Saturday, July 29, 2023

The "Moberly-Raeburn" ordering in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro", and a few observations on the Salzburg Festival 2023 production

 I had the opportunity to watch a livestream of the new "Figaro" production at the Salzburg Festival and will be seeing the performance in person next weekend.

A few quick observations on this new production. The director's conception, and the sets and state design, are edgy and modern -- far darker than Barrie Kosky's new production in Vienna, which I posted about some time back. In fact, the new Salzburg production is so dark it makes Kosky's look almost traditional by comparison.

The Vienna Philharmonic is stubbornly traditionalist in how they play Mozart (and the rest of their core repertoire). I was fascinating to see and hear to what extent a "HIP" conductor, in this case Raphaël Pichon, would be able to bend the orchestra to his will. In the end, it was a reasonable compromise, much like the new Mozart/Da Ponte productions at the Vienna State Opera, with the same orchestra, wearing their hats as the opera orchestra. In Vienna, outgoing music director Philippe Jordan conducts from the fortepiano, but does not join the musical numbers from the instrument. In Salzburg, Pichon has a separate fortepiano continuo, who contributes to the musical numbers. This being the VPO, there are no concessions to period brass or timpani -- although, arguably, the Viennese timpani currently in use by the VPO, which have goatskin parchments and manual tuning screws, are somewhat larger descendants of Classical era timps.

What I found a little problematic were the substantial cuts to the secco recitatives. There really is no need to do this, and the recits in the Mozart/Da Ponte operas are crucially important to plot advancement. Some of the recits are indeed long, and they're important. This production chose to foreshorten some of them considerably. Most notably, a crucial bit of recitative before the Count-Susanna duet in Act III was cut. The production suggested that the relationship just prior to the duet was (possibly?) consummated, which would seem to make nonsense of the Count's continued desire to meet Susanna in the garden. Of course, I may have misread this.

More troubling were actual and gratuitous changes to the text of the libretto. I couldn't pick up on all of them at one listening in a livestream, but, for instance, in Bartolo's Act I aria, "Siviglia" was replaced by "la terra". There were I believe a few other instances. Also, the English translation in the Medici livestream had very peculiar translations. Where "Conte", for instance, appeared in the libretto, it was rendered "Almaviva". It appeared to be an attempt to strip away the class dimension of the opera, which again seems strange.

Having said which, I look forward to seeing this in person in Salzburg, and perhaps I'll have a richer and deeper understanding of the director's intention that was possible on a livestream.

The production omits the Marcellina and Basilio arias in Act IV, which is a frequently made theatrical cut, but is regrettable. More interesting was its use of the "Moberly-Raeburn" ordering of the numbers in Act III. The conventional ordering, used in most productions and recordings, has the Countess's recitative and aria following the "recognition" sextet. M&R proposed in, a 1965 article which you can find here, that the correct ordering should place the Countess's aria after the Count's aria and before the sextet.

I don't want to get into all the detail here, but they have two main reasons for this view, which are related. First, at the premiere in Vienna on May 1, 1786, Antonio and Curzio were taken by the same singer. This means that, with M&R's preferred ordering, there wouldn't be enough time for the singer to change between the recognition sextet and the next scene, in which Antonio appears. They also argue that their preferred ordering makes greater dramatic sense. I happen to agree, but not everyone does. Please see their article for the detailed reasoning (the article is very short). They conclude, therefore, that Mozart and Da Ponte were forced to change the ordering at the last minute to accommodate the presumably unforeseen fact that one singer would double Antonio and Curzio. The article concludes: "If a piece of a jig-saw fits well in one place, and badly in another place, one does not assume that the jig-saw designer meant it to fit badly. The evidence of the score may, for once, be illusory."

 The M&R article appeared in 1965 and proved influential. For instance, in the celebrated Karajan recording of the opera with the Vienna Philharmonic, he uses the M&R ordering, not the conventional ordering.

The one difficulty with the M&R argument -- and it's a big one -- is that they really present no compelling evidence that their ordering is what Mozart actually intended. Their evidence is circumstantial: a role got doubled, necessitating the change, and their preferred ordering makes more sense. But this isn't by itself convincing proof.

In 1981, Alan Tyson wrote an article based on his analysis of the paper in Mozart's autograph MS. It's found here. His analysis of the paper and the MS. is quite detailed. His bottom line is that the evidence shows that is most likely that Mozart's MS. uses the conventional ordering, not the M&R proposed ordering. Why is this a problem for the M&R thesis? Because, it would require that Mozart and Da Ponte knew long in advance of the premiere, or at any rate before the MS. score was finalized, of the fact that one singer would take Antonio and Curzio, and therefore the autograph score reflects the conventional ordering. If, however, they learned after the MS. was completed and before the premiere, then presumably the MS. would contain the M&R ordering, if their hypothesis is correct -- because they wouldn't have known of the doubling before the score was completed -- and they would have made the re-ordering to the conventional order on the fly at the premiere. Is this fatal for M&R? Some believe it is, although Tyson himself concludes that analysis of paper isn't conclusive. It's possible that changes were made to the MS. after the premiere, for instance, which seems the best avenue to salvage the M&R hypothesis for its defenders.

I had a lot of fun delving into this. It reminded me of my time as a high school student, devouring John Dover Wilson's "What happens in 'Hamlet'?", trying to unravel the true significance of the play-within-the-play.

Which ordering do you prefer and do you find the Moberly-Raeburn thesis convincing? Share your replies in the comments below!

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