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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mackerras conducts `The Marriage of Figaro`in 1966

1966. Sadlers Wells
A recording of 'The Marriage of Figaro' from Sadlers Wells in 1966 conducted by Charles Mackerras
Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor Sir Charles Mackerras
Ensemble Sadlers Wells Opera
Genre Opera

The Marriage of Figaro

Opera in 4 acts – Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, after the play by Beaumarchais.
English version by Edward J Dent. (Version with vocal decorations, prepared by Charles Mackerras).

London Opera Diary

The Marriage of Figaro, Sadler’s Well, April 9 1965

Alerted by his article in our April issue, we expected a new and exciting approach in Charles Mackerras’s conducting of this new production of Figaro, and were not disappointed. But, even apart from textual points, this was a performance yielding a high degree of pleasure. Rarely in London do conductor and producer (John Blatchley) combine to make an opera’s words so intelligible, even in ensembles; rarely is the musical spirit so apt; rarely is the action of Figaro made so clear, even in the last act.

Ava June not only sang the role of the Countess with her usual accomplishment and splendid enunciation, but also portrayed a woman who once (as Rosina in The Barber of Seville) relished the fun of an intrigue – and still does, despite what she knows to be the obligations of her rank. Elizabeth Harwood offered a no less delightful Susanna, and Raimund Herinex a fine, vengeful (and still young) Count. Donald McIntyre’s voice was rather too heavy for Figaro, hardly providing contrast with the Count’s, but he none the less sang and acted with suitable spirit. More inclined to routine were Noel Mangin as Bartolo (he quite failed with ‘I’m a lawyer – I’ll get round him!’) and Rita Hunter as Marcellina. Margaret Neville contributed rather a sad and not wholly effective little Cherubino, Louise Lebrun a prettily girlish Barbarina.

And so to Mr Mackerras – as musical editor, conductor, and harpsichordist. He gave us a particularly full text, though I am not quite convinced that Marcellina’s and Basilio’s last-act arias merit their inclusion on dramatic grounds. Mr Mackerras played the continuo keyboard part himself in recitatives, in an usually broad but rather effective style; elsewhere another player, at another instrument, took over, and – for a change – kept on playing almost throughout, giving an agreeable effect both in tone-colour and in marking the rhythm. The co-ordination between stage and orchestra , and the performance in general, was somewhat bumpy in the first act but later improved notably.

Compared to the Mozart performances of (say) Georg Solti, Rudolph Kempe, and Colin Davis, Mr Mackerras’s was what it would be convenient to sum up as a ‘decorated’ performance. Convenient, but misleading. In reality, his additions to the text fall into two distinct categories. There are appoggiaturas, which are a matter of musical grammar and the form of which is historically authenticated within fairly narrow limits. (If we dislike them, we dislike Mozart’s ideas of Mozart. And there are cadenzas and other embellishments, the placing and the precise form of which are matters not of grammar but of taste (again within historical limits). The appoggiaturas in this performance we have no rational grounds to question, unless we can fault Mr Mackerras’s deductions from history; but the embellishments he used – including the final cadenza which he borrowed from Sir Henry Bishop’s edition of the Letter Duet, as reproduced in his April article – we may reject if we wish, even though he can prove each of them to be paralleled in a contemporary or near-contemporary source.

A certain shock-effect aroused by Mackerras’s versions originates in the very fact that we are habituated to the ‘plain’ vocal lines. This effect, I venture to prophesy, we shall feel not half so much in a few years’ time. But even now I can declare that, personally, I was never offended, generally pleased, and often ravished. Particularly valuable is the effect of enhancement lent to musical phrases when they return embellished later. The Countess’s ‘Dove sono’ is a case in point: the opening four notes were slightly ornamented at the immediate repetition (bars 9-10) and then further ornamented at the later reprise of the section. The effect was to add cumulatively to the genuine feeling of the piece – and it is, indeed, an effect which we now positively expect in performance of the (partly analogous) da capo sections in Handel.

So – a welcome to this Figaro, on many grounds.

Arthur Jacobs.
Published in Opera Magazine, June 1965.
Reproduced with kind permission from John Allison.

What Mozart Really Meant

Charles Mackerras

Opera being such a complicated form, it is understandable that composers have tended to make alternative versions and extensive revisions of their operas rather more often than of their instrumental works. Even Mozart, whose music seemed to pour out of him like a magic torrent, and who hardly revised a single note of his symphonies or chamber music, made different versions of his operas and even altered ensembles and arias to suit a particular singer, or the circumstances of a particular performance. He re-arranged the part of Idamante in Idomeneo for tenor instead of soprano. He made extensive cuts in several of the arias in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (the lengthy ‘Martern aller Arten’ was originally even longer than in its present form!). In Cosi fan tutte Mozart and Da Ponte, considering that one of Guglielmo’s arias was too long, substituted the less pretentious but equally beautiful ‘Non siate ritrosi’.

