José Luis Castro directs Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

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COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Accentus Music
ALBUM TITLE: Mozart
WORKS: Le Nozze di Figaro
PERFORMER: Li Ao, Huang Ying, Zhou Zhengzhong, Yu Guanqun, Xu Lei; China National Centre for the Performing Arts Chorus & Orchestra/Lü Jia; dir. José Luis Castro (Beijing, 2014)
CATALOGUE NO: ACC 20307

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Yet another Nozze di Figaro DVD? In several significant respects, however, this one proves different from its many predecessors. Filmed just over two years ago, it’s of the first ever Mozart production mounted at the best-known of the several new music centres specially built in leading Chinese cities since 2000 – Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. Familiarly known as the ‘Giant Egg’ because of its extraordinary architectural structure (balanced on an artificial lake), the building itself doesn’t feature in the bonus material, which is perhaps a pity.

But every bit as fascinating is the presence of an entirely Chinese cast, chorus and orchestra, an achievement that (according to the late Lorin Maazel, one of the voices heard in the ‘Making Of’ bonus film) would have been unthinkable not long ago. Musical standards are uniformly high – indeed, a predominantly young cast and chorus of fresh-faced, fresh-voiced singers meticulously prepared and unwaveringly intent on pleasing add their own special appeal to the listening and viewing. Principals and conductor have all had international experience (for instance Zhou Zhengzhong, the Count, currently at Covent Garden, and Yu Guanqun, the Countess, recently in Verdi at Parma and Mozart at Bologna); all find qualities in their roles that even the most practised of Figaro habitués will enjoy encountering – the Figaro, the roly-poly, rubber-faced bass-baritone Li Ao, gives particular pleasure.

In the end, though, and notwithstanding the considerable cultural interest attached to the project as a whole, what the show doesn’t add up to is a concentrated account of Mozart’s opera. Lü Jia’s conducting lacks muscular force – ensemble too often falters, maybe as a result of the theatre’s reportedly problematic acoustics. More crucially, the production by José Luis Castro of Seville’s Maestranza opera house, while beautiful in design and skilful in movement, is both traditional and bland at its centre, a collection of agreeable Figaro ‘moments’ rather than a powerfully forged whole.

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Max Loppert