Thursday, 2 September 2010

A Famous Figaro: Sadler's Wells – 1965 – Charles Mackerras

Welcome to my blog! I'm a musician and writer with interests ranging from the Baroque to Broadway, and in the art of musical interpretation. I'll be posting things that I hope anyone reading this blog might enjoy.

Here are some still photos taken from a (very) short filmed sequence of Charles Mackerras conducting the last few bars of the famous production Figaro at Sadler's Wells in 1965:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Figaro is the extensive vocal decoration used – this was certainly what attracted the widest attention (and even some controversy) at the time. It is heard to most obvious effect in the reprises of "Voi che sapete", "Dove sono", the vocal cadenzas at the end of the Letter Duet, and so on – but already at the end of the first duet, Elizabeth Harwood throws in a wonderful ornamented flourish. When numbers aren't decorated much, the use of upper and lower appoggiaturas is extensive.

Mackerras later said that some of the decoration in this production was perhaps a bit over the top, but on the whole I think it works marvellously, and the performance also has tremendous vitality. I'm also not at all sure that anyone has done quite such an extensively ornamented Figaro since – so this is a performance to relish. I've listened to it on many occasions over the last month or so, with absolute delight.

Incidentally, in Act 3, "Dove sono" comes before the Sextet – the order proposed by Robert Moberly and Christopher Raeburn in their article that appeared in the same month as this production: "Mozart's Figaro: The Plan of Act III", Music & Letters, Vol. 46 No. 2 (April 1965), 134-6. The performance is sung in Edward J. Dent's English translation (the one printed in the Boosey & Hawkes piano-vocal score), and the version used in this performance was prepared by Charles Mackerras.

Here are full details of the cast:

MOZART: THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, Sadler's Wells Theatre, BBC Broadcast, 1966
(Version with vocal decorations, prepared by Charles Mackerras)

Charles Mackerras (Conductor)

Donald McIntyre (Figaro)
Elizabeth Harwood (Susanna)
Ava June (Countess)
Raimund Herincx (Count)
Anne Pashley (Cherubino)
Noel Mangin (Bartolo)
John Fryatt (Basilio)
Rita Hunter (Marcellina)
Stanley Bevan (Curzio)
Eric Stannard (Antonio)
Sheila Amit (Barbarina)
Sadler's Wells Chorus (Chorus Master John Barker)
Sadler's Wells Orchestra

John Blatchley (Producer)

More photos, of the curtain calls:

In the original version of this post, I included links to a poor-sounding copy of the broadcast. Since then, a far better copy has emerged, and is available on CD from Oriel Music Trust (, allowing us to hear this famous and historic Figaro in the best possible sound. I'd urge everyone who loves this opera to hear it.

Finally, here's Edmund Tracey's review published in The Guardian on 11 April 1965.


Richest and most nourishing of opera, The Marriage of Figaro returned to the Sadler's Wells repertory on Friday in an attractively simple and direct new production by John Blatchley.

Mr Blatchley has encouraged his cast to give really stylish comic performances, almost totally eschewing those slapstick antics that usually bedevil performances of Mozart in English and which certainly disfigured the last Sadler's Wells production of this opera. The virtues of Vivienne Kernot's sets are perhaps mainly negative: the shapes are well enough conceived, but the decorations are rather bare and stark. The costumes, on the other hand, are very beautifully designed.

Of couse all this would be little to the purpose were the music not carefully prepared and vitally played and sung. The most important person in an performance of "Figaro" must always be the conductor – and in this case Charles Mackerras shapes each act with outstanding authority and imagination. There are wit and high sprits in his reading, but also great expressive warmth. Mr Mackerras clearly understands that there are cruelty, heartache and compassion in "Figaro" as well as laughter and busy intrigues: what is more, he has taught his cast to take the same serious view of the music.

At the end, when the Count dropped to his knees to beg his wife's forgiveness, the usual chuckle rippled through the audience; but not for long. Mr Mackerras invested the short ensemble that succeeds this appeal with such radiance – such holiness, I might say – that laughter was silenced; then came the exultant little tailpiece that ended everything in fizzing good humour.

The entire cast – Ava June (Countess), Raimund Herincx (Count), Elizabeth Harwood (Susanna), Donald McIntyre (Figaro), to name the four principals – is excellent. Mr Mackerras gives the opera complete (i.e. with all the recitatives and Marcellina's and Basilio's Act IV arias); redistributes the vocal lines in the Act II C major trio, so that the Countess has the upper part; reintroduces appoggiaturas throughout; and embellishes the vocal line with the sort of ornaments and cadenzas that singers in Mozart's time would have adopted and which have fallen from general use since composers took to writing down their exact requirements and singers no longer needed to acquire and practice a skill in improvisation. (Imagine Brünnhilde improvising a cadenza as she vaulted from rock to rock.)


I applaud the first three of these innovations: and my single reserve about the fourth is that elaborate ornaments are permissible only if you have singers who can throw them off brilliantly. The present cast managed them on the whole pretty well; but there were several ungainly and breathless scrambles, and perhaps Sadler's Wells ought to think twice before loading these embellishments on to less gifted and experienced singers when the opera is revived and taken on tour.


  1. Great upload. Thank you.
    However, act 3 file is missing. The link for act 3 is actuary the same as for act 2.
    Can you fix this?

  2. I'm so sorry about this - here's the actual link to Act 3:

  3. Dear makropulos,

    Hi. I'm looking for the programme booklet of this performance.
    If you have the one, could you tell me whether (Sir) James Galway was playing the flute?
    Thank you.

  4. I saw this twice in 1965 and have been hoping to find a recording ever since, badgering anyone I knew in the BBC without effect. I don't know how I failed to pick your version up, but thank you, now I have done, hugely. Maybe not great sound quality but what a performance.