With Don Giovanni, Mozart made even more extensive changes for the second production in Vienna. He added an aria for Donna Elvira (‘Mi tradi’) and one for Don Ottavio (‘Dalla sua pace’), both of which have since become famous, and also a comic duet between Zerlina and Leporello, which, although rather an amusing piece of slapstick, is not really up to the general high level of the rest of the opera. In order to accommodate these additions, one other very beautiful piece had to be sacrificed (“Il mio tesoro’ for Don Ottavio) and the whole final scene was omitted, so that the opera ended with Don Giovanni’s final downfall and his being carried off to hell by the demons. Already, in 1788, the Age of Reason was giving way to Romanticism, and during the 19th century the merry little moral epilogue in Don Giovanni was customarily omitted; its reinstatement had to wait for our more realistic, practical 20th century.

Even such a perfectly shaped masterpiece as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro bristles with problems when one comes to study the various revisions Mozart himself made. Consider, first, the two extra arias which Mozart wrote for the soprano Adriana Ferrarese Del Bene, who sang the part of Susanna in the second Vienna production of the opera in 1789. She was destined also to be Mozart’s first Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte and was an entirely different type of singer from Nancy Storace who had created the role of Susanna (also in Vienna) three years previously. Storace seems, by all accounts, to have been more of a singing actress than Ferrarese Del Bene, and her two arias, ‘Venite inginocchiatevi’ in Act 2 and ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ in Act 4, must have been perfect vehicles for her talents. But Mozart, who always took great care to compose arias to suit particular singers, wrote more conventional, bravura arias for Susanna – ‘Un moto di gioia’ and ‘Al desio’ – when the role was taken over by a more ‘operatic’ type of singer.

The simple, unaffected beauty of Susanna’s two original arias appeal to us today as being much more in keeping with the dramatic situations set out in the opera, and no doubt appeared so to Mozart when conceiving the role with Nancy Storace in mind. But it seems that 18th century taste preferred the two substituted arias. It could even be argued that, in the hands of certain singers, the aria ‘Il desio’ is more suitable to the dramatic situation of the nocturnal rendezvous, with its dark colours of basset-horns and bassoons, and its intensely chromatic , and later, rather florid vocal line. The former esteem given to this aria is shown by the fact that, in most 18th century scores, it appears not, as is the practice today, simply in the appendix of the score, but in its proper order (as No 27 in Act 4).

Mozart made many other changes to the part of Susanna, as can be seen from his own corrections to his autograph score (now in the State Library, East Berlin). He had first intended the Countess always to have the higher line in the ensembles and Susanna the lower line. Later in the process of composition, Mozart altered almost every ensemble in which these two characters take part so as to make Susanna always sing the line above the Countess. These changes might have been made before the first production; but the probability that they were made (like the addition of new arias) for the second production, with Ferrarese Del Bene as Susanna, is suggested by the fact that the earliest known manuscript copy of the score (in the Fürstenberg Library at Donaueschingen) still allocates the higher line to the Countess.

From the ensembles in Act 2 of Figaro as Mozart first wrote them, it seems that the Countess was intended to be the big singing role of the opera and Susanna more of a singing actress’s role. Furthermore, the part of Susanna as originally conceived by Mozart matches that of Figaro in the ensembles, while the Countess’s music has a quite different character: it contains those soaring, grandiose, but slightly hysterical passages which Mozart so often gave to his aristocratic heroines. When he later interchanged the two soprano lines he sometimes – as we shall see – disturbed this dramatic contrast between the Countess and Susanna.

Admittedly, in many parts of the ensembles, where all the characters sing similar music, it hardly matters which character sings which line – as in the scene with Antonio which forms part of the finale of Act 2. But further on in the finale the question of whether Susanna or the Countess should sing the higher line starts to matter quite a lot. For instance, in the long 6/8 section in which (before the entrance of Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio) Figaro finally succeeds in outwitting the Count, Mozart’s original plan gave the main melody to Susanna and Figaro together – while the Countess sang a particularly characteristic kind of phrase soaring above with a long-held note F for several bars. Mozart’s later interchanging of these parts hardly makes good dramatic sense.

Later on the differentiation made by Mozart between the two characters is even more marked: the Countess (aside) has her own phrase – passionate, wide-spanning, later florid – while Figaro and Susanna answer each other in low, broken-up phrases.

