Old-fashioned wedding

If the Arthaus Musik release of Le nozze di Figaro from La Scala feels like a slouchy revival pulled haphazardly from the video vault, the singers are certainly not at fault. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Diana Damrau, starring as Figaro and Susanna, are bankable stars who live up to the hype. At the podium, Gérard Korsten leads serviceably, although he rarely manages to bring much excitement to the score. But the real problem is the staging, or rather in the lack thereof. 

The La Scala production dates from 1980 (the DVD is of a 2006 performance), although Giorgio Strehler’s production actually originated in 1973 at the Paris Opera. This Figaro stayed in the Paris repertoire until Gerard Mortier had the sets destroyed and costumes shipped off to museums; under Nicolas Joel, the production was resurrected, with sets borrowed from La Scala and reconstructed costumes (incidentally, performances of both the original Paris production and its second life exist on film).

At any rate, the La Scala revival by Marina Bianchi doesn’t seem to include much beyond scenery. Ezio Frigerio’s sets are stunning, with a palette limited to whites, creams, and pastels. Franca Squarciapino’s costumes utilize the same colors, while adding a handful of accents in the Countess’ ribbon and the Count’s overcoat. While this creates a beautiful tableau of the Enlightenment, it becomes bland rather quickly as the singers wander about, seemingly left to their own devices.

Which is a pity. Damrau is particularly appealing; her voice has the clean agility that suits Mozart so well, and this performance finds her in excellent form. Just as importantly, she brings commitment, intelligence, and spunk.

D’Arcangelo makes an unusually handsome and youthful Figaro, tossing off the vocal line with roguish ease. It’s a part that sounds natural in his voice, yet somehow doesn’t convince onstage, never quite managing to define a character.

Of the rest of the cast, Pietro Spagnoli is of particular note as the Count, with a handsome sound and powerful stage presence. Marcella Orsatti Talamanca is less even as the Countess, lacking a velvety legato line, but tosses off rapid passagework with ease. Monica Bacelli makes little impression as Cherubino, the voice dusky, and the acting stiff. La Scala is particularly successful in casting the small roles, with Maurizio Muraro as Bartolo, Gergory Bonfatti as Basilio, and Jeannette Fischer scoring unusual success as Marcellina.

This is a cast that has the chops to succeed at any revival, yet the evening barely crawls over the finish line. Notably, this is the only production of Figaro I’ve seen that never manages to elicit a chuckle during even the most comically foolproof moments. It has lost any effervescence through replication and age, and is as tempting as a baccarat flute of stale champagne.