaros in the catalog - enough to make even the most fanatical operaphile buckle at the knees. I relied on the Met's Guide to Recorded Opera to weed out the non-contenders.
Kleiber's conception emphasizes the comic aspects of this opera to the nth degree. Even the overture bubbles over with good humour. Kleiber then proceeds to build a series of comic climaxes that realize all the comic potential inherent in the score.
He begins with the barbs flying between Susanna and Marcellina, her older rival for Figaro's affections. The insults are tossed off with refreshingly casual abandon. The fun level raises another notch as the terrified page, Cherubino, desperately hides from the Count after being caught unawares in Susanna's room. In the scene capper, the Count is complaining about the way Cherubino carries on with every female in the palace. Why, just this morning he found the hapless page hiding under a table in a maid's room. He whips away a cloth to demonstrate just how, only to reveal Cherubino caught once again in the same compromising position.
This scene is topped by Figaro's explanation of just how he came to be in possession of Cherubino's commission. Kleiber's timing is simply perfect as he carefully molds the music to climax as Figaro sings the magical words "Il Suggello" (the seal) which explains the entire nefarious goings on. Mozart's confluence of musical and comic climax must surely rate as one of the masterstrokes in all of opera and Kleiber realizes his conception to the max.
Just when you think it can't possibly get any better, Mozart produces the funniest scene of all as Figaro discovers that his arch nemesis, Bartolo, is in fact his father. And his mother is none other than Marcellina whom the Count had been hoping to marry off to Figaro so he can seduce Susanna. The Count is foiled again. No wonder the aristos didn't take kindly to this play which not only showed the lords and ladies constantly getting their comeuppance at the hands of the hired help but actually dared to suggest that all a commoner needed to palm himself off as a lord was a handsome set of clothes.
Siepi's Figaro always has a smile on his face even as he plans his master's downfall in the aria Bravo, Signor Padrone. For this Figaro, even revenge takes a back seat to having fun. His fiancé, Susanna, is made of sterner stuff and in Gueden's hands; she is not only smart (with a tongue to match) but also sweet and gentle.
In her star turn, Danco sings like an angel in Voi Che Sapete. This paen to women is the crowning jewel of the whole opera because of the sheer beauty of the melody. Seldom does a review of Figaro fail to mention how this aria was sung. It is the litmus test for a Figaro performance. Some cavil that Danco's soprano is too girlish and would prefer the traditional mezzo in the role of Cherubino. But when the Cherubino can float lines of such utter purity, all objections seem picayune. This Cherubino is truly dizzy from chasing after every female in the castle.
Not everyone agrees with me that the Kleiber is a desert island disk. I was frankly shocked to find a number of instant experts on Amazon dissing this venerable recording. The main objection seems to be that the German members of the cast sing Italian with a German accent, with the hapless Alfred Poell, who sings the Count, singled out for particular criticism. For myself, this is definitely a situation where ignorance is bliss. I can't speak Italian so this particular blemish is inaudible to me.
The really surprising objection is that the sound quality is subpar. I can't help but feel that some of the younger set suffer from a tendency to assume that new is always better and they have a built in bias against older recordings. This recording is simply beautiful and spacious. True, on the analog original there is a persistent hum, but that has been scrubbed clean on the CD through the magic of the digital arts.
Carlo Maria Guilini
From the first note, this performance is characterised by grace and gentility. Under Guilini's baton, the characters emerge as real flesh and blood beings going far beyond the one dimensional cartoon cutouts of Kleiber's comic masterpiece. In Kleiber's conception, the characters are mere devices for delivering the farcical goods. With Guilini, the characters comes first with the humour emerging as a by-product of their all too human motivations. The singers enunciate the words as if they truly mean them, rather than just hitting the notes.
In the opera's opening duet, Taddei's Figaro and Moffo's Susanna give a convincing portrait of a couple that is head over heels in love. There is tenderness to Taddei's singing that is missing from Siepi's ultimately overwhelming performance. Taddei makes you feel as if he is really singing to his partner rather than to the audience. This feeling of interplay between the singers continues with the next duet where Taddei and Moffo are equally convincing in portraying the flip side of romance: the bickering, albeit still loving, couple.
These two duets set the pattern for the rest of Guilini's interpretation. Always one feels the singers are portraying real people interacting with each other rather than an ensemble of singers, no matter how skilled, who are singing their parts for an audience. Figaro's solo, Bravo Signor Padrone, doesn't sound like just another star turn by a singer, but like a man faced with a problem who is carefully working out the solution in his mind.