Here again the original version (the Countess taking the upper line) makes the better dramatic sense. At such moments we recognise how much more subtle Mozart is than other composers of his time , who hardly ever pursued musical characterisation beyond the juxtaposition of a ‘patter’ phrase for the comic role against a slow, lyrical tune for the ‘romantic’ soprano or tenor. In Figaro Mozart further depicts the differences between Susanna and the Countess very cleverly in the finale to Act 4, and those between Susanna and Marcellina in the Act 3 Sextet. When Susanna is angry with Figaro (having seen him embrace Marcellina), she copies the jerky dotted style of the Count as if siding with him, for once! But as soon as her anger is dispelled on learning the truth, she joins the blissful legato of Marcellina, Figaro and Bartolo, against the Count, who rages on under his breath with Don Curzio. (Note that the Countess is not taking part in this ensemble.)

Whether one would be justified, in the finale of Act 2, in re-establishing Mozart’s original distribution of parts must depend on one’s view of Mozart’s corrections and when they were made. But he himself did not interchange the lines throughout the ensembles. In the trio of Act 2 (Susanna, or via sortite’) he saw that it would be nonsense for Susanna to sing a brilliant coloratura flourish (going up to high C) when she is supposed to be in hiding, and accordingly left this and several other passages as he had originally intended, i.e. for the Countess to sing. Throughout this trio, one can see evidence of Mozart’s alterations (by the abbreviations Sus, and La Con, in his handwriting) – but not at the point where such coloratura passages occur. Scores which allot these passages to Susanna are false to the autograph score. Mozart evidently always intended that these should be sung fortissimo, proudly and defiantly by the Countess, and not in the arch, pretty manner which modern interpreters of Susanna are forced to adopt when this music is (wrongly) allotted to them and they must vainly try to make sense of this dramatic situation and the music at the same time.

It follows, then, that one is in duty bound to perform this trio in accordance with Mozart’s autograph in order not to make nonsense of the dramatic situation.

All this is typical of Mozart’s amazing gifts of musical characterisation throughout all his ensemble writing. (One has but to think of the differentiation made in Don Giovanni between the female characters in the sextet in Act 2, or in the trio of the maskers in Act 1). The Count in Figaro, too, has, on the whole, a very different kind of melody in the ensembles from that given to the socially inferior Figaro or Bartolo. Because the Count is frequently sung by a fairly high baritone and Bartolo a basso-buffo, it is now generally thought appropriate for these two characters to exchange lines in the finale of Act 2 – where Mozart has written particularly low lying music for the Count, though the Count has virtually a second tenor part in the finale of Act 4! It is indeed difficult to imagine exactly the kind of voice which Mozart had in mind for this character. It seems to me that he may well have changed his mind during the course of composition of the opera when he found out that the particular singer available, Mandini, had a high bass voice (what we should today call a baritone).

A further point requiring some thought is the order of events in Act 3 which many people have noticed to be less logical in their sequence than the rest of this brilliantly constructed plot. How could Susanna have obtained from the Countess a large sum of money with which to pay off Marcellina without having explained to the Countess already about her proposed assignation – explaining, in other words, the events we have just seen taking place on the stage between Susanna and the Count? But there is no time for her to have done so. And how could a whole trial have taken place (as it must have done) on such an important matter as Figaro’s liability either to pay up or to marry Marcellina, since the Count (who would presumably have presided at the trial, as he does in Beaumarchais’s play) has for the whole time been on stage singing his aria (‘Vedro, mentr’io sospiro’)? Furthermore, it is extremely unusual for a character to remain on the stage after singing a bravura aria of this nature, as the Count is here called on to do.

All these problems would disappear if the Countess were to sing her recitative and aria ‘E Susanna non vien … Dove sono’ (together with the preceding recitative which introduces Barbarina with Cherubino) before the sextet in which it transpires that Figaro is the son of Marcellina and therefore cannot marry her. This would have the added advantage of contrasting the characters of the Count and Countess in consecutive arias, as well as of introducing the new character of Barbarina much earlier in the act. The sequence of keys, so important in Mozart’s operas, is not in any way disturbed by these changes. In fact it could be argued that ‘Dove sono’ in C Major followed by the sextet in F Major and then the letter duet in B flat major makes a better and more typically Mozartian key sequence than the existing one.

