Probably no work qualifies better for everybody's dream opera than the "The Marriage of Figaro," a story of true love embroiled in comic entanglements, which all unravel happily in the end. And few operas have had so many good and loving recordings.
Perhaps that's because it's an opera filled with the sort of roles that singers love, with a chance to be charming, funny and sympathetic. The swaggering Figaro and his pretty fiancee, Susanna, prototypes of the clever servant who outwits the master; the worldly, conniving count; the languishing yet spirited countess; and the adolescent Cherubino with his blushing faux pax, all stimulate the grace and humor in a singer. Small (but not minor) roles are also cherishable - the scheming Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina who unveil the preposterous denouement, the drunken gardener Antonio, and the naive Barbarina.Actually, you have to be a little wayward not to succeed with this delightful opera; and I thought for a time that Oestman had found a way to fail. But repeated listening and analysis leads to a better rapport with his product, though he still would not be my preferred Mozart stylist.
Apparently scaled to complement the jewellike confines of Stockholm's Drottningholm Court Theater, this rendition has a baroque feeling to it, with reduced numbers and size. On first flush it seems to be suffocating within this circumscribed box, which limits volume and dynamic scope and puts a lid on individual liberties of holds, rubatos and general vocal acting. The sound seems at first not well recorded, with frequent imbalance.
But upon repeated listening Oestman's intentions emerge more clearly. It's a little like hearing an old recording of Caruso, which at first seems quaint; but then you go into its world, and scale yourself to its nuances. Oestman's tempos are sometimes slower and more precious than the conventional, at other times so fast there is no room for flexibility. Recitatives are too often choppy, without conversational effect. All the same, the flow is frequently engrossing, as good performances become apparent in this context.
Foremost among these is the outstanding Figaro of Salomaa, a Finnish singer who has the right rugged bravado for the part and a fine, interesting bass-baritone. Barbara Bonney makes a warm and sprightly Susanna, if occasionally thin-toned. Arleen Auger brings color and expressiveness to the Countess, a role well suited to her considerable abilities, and Hagegard as a suave and meaningful Count shows himself as effective in straight character as in comedy. Nafe is stylish as the boyish Cherubino.
This recording advertises "for the first time, every alternative and extra aria." These additional songs, while individually quite worthy, would lengthen a live performance beyond endurance. Nonetheless they are worth including for their historic value.
With six full-length recordings and two excerpt records in the catalog, comparisons are in order. Perhaps my favorite in a period-type performance is that on Philips, with Neville Marriner conducting Jose van Dam, Barbara Hendricks, Ruggero Raimondi, Lucia Popp and Agnes Baltsa. They are superb, not just technically and tonally, but as vocal actors whose intentions jump right off the record to grab you. And Marriner gives them liberty in this - not to the extent of distortion, but with a nice feeling of freedom and naturalness. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields offers ideal support.
For a more structured performance with large forces, you might enjoy the EMI Riccardo Muti version, led by Thomas Allen, Kathleen Battle, Jorma Hynninen, Margaret Price and Ann Murray, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera. Few of these singers need introduction to operaphiles, and they are at their best. While personal nuances and style are well apparent, one has the impression of a tight ship, guided by the master's charts and compass. Nor is this a bad thing, with a concept as fine as Muti's.