Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

Mirella Freni, Leyla Gencer, Edith Mathis, RPO/Varviso (Glyndebourne GFOCD 001-62)

4 July 2008 4 stars

My Fair Lady: Naxos MusicalsThis sublime recording of Mozart's searing comedy inaugurates a new in-house label produced by Glyndebourne. Although the format is familiar from things like the ROH Heritage series – in which The Royal Opera has started to release live recordings from its venerable past, most recently a Haitink Meistersinger and a Janet Baker Alceste – Glyndebourne's label offers something slightly more special, in my opinion. Since the 1950s, John Barnes has been involved in recordings what is described in the Figaro liner notes as 'literally thousands of performances at Glyndebourne'. Because time and money was invested in recording them officially and professionally for archival purposes, the sound quality of the CDs is vastly superior to the average 'live' opera recording, while retaining the essence of the live performance. The balance is good, the bloom of the voices is captured well and there's no irritating reverberation. Added to all of this, the presentation of the set is beautiful, with a hardback book-style format containing a clearly-set-out libretto in four languages illustrated with photographs of the production and special sleeves for the CDs.

All of that means that we can judge this 1962 Figaro on the grounds of the performance alone, with no reservations on technical grounds. Happily, although one or two individual singers don't measure up to the best on record – this opera has been lucky in the number of studio recordings made of it over the years – the overriding impression is extremely favourable. In particular, the creamy glow of the orchestral and ensemble passages is ample evidence of why Glyndebourne has always had such an excellent reputation for Mozart.

The primary interest for many collectors here will be the chance to savour an early recording of Mirella Freni as Susanna. Sweet of tone and highly expressive even then, Freni's account of the character's music is one of the strongest elements of the set. Equally good, though, is Edith Mathis' fruity Cherubino, outstanding in 'Non so più' and 'Voi che sapete'. It's a pleasure to hear the Countess of the late Leyla Gencer, one of my favourite singers, though some may find her vibrato a little fast for this music. Gabriel Bacquier is a suave but surprisingly sensitive Count, and Heinz Blankenburg warms up from a diffident opening duet to give a well-rounded portrayal of Figaro. Some of the smaller roles, notably Carlo Cava's Bartolo, aren't up to the standard of the key players, but on the whole the cast gels together rather well.

Silvio Varviso can drive the music too hard at times, but the conducting is strikingly fresh and by no means old-fashioned or dated. The Royal Philharmonic's gutsy, responsive playing underpins the vocal performance very securely.

Obviously, with so many recordings of this piece already available – from Gui and Giulini to Mackerras and Muti – the competition is stiff. But for those on the lookout for a more unusual account of the score, brimming with the vitality of a live event, this is a high recommendation.

By Dominic McHugh