However, one looks in vain for any evidence that this surely more logical order of events was ever in Mozart’s or Da Ponte’s mind. A most ingenious explanation has been put forward by Robert Moberly and Christopher Raeburn. In the original production of Figaro the parts of Dr Bartolo and Antonio were played by the same singer (Francesco Bussani) who therefore needed time here to change his costume – which was provided by having the Countess’s aria performed at this point. When these two roles are performed by two different artists, as today, the necessity for this disappears. There would seem a case therefore today for adopting the order that makes more dramatic sense, viz.: the Count’s aria (‘Vedro mentr’io sospiro’); Recitative, Barberina and Cherubino (‘Andiam, bel paggio’); the Countess’s aria (‘Dove sono’); Recitative and Sextet (‘E decisa la lite’); Recitative, Count and Antonio (‘lo vi dico, Signor’) ….. afterwards continuing as usual.

With Act 3 still in mind, it is worth mentioning the various versions of the Count’s aria which were extant at the end of the 18th century. The passage of triplets near the end of this aria is almost unsingable and attempts were made to simplify it. Two of these solutions are so typically Mozartian in their melodic contour and orchestration that they must almost certainly stem from Mozart himself. Moreover, in a most interesting score of the second version of Figaro in the Istituto Musicale in Florence, the Count’s part has been altered to include an extremely high tessitura. As this role is usually sung today by a high baritone, modern performers might do well to adopt this version, which seems to have been generally performed during the last decade of the 18th century. The Countess’s aria ‘Dove sono’, was likewise subjected to several variants, one of which is highly Mozartian in its rather chromatic vocal line. It exists in several old scores of Figaro.

Old copies of Mozart’s operas make fascinating reading, because they often show us the style of interpretation then in vogue. For example, the first English version of the opera, arranged by Sir Henry Bishop and performed in 1819, alters both music and plot to such an extent that it is certainly a travesty of the opera we know and love so well. The study of such a score, however, does help the modern performer, because Bishop indicates where all the appoggiaturas and embellishments were, in his view, required – and not only in recitative!

Composer’s second thoughts can certainly baffle us, even today. And in the specific case of Le Nozze di Figaro, the problems referred to in this article have been freshly considered in our preparation of the new Sadler’s Wells production of the opera this month.

Published in Opera Magazine, April 1965.
Reproduced with kind permission from John Allison and Cathy Mackerras.

Act One

The opera takes place in Count Almaviva’s castle near Seville shortly before the marriage of his servants Figaro and Susanna.

After the overture, the curtain rises on the bare room which the Countess promised the young couple. Figaro finds out how well placed the room is, exactly between the private apartments of the Count and Countess. Far too well placed, says Susanna. She tells Figaro that the Count has already regretted abolishing the ancient rites of the Lord of the Manor and is trying to get the wedding postponed.

Figaro swears to get the better of his master. He’s called away and Dr Bartolo enters with his housekeeper Marcellina. She’s lent Figaro money and has a contract from him promising either repayment or marriage. Bartolo has never forgiven Figaro for helping the Count win the Countess, (then Rosina, Bartolo’s ward). He now sees in this contract a means for revenge. He leaves the room in triumph, and Marcellina, after exchanging a few insults with Susanna, follows him.

The next visitor is the amorous page boy Cherubino, who at the moment imagines himself in love with the Countess. He and Susanna are soon interrupted by the Count….. Cherubino hides behind an armchair and the Count tries to make love to Susanna. When footsteps are heard the Count himself takes cover behind the chair and Cherubino hastily slips into it, while Susanna throws a cloak over him.

Basilio the Music Master comes in full of household gossip, but his comments on Cherubino and the Countess bring the Count from his hiding place in fury. In the ensuing confusion he discovers Cherubino and realises the page has overheard his conversation with Susanna.

At this moment Figaro returns with a group of villagers and asks that his marriage should take place at once. The Count skilfully evades the request and casts further gloom by giving Cherubino a commission in his regiment and ordering him to leave at once. The act ends with Figaro painting for Cherubino a lurid picture of the life awaiting him as a soldier.

Act Two

The second act of The Marriage of Figaro takes place in the apartments of the Countess.
Alone, she prays to the God of love to restore her lost happiness. Susanna tells her of the Count’s latest advances. and then Figaro arrives.

He tells them that that he’s already sent an anonymous letter to the Count warning him that his wife has an assignation with some unknown lover. He then suggests sending another letter to the Count, apparently from Susanna, arranging to meet him in the garden that night. But the appointment will be kept by Cherubino in girl’s clothes. The Countess will be able to catch her husband red- handed and in the meantime Figaro and Susanna will be safely married. Figaro leaves and sends Cherubino in. He sings the Countess his latest song and then Susanna sets about dressing him up.

