Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone (Count Almaviva), Victoria de los Angeles, soprano (Countess Almaviva), Nadine Conner, soprano (Susanna), Cesare Siepi, bass (Figaro), Mildred Miller, mezzo-soprano (Cherubino), Jean Madeira, mezzo-soprano, (Marcellina), Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Dr. Bartolo). Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, Fritz Reiner, cond.
Bongiovanni GB 1181/82-2 (2 CDs). (F) (ADD) TT: 2:37:51

This Bongiovanni release documents the 1 March 1952 Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. In the opening week of the 1951 season, the Met presented Nozze, featuring a cast that, with two exceptions, duplicates that of the broadcast. In the later performance Giuseppe Valdengo replaces John Brownlee as the Count Almaviva, and Lawrence Davidson sings Antonio, in place of Lorenzo Alvary.

This is in many ways a stunning performance, one that quickly moves near the top of my list, along with the Erich Kleiber London and Carlo Maria Giulini EMI recordings. As in the case of those two studio issues, the Met performance has at the helm a great maestro who was equally at home in the concert hall and opera house. Fritz Reiner here leads a performance that is a marvel of conception and execution. It is clear from the opening bars of the Overture that this Nozze will be a performance of incredible vigor. Indeed, this is one of the most vivacious and energetic performances of the opera I’ve ever heard. But Reiner also allows plenty of room for repose and delicacy. His accompaniments for the Countess’s “Porgi amor,” Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete,” and Susanna’s “Deh vieni” for example, all breathe and sing with the vocalists. Reiner paces the great Act II finale masterfully, allowing it to reach a stunning conclusion. But just about every measure of this performance is testimony to a master at the height of his powers. And because Fritz Reiner never made a studio recording of Le nozze di Figaro (or any Mozart opera, for that matter), this release is of considerable documentary value.

Likewise this broadcast preserves the work of several outstanding singers in roles they never recorded commercially. Victoria de los Angeles is, probably to the surprise of no one, a radiant Countess Almaviva. In gorgeous voice, she sings with her customary warmth, musicianship, and technical expertise. Her interpretation is also uncommonly sympathetic. De los Angeles manages to portray both the aristocratic and very human sides of Rosina’s character. Her brief reconciliation with the Count at the opera’s conclusion—again, masterfully paced by Reiner—is one of the most affecting I’ve heard. Baritone Giuseppe Valdengo is best remembered for his recordings of Verdi operas with Arturo Toscanini—Aida, Otello, and Falstaff. To my ears, Valdengo’s attractive voice, superb Italian diction, and winning powers of characterization serve him very well in all of those collaborations. But it must also be acknowledged that Valdengo’s voice lacked the kind of heft one normally expects in those Verdi baritone roles.
A voice that might be just a shade small for Amonasro, Iago, or Falstaff is probably just right for Mozart’s Count Almaviva. Valdengo, also in superb voice, is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Throughout he sings with elegance, yet all the while managing to portray the Count’s imperious, even menacing character. He and Reiner join forces for a powerhouse rendition of the Count’s aria, “Vedro, mentr’io sospiro,” one of the highlights of a performance filled with great moments.

In the first Nozze performance of the 1951 season mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Cherubino. In an interview Ms. Miller told me about some early problems following Reiner’s minimalist beat, which she communicated to the conductor. In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, Reiner was very understanding, and ultimately, he and Miller enjoyed a most rewarding collaboration. That is certainly reflected in this broadcast. And Mildred Miller’s lovely, youthful voice, elegance and occasionally impetuous manner produce a first-rate Cherubino.

Cesare Siepi’s Figaro is, of course, a well-known quantity, preserved on the great Erich Kleiber London studio recording. There are occasional flaws by Siepi in this broadcast, such as a brief memory lapse in “Non più andrai,” a slight vocal crack during the second-act reprise of “Se vuol ballare,” and a few moments of suspect pitch. But these are slight imperfections in what is, overall, an excellent performance. Siepi’s gorgeous dark bass, and virile characterization make him both a convincing romantic figure and a worthy foil to Count Almaviva. Their Act II confrontation is memorabl, indeed. And as with so many of the members of this cast, it is a great pleasure to hear Siepi relish Lorenzo da Ponte’s Italian text.

Nadine Conner is a lovely, vivacious Susanna who generally sings and acts with great charm. As with many lyric sopranos, Conner has some difficulty with the lower portion of her final-act aria. But overall, she and Siepi make a convincing pair of lovers. The smaller roles are cast with great strength. Salvatore Baccaloni, with his plump basso and comic expertise, has a grand time as Dr. Bartolo. And under Reiner’s watchful eye, Baccaloni, who loved to overplay to the gallery, is on good musical behavior. Jean Madeira is an uncommonly strong-voiced Marcellina. The great character tenor, Alessio de Paolis, is an unforgettable Don Basilio. What a luxury it is to have the young Roberto Peters sing Barbarina’s touching last-act aria!

The broadcast sound, with the exception of a short portion of the Count’s Act I entrance, is excellent—full-bodied, well-balanced, and with minimal distortion. A piano is used for the recitatives. Marcellina and Basilio’s last-act arias are cut, a real loss given the presence of such artists as Madeira and de Paolis. In addition, the recitative between “Dove sono” and the ensuing duet for the Countess and Susanna is missing. Given that the second disc runs over 79 minutes, I wonder if this was done to accommodate the performance on two discs. The booklet contains no libretto, only cast information, an essay by Piero Mioli that switches role credits for Madeira and Miller. Any minor shortcomings pale in the face of a performance that, for me, captures the musical and dramatic essence of this great opera about as well as any recording.

K.M. (December 2003)