The singers are uniformly excellent on this album. Vinco is splendid as Bartolo, expertly handling the patter as he plots his revenge on Figaro in La Vendetta. Gatta's Marcellina is more sympathetic than most. Often this character comes off as nothing more than a scheming shrew, but Gatta portrays her as genuinely in love with Figaro. Likewise Cossotto gives a winning portrayal of Cherubino as a female obsessed teenager, although for sheer purity of singing line, Danco's Voi, Che Sapete is the more ravishing of the two.
Wächter makes for a Count who is both aristocratic and lively. By turns seductive in Ah! Son Perduto! and exasperated in Cosa Sento! Schwarzkopf was at the height of her powers when she recorded this role and she gives us a truly regal Countess. Her Porgi, Amor is the essence of injured dignity. Rounding out the cast, Ercolani makes a suitably wheedling Basilio.
As with any Guilini performance, the strings are especially silken. The Philharmonia of that period was a crack outfit, but I would still give the Viennese the edge. They are just a little bit chirpier and bubblier. Nonetheless, Guilini turns in the sunniest and happiest of all these recordings. We are to have such a wealth of choices. It is like choosing between a Lafite and a Mouton.
Sir Georg Solti
I disagree with those who consider Kiri Te Kanawa (the Countess) to be the star of this recording. Surely, the key roles here are those of the Count and Figaro, sung by Thomas Allen and Samuel Ramey. Either one is capable of taking on the title role in Don Giovanni (and have each done so multiple times on both recordings and stage). Indeed Allen sings the Count as if he were the rakish Don - overbearing, arrogant and utterly secure in his aristocratic privileges. With this casting, we have a true battle of wits between master and servant. By contrast, Poell's Count is an aristocrat of a more genteel variety who is simply overmatched by the boundless energy of Siepi's Figaro. Wächter is more evenly matched with Taddei, but their competition lacks the sharp duel to the death quality of the struggle between Allen and Ramey.
Their battle of wits begins with the Count's Conoscete, signor Figaro (Do you know, Mr. Figaro?). The count tries to catch Figaro out, but the servant expertly parries every thrust with stout denial. Just as he seems to have won out, an outraged gardener enters to complain that someone (Cherubino) has jumped from the balcony onto his flowers. Figaro covers up by claiming that he was the jumper. "Aha, so this document must belong to you", saith the gardener, handing over Cherubino's commission. "Aha!" saith the Count, thinking he has finally caught Figaro out, but the wily one, after some initial fumbling, comes up with the immortal line that he was only taking the document to have the missing seal affixed.
Personally, I find Sir Georg's explosive style somewhat tiring upon repeated listening. The orchestral and vocal fireworks are undeniable, but even the greatest fireworks display leaves one sated after a certain point. It is like a glittering Cellini artifact. One is astounded by the workmanship, but to what artistic end? Both the Kleiber and Guilini offer a more satisfying musical experience.
During the Golden Age of recording, parallel struggles went on on both sides of the Atlantic for the title of greatest recording company. In the USA, RCA vied with Mercury for the honour, whilst in the UK, EMI and Decca strove for the mastery. Making the parallel even closer, both RCA and EMI used little Nipper as their mascot (the artist cannily sold his work on both sides of the pond). These recordings tell the tale of the titanic struggle between the two British giants. EMI - without a clearly defined house sound - the sonics varying from one recording to the next, but generally a lighter sound than the Deccas that achieve an incredibly rich, dark sonority. (In the USA, Decca sold their records under the London label.)
In this particular contest, the crown goes to Decca and Kleiber. This recording is justly renowned for its rich, creamy sound. By contrast, EMI gives Guilini a dryish sound that is sometimes glassy on top and benefits from a rolloff around 8 KHz. In general, the EMI sports a lighter, more relaxed sound than the Decca that is especially good at teasing out the individual vocal lines in the larger ensembles. Would that I had an analog version of this recording. For with the Kleiber, I had on hand not only the CD but also a four track reel-to-reel tape. What a relief to listen to analog and not just any analog, but reel to reel tape that offers a natural bloom to the voices and strings that CD can only dream about.
The all-digital recording used on the Solti is without question a runner up, but what a glorious runner up. Solti was Decca's star conductor and they pulled out all their considerable resources for his recordings. But it suffers from that anemic sound that is endemic to digital recordings of that era. Goosing the bass between 100Hz and 300Hz brings instant relief.
So there you have it. Fun Figaro (Kleiber), Human Figaro (Guilini), or Fireworks Figaro (Solti). The choice is yours. You cannot go wrong with any of them (or all of them). I have listed them in order of my personal preference.