MOZART: The Marriage of Figaro
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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro
It is extraordinary to recall that as late as 1934 no complete opera by Mozart had been recorded commercially for the gramophone; particularly extraordinary, when so many Italian and French operas had been available on bulky sets of 78s for years, often in more than one version. It is thanks to the vision of two brilliant men that this 1934/5 recording of Le nozze di Figaro was made at all; they were John Christie and Fred Gaisberg.
Christie had been running various business projects, and the family estate in Sussex, for fifteen years before fulfilling his ambition to own a real opera house. He also had the good sense to marry a beautiful operatic soprano, Audrey Mildmay, seventeen years his junior, in 1931, adding further impetus to his plans; so, as English country gentlemen were able to do in those days, he built a theatre on the site of his kitchen garden and thus took the first step to founding Glyndebourne Festival Opera. By the greatest good fortune he was able to secure the services of the theatre and opera producer Carl Ebert and the conductor Fritz Busch, both of whom had already decided to leave Germany and work elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. Together they made a formidable team. Once the repertory for Glyndebournes first season was decided six performances each of Figaro and Così fan tutte discussions with Fred Gaisberg, International Artistes Manager of The Gramophone Company, began on the subject of recording a complete opera.
Gaisberg was the first great impresario in the world of sound recording and had worked with a host of the worlds finest musicians during his career. Now, towards its close, he was able to realise his hopes of preserving a complete Mozart opera and the as-yet-untried Glyndebourne production of Figaro was his choice. It was an act of great faith but the names of the cast and conductor alone must have been sufficient to convince him that the venture would be successful.
Christie and Gaisberg agreed that only excerpts of Figaro would be recorded during this first season and, if worthwhile, the project could be continued at a later date. A choice of ensemble numbers was made and on 6th June 1934, just a few days after the opening night, the cast was ready on Glyndebournes stage, Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra (in reality the London Symphony Orchestra) was in the pit, all awaiting the arrival of HMVs mobile recording unit. The days work resulted in thirteen usable sides and the six resulting 78s were issued as Volume I of the Mozart Opera Society series. It did not take Gaisberg and his assistant David Bicknell long to realise that early completion was essential.
The cast of Glyndebournes 1935 Figaro was virtually identical to that of the previous year. Just one of the originals, Norman Allin, was absent and his replacement was considered unsuitable to record the Vendetta aria, so twenty-year old Italo Tajo, a chorister with a rich bass voice, was selected instead. A decision was also made to excise the recitativo secco from the recording (only eleven bars, with piano accompaniment, were actually included, between the Act 3 duet Sullaria and the ensuing chorus; this side was made in 1934 but was not part of the original issue of concerted excerpts). Three arias from Act 4 were also omitted, as was the Act 1 chorus Giovani lieti. Basilios In quegli anni, to be sung by Heddle Nash, was meant to be included but, alas, time ran out before it could be committed to wax. The cuts are not of great significance, for what we have here is a major milestone in the history of recorded opera, realised by Christie, Gaisberg and their colleagues, who together created the perfection of ensemble that Figaro always demands.
All the records made of Figaro have
been heard and are completely successful. They
are the finest set of concerted records from any
opera I have yet heard and they are a grand
tribute to Glyndebourne and yourself
Fred Gaisberg to Fritz Busch, 14th June 1934
Le nozze di Figaro was first performed on 1st May 1786 at the Burgtheater, Vienna
Audrey Mildmay was born in Sussex in 1900, but raised in Canada. From 1924 she studied in England, and following an American tour of The Beggars Opera joined the Carl Rosa Company as a light lyric soprano. After marrying John Christie she studied in Vienna and appeared in three pre-war Glyndebourne productions, Figaro, Don Giovanni and Don Pasquale. Mildmay, a charming, vivacious hostess to musicians visiting Glyndebourne, retained an active interest in the Festival until her death in 1953.
Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder was born in Aachen in 1897 and studied in Berlin and Milan. Following his début as the Count in Figaro in 1927, he sang extensively throughout Germany, notably at the Berlin Staatsoper, where he appeared for sixteen seasons. Domgraf-Fassbänder took part in three Glyndebourne Festivals and after the war appeared successfully in Munich, Vienna and Nuremberg, where he was appointed Director of the Opera. The father of the celebrated mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbänder, he died in Nuremberg in 1978.
Aulikki Rautavaara was born in Vaasa in 1906 into a family of Finnish singers. She trained in Berlin and Helsinki, where she sang from 1932, and two years later appeared in the first of her five Glyndebourne seasons, her rôles being Pamina and the Countess Almaviva. Rautavaara achieved great success in Germany and Austria, singing memorably at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, and in Scandinavia, and she was a devotee of traditional Finnish song. She died in Helsinki in 1990.
Roy Henderson, born in Edinburgh in 1899, trained at the Royal Academy of Music, where he later became a respected teacher. His début in 1925 was followed by Covent Garden appearances in several Wagner operas. For Glyndebourne, Henderson sang the Count, Papageno, Masetto, Guglielmo and Peachum in The Beggars Opera. Much admired in oratorio, notably Elijah and the St Matthew Passion, he was also a fine interpreter of English music and was a successful choral conductor. Henderson died in 2000.
Luise Helletsgruber was Glyndebournes first Cherubino, Dorabella and Elvira. She was born in 1898 in Vienna, where she also trained and, after her successful début at the Staatsoper, remained with the company for twenty years. She was a fine lyric soprano, her repertory including roles by Mozart, Gounod, Bizet, Wagner and Puccini. During the 1930s, Helletsgrüber participated in several Salzburg Festivals, sang in the première of Strausss Arabella in Dresden and later appeared in Berlin. She died in 1967.
Fritz Busch was born in Siegen, in Germany, in 1890, and after successive appointments in Riga, Aachen and Stuttgart became music director of Dresden Staatsoper. He continued his career in Britain, the United States, at Bayreuth, Salzburg and Berlin; after six seasons as Glyndebournes music director, he worked during the war in Argentina and then in New York, returning to conduct in Europe in 1949. He resumed his former post at Glyndebourne in 1950, but died suddenly in London in 1951.
 The opera begins with a sparkling Overture.  The curtain rises on a half-furnished room in the castle of Count Almaviva. Figaro, the Counts personal servant, is measuring the room for