Carlo Maria Giulini’s genial and relatively straightforward interpretation of The Marriage of Figaro is not an unknown quantity for he had made a studio recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and two of the singers here (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Piero Cappuccilli) in 1959. Two years later and, as often with live recordings, there are dividends and drawbacks. Giulini’s tempos are not quite as fleet as might be expected nowadays; indeed some are leisurely and although that brings fascinating detail to the fore the residual impression is that the playing is rather smooth; certainly romantic. The (mono) sound catches the singers exceptionally well, although the string balance is a little bottom-heavy, but the woodwinds shine, full of individuality, and they play off each other magnificently.
Of greatest interest is the singing – some remarkable voices are heard here. Fernando Corena was perhaps best known for comedic roles for which his extrovert stage manner and mature yet fruity voice was ideal, for such as Verdi’s Falstaff. His ability to communicate is much in evidence here, as is his fabulous sense of vocal line; the text comes alive. This Figaro is likeable as a character and certainly no pushover! Ernest Blanc, a fine dramatic singer, might initially seem odd casting for Almaviva, given his Wagner-suited amplitude. He’s full of vocal individuality, bringing out the jealousy and the selfishness of the Count couched dangerously under a veneer of courtly civility. His control of dynamics is impressive. Giorgio Tadeo complements these two with his sappy and articulated Dr Bartolo.
The young Teresa Berganza is a delightful Cherubino, singing with real flair, every word audible, and conjuring up a fully-rounded portrait of the love-struck and hapless page, and the more humorous for being underplayed. The star quality is obvious. Elisabeth Söderström is a vivacious and ever-feminine Susanna, nearly always one step ahead of the intrigues. Her arias are of illuminating detail and sung with lightness and grace, although recitatives can be gabbled if conveying the thrill of a live occasion.
As ever, Schwarzkopf may divide opinion. The voice has lustre and creaminess, and she’s in total control of all its facets. Although in her studio recordings her occasionally mannered concentration on words and phrases could distract and even infuriate, it is interesting to discover that caught live she still imprints some phrases with striking individuality, but that a sense of spontaneity wins through. At times Schwarzkopf’s interpretation threatens to veer towards the over-tragic but never quite oversteps the mark. She duets gloriously with Söderström.
There are fine cameos in other roles, despite Don Basilio and Marcellina losing their final-Act arias. Hugues Cuénod is a sly Don Basilio, complementing this with an amusing Don Curzio. Edda Vincenzi is a fruity voiced, rather understated Marcellina. There are also two great singers at the start of their careers. Cappuccilli is a charismatic Antonio and the late Heather Harper can be heard making much of Barbarina.