Sunday, 5 September 2010

Mahler's cast for Mozart's Figaro at the Met in 1909

Gustav Mahler photographed by Dupont in New York, 1909

Here's yet another post about Mozart's Figaro – but I hope I don't need to make any apology for that... and this one is rather different.

Between January and March 1909, Mahler conducted eight performances of a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The first night was on 13 January 1909, and the next morning's New York Times reported that it was a great success:

"Mozart's comedy, Le nozze di Figaro was given at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening for the first time in four years. It had been newly studied under the direction of Gustav Mahler; there were several new singers in the cast, there was a new and very becoming stage setting and new costumes. The performance was one of the most delightful and brilliant that can easily be recalled; not so much in the excellence of the individual singers, though here, too, there was much to enjoy; but most of all the finished ensemble, the vivacity and gaiety that were infused into every scene, the dramatic verisimilitude with which the intentions of the composer were realized. It was a performance such as there have been few at the Metropolitan Opera house in the way of precision and the elaboration of the finer details of the action upon the stage, the exquisite and delicate beauty of the orcehstral part, and the skillful co-ordination of these factors in one impression upon eye and ear. Such a performance shows the dominating influence of a master mind filled with the spirit of Mozart's music, as Mr Mahler's is, with an opportunity to achieve the results that he wishes. This Figaro had evidently been prepared with much care, and it was one that reflected the greatest credit on all who were concerned in it. The potent authority of Mr Mahler was evident in it from the beginning to the end."

According to another review, the recitatives were accompanied "by an imitation harpsichord and in the proper places by a union of this instrument with the orchestral strings", a solution that was considered "excellent."

Of the singers involved, Emma Eames later wrote that "among the many great conductors with whom I have sung, I know of none greater than Mahler. He was a genius with an abstract ideal and great humanity. ... In his simplicity and modesty he showed his true genius. ... I am very glad and very proud to number among the memories of my career, the Nozze di Figaro ... under his leadership – a leadership so delicate and so considerate that is was collaboration and not dictatorship."

All quotations are from Zoltán Román: Gustav Mahler's American Years 1907–1911: a Documentary History (1989), 200 and 205.

The principals included Adamo Didur (Figaro), Marcella Sembrich (Susanna), Emma Eames (Countess), Antonio Scotti (Count) and Geraldine Farrar (Cherubino).

Adamo Didur (Figaro):

Marcella Sembrich (Susanna):

Emma Eames (in costume as the Countess):

Antonio Scotti (Count)

Geraldine Farrar (in costume as Cherubino)

All five of these singers recorded arias and duets from Figaro, most of them quite close to the time of this production. These records make for fascinating listening. It's intriguing, for instance, to speculate on whether Sembrich put in something like the cadenza at the end of her recording of "Deh vieni" when she sang this aria under Mahler – at the Vienna Opera, he had, according to Erwin Stein, 'abolished the extra top notes and cadenzas which singers used to insert', though he did restore all the recitatives and, Stein reports, 'maintained those appoggiaturas which he felt to be in the style of the music' (see Donald Mitchell: Gustav Mahler Vol. II: The Wunderhorn Years, 1995 edition, 381). By contrast, Eames and Sembrich sing the Letter Duet without any additional ornamentation, as does Farrar in "Voi che sapete".

In the order they come in the opera, these are the extracts from Figaro I have been able to find sung by Mahler's 1909 Met cast (though "Crudel perche finora" is sung by the original Count and by Farrar, who sang Cherubino rather than Susanna in this production).

No. 12. Voi che sapete, recorded by Geraldine Farrar on 8 December 1908.

No. 17. Crudel perche finora, recorded by Geraldine Farrar and Antonio Scotti on 4 October 1909.

No. 21. Sull' aria...Che soave zeffiretto, recorded by Emma Eames and Marcella Sembrich on 25 January 1908.

No. 27. Aprite un po' quegli occhi, recorded by Adamo Didur c. 1917.

No. 28. Deh vieni non tardar, recorded by Marcella Sembrich on 5 November 1904.

(numbering is from the Neue Mozart Ausgabe score)

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