July 2004

Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro
Concerto Köln, René Jacobs (director);Véronique Gens (soprano); Patrizia Ciofi (soprano); Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano); Lorenzo Regazzo (bass); Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Antonio Abete (bass); Kobie van Rensburg (tenor); Collegium Vocale
Harmonia Mundi HMC 801818 20
Released: 2004

by John Crossett

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment *****

SACD naysayers have long used the absence of certain genres of music in the new hi-rez medium as cause to dismiss it as a viable format for long-term use by the audiophile/music lover. Opera in particular has been a favorite whipping boy for these benighted folk ("How can you take a format seriously if it doesn’t even have any opera released on it?"). Well, to all you the-sky-is-falling types out there, your arguments have now been addressed. And not just replied to, but emphatically ended, thanks to Harmonia Mundi’s new three-disc hybrid SACD box of Mozart’s classic, Le Nozze di Figaro. What better choice could you ask for?

Under the baton of René Jacobs, the Concerto Köln plays this majestic music to near perfection -- all 2:52 of it. Jacobs gets the tempos spot on, and that isn’t always so easy to do with Mozart. You need just the right amount of playful humor combined with proper respect for the music, passion, and cadence to ensure full enjoyment. Jacobs and the Concerto Köln capture all those qualities. Add the vocal talents of Simon Keenlyside as the Count, Véronique Gens as the Countess, Patricia Ciofi as Susanna, Lorenzo Regazzo as Figaro, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Cherubino, ably supported by the Collegium Vocale Gent, and you have a recording that stands with the best I’ve heard.

When you toss in the deftness that Harmonia Mundi uses to record this opera at the Stolberger Saal in April, 2003 (so it’s a new release, not a recycled one!), you get the whole enchilada. Here you have beautiful music, in a lovely and fully comprehensive package, released on a digital medium that allows it to truly bloom. About the only complaint I have is that in an otherwise highly informative booklet, there is not one scrap of information regarding how this superb-sounding release was recorded -- i.e., in DSD, PCM, or analog. Had that tidbit been included, as a package this release would be essentially perfect.

Mozart himself conducted the debut of Figaro on May 1, 1786 in Vienna, and it saw eight further performances before the year was out. So great was its reception, Mozart’s father Leopold wrote to his daughter that at "the second (performance of) your brother’s opera five pieces had to be encored; at the third seven were repeated, among them a short duetto that had to be sung three times." To say that Figaro was an initial, and continued, success would be an understatement of vast proportions. Therefore, its selection by Harmonia Mundi as its initial opera offering on SACD should be completely understandable, not to mention delightful, especially for any Mozart fanatics.

Sonically, this Le Nozze di Figaro is superb. Voices are wonderfully rendered. Each singer has his or her own acoustic space in which the voice is allowed to flower. And during passages when the entire cast sings together, each voice is easily followed as all move about the stage. The Concerto Köln is arrayed across a wide, deep soundstage. Its strings are silky smooth, with just enough bite to make them realistic. And the horns have the proper blat, while the fortepiano is appropriately tinkley. There is also a good sense of the recording acoustic.

This set is available on hybrid SACD, so those not inclined to hi-rez digital (more pity to you!) can still buy and enjoy this wonderful operatic recording. The Red Book layer is very well done -- no real surprise, as Harmonia Mundi has always done a superb job with CDs. But listening to the stereo SACD layer is even more enjoyable, as instrument and voices are more fully fleshed out, along with an added sense of the acoustic space. The real revelation, though, is the multichannel layer. Here, you get the full sensation of being in the Stolberger Saal. Everything comes to life. If more labels took this much time and care in doing multichannel recordings, more audiophiles would be burning with upgrade fever.

With this version of Le Nozze di Figaro, Harmonia Mundi answers the charges of all the gloom-and doomers out there in audioland. If, after hearing it, you still feel SACD has no future, well, all I can say is that I doubt that there’s anything that’ll convince you. For those of open to the future, here is your opportunity to sample it. Harmonia Mundi’s Le Nozze di Figaro easily gets my vote for album of the year. Bravo!