In the midst of this the Count returns unexpectedly. Cherubino locks himself into the dressing room. Susanna goes to her own room and the Countess admits her husband. Although she’s obviously alone, he is suspicious of the locked dressing room. As the Countess refuses to unlock it, he takes her with him to fetch tools to break open the door. Cherubino seizes the opportunity to escape, by jumping from the window into the garden – and Susanna takes his place. When the Count returns, he’s appalled to find merely Susanna in the locked room.

But when Figaro comes in, asking again to be married at once, the Count starts questioning him about the anonymous letter. No sooner has Figaro talked his way out of that, than the gardener Antonio bursts in complaining of a man jumping from the window into the flower beds. Figaro wins again by pretending that he himself was the culprit. But he is finally defeated when Basilio and Bartolo come in with Marcellina, who demands marriage, or immediate payment. As Figaro hasn’t got the money, the Count once again has an excuse to postpone Figaro’s marriage.

Act Three

In a large hall in the castle, the Count is restlessly considering the events of the day, when Susanna comes in. To his surprise and delight she suggests a rendezvous that night in the garden. But as she leaves he overhears her remark to Figaro “We’re sure of our case now”.

This provokes him to an outburst of fury against his wily servant.

When he’s gone, the Countess enters, looking for Susanna. She reflects on her present unhappiness, but she still hopes that one day the Count may again return her love.

She leaves as Bartolo and Marcellina arrive, together with the Count and the lawyer, Don Curzio. The Count insists that Figaro must pay up or marry Marcellina right away, but in the argument that follows, it transpires that Figaro is the long lost son of Bartolo and Marcellina.

Susanna is horrified on coming in to find him embracing his newly found mother and is only mollified when things are explained to her. Everyone is delighted, except the Count, who has now no justifiable reason for postponing Figaro’s marriage.

When they have gone, the Countess comes in again accompanied by Susanna to whom she dictates a letter confirming the rendezvous in the garden, which she intends to keep in Susanna’s place.
Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter, brings in a group of girls bearing flowers for the Countess. One of the girls turns out to be Cherubino in disguise, still trying to delay his departure as a soldier. The Count bears down on him furiously, but Barbarina begs to be allowed to marry him. Since the Count has also been pursuing Barbarina, a fact that she artlessly mentions in public to his embarrassment, he is obliged to give in.

A March announces the long delayed wedding ceremony, now a double event as Bartolo and Marcellina have decided to get married at last. Figaro sees that the Count has received an anonymous letter and has pricked his finger on the pin sealing it. But it doesn’t occur to him that the letter comes from Susanna.

Act Four

The last Act takes place in the garden at night.

Figaro and Marcellina find Barbarina searching for a pin she’s dropped. She tells them that the Count asked her to return it to Susanna, and Figaro, now realising who wrote the letter, storms out, leaving Marcellina to reflect that the most savage of beasts treat their women folk a good deal better than man treats his.

Determined to catch the Count and Susanna red-handed, Figaro brings on Bartolo and Basilio, who he tells to hide among the trees and watch what is about to happen. Basilio, though delighted at the prospect of a scandal, doesn’t at all like the idea of antagonising the nobility, and he illustrates his point by telling Bartolo the story of the Ass’s skin.

Alone on the stage, Figaro violently denounces all women as liars and cheats. When Susanna appears he hides, but she, well aware of his presence, teases him still further by singing of her longing for her lover’s embrace. She now exchanges cloaks with the Countess, who is at once pursued, first by Cherubino, and then by the Count. Their duet is broken up by the jealous Figaro, but when the supposed Countess appears, he quickly recognises her as Susanna and understands the whole scheme.

When the Count returns he finds Figaro making love to (as he thinks) the Countess. Furiously he calls everyone to the scene and publicly denounces his wife. But at this moment, the Countess herself emerges from her hiding place. The Count is at last brought to his knees, and as the Countess once more generously forgives him, the opera ends in rejoicing.

This recording comes fro the collection of Michael Howard

  • Figaro
    Donald McIntyre
  • Susanna
    Elizabeth Harwood
  • Countess Almaviva
    Ava June
  • Count Almaviva
    Raimund Herincx
  • Cherubino
    Anne Pashley
  • Dr Bartolo
    Noel Mangin
  • Don Basilio
    John Fryatt
  • Marcellina
    Rita Hunter
  • Don Curzio
    Stanley Bevan
  • Antonio
    Eric Stannard
  • Barbarina
    Sheila Amit
  • Sadlers Wells Chorus
  • Sadlers Wells Orchestra
  • Sir Charles Mackerras

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