Were there not at least half a dozen recommendable CD versions available, not to mention the Sony Classical Abbado LaserDisc account (2/94), this new one might be more than welcome. It is a reasonably enjoyable, middle-of-the-road performance rather in the vein of the Solti, Levine or Davis sets, having a similar sense of the drama's development and a deal of good singing; but nothing is done that gives it a place above, or even alongside the front-runners. Mehta's direction is at its best in the big ensembles: the finale of Act 2 is cogent and vividly dramatic. Elsewhere he seems content to coast through the familiar score, supporting good but not particularly lively playing.
The recording derives from a production given at the Maggio Musicale in Florence two years ago, but because some of the singers had already taken part in other versions, changes in the cast had to be made. Thus Cuberli and Rodgers, Barenboim's Countess and Susanna, have been replaced by Mattila and McLaughlin (who also sings her role for Abbado); Hampson, Levine's Almaviva, is here sung by Gallo, who was Figaro for Abbado! These examples of change and change about only go to demonstrate that the popular operas are today being recorded far too often for their own or any company's good, as any reputable executive will readily admit 'off the record' (forgive the pun!). It results in generalized, 'international' readings with no individual character, the bane of our times.
The strengths in this set lie very decidedly with the men. Pertusi is as excellent a Figaro as any (so he was, apparently, on stage), in the class of Taddei (Giulini) and Salomaa (Oestman), his nutty, characterful bass-baritone and vital diction ideal for the part: he is very much the lynchpin of the performance. The only possible drawback is that he is hard to differentiate in timbre from Gallo as Almaviva. The latter may be slightly better suited to Figaro, but his Count is also a formidable personage, sounding at once in command of his unruly household, yet vulnerable to the machinations of his underlings. He sings his aria with fluent command of voice and phrasing. His and Pertusi's treatment of the text shows the advantage of engaging Italians for Mozart's Da Ponte works. That is also the case with Benelli, an experienced and amusing Basilio, Nosotti's Bartolo and the veteran Tadeo's Antonio, all very amusing.
Not that Marie McLaughlin is anything but idiomatic in singing recitatives. Unfortunately she has become so familiar with the role of Susanna that she now over-inflects every word, underlining the text in an uncomfortably mannered way, and her ''Deh vieni non tardar'' here reveals an acquired habit of sliding uncomfortably in and out of notes. Having just listened to Jurinac as the Countess on the reissued 1956 Philips Figaro (under Bohm), I found Mattila's portrayal wanting in her predecessor's warmth of voice and manner, and her sense of pitch is suspect. Bacelli is a lively enough Cherubino but one with no specific advantage over her many predecessors on disc.
Appoggiaturas are notable for their regrettable absence. The harpsichordist accompanying the recitatives is irritatingly hyperactive and the recording balance is erratic: voices are sometimes forward, at othersiz. the Act 3 finaleistanced. Otherwise the recording is more than adequate, given a rather heavy bass sound. I suppose in an era when we are becoming increasingly used to chamber and/or period-instrument performances (Gardiner's is eagerly awaited), one such as this sounds increasingly anachronistic. So the recommendation remains for more positive interpreters: Oestman, or if you are still allergic to period instruments and a scale appropriate to Mozart's era, try Giulini or, at mid-price, Erich Kleiber; or, at bargain price, Gui. For a version in the Mehta vein with a stronger cast, try Solti.'