Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s reading of Le nozze di Figaro was very warmly received by the audience Saturday night at Theater an der Wien. This month sees all three of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas performed, un-staged, at TAW by this team with several of the principals participating in more than one opera. It is a mammoth undertaking which has not been without its hurdles, including Martin Kušej bowing out of the project and some of the principal cast members settled on very late in the day. Thanks to a tastefully constructed last-minute stage design, however, and the strength of much of the cast, it was an evening well worth attending. I don't always appreciate singers using vocal scores in concert performances of opera; thankfully, the vast majority relied upon the score very little, using it as a security aid.

It often takes time to adjust to Harnoncourt's tempi. The Overture, for example, was so slow it nearly dragged. That said, his departures from standard performance practice do force listeners to hear new elements in music so well-known as to be easily taken for granted. He drives the audience to discover colours and corners in the score that are often fleeted through in many of today’s performances and recordings. Concentus Musicus Wien was wholly attentive to the maestro throughout, and though there were a few mishaps, by and large it was extremely musically satisfying.

Harnoncourt is particularly innovative and demanding in his treatment of the recitative. In the interest of underlining the importance of the text, a large proportion of the recitative passages were declaimed with only occasional phrases actually sung. This technique, though interesting, was not mastered confidently by all of the singers and often sounded artificial and wooden, particularly by Andrè Schuen. Vocally a perfect Figaro, Schuen has a beautiful timbre and is very promising. However, despite his impressive stature, his Figaro lacked charisma and presence.

Mari Eriksmoen was a perfect Susanna, with impeccable diction and a light soprano, while Christina Schäfer, suffering from an ear infection, struggled through the role of the Countess. Despite beautiful phrasing, she had considerable intonation trouble throughout and looked uncomfortable and nervous. The sole cast member to clutch her score throughout, she also gave the impression of being a last minute substitute.

Bo Skovhus, on the other hand, completely inhabited the role of the Count. He was sovereign and dashing, though his voice sometimes lacked presence and strength in the lower register. His aria was particularly convincing and gained a great deal of flexibility from Harnoncourt’s use of weight and accent. Elisabeth Kulman was a fascinating Cherubino, singing part of the recitative in the low register, other parts higher to depict an adolescent boy’s changing voice which certainly could not have been easy! The fact that she recently sang the much more dramatic role of Brangäne in Tristan and Isolde made the ease with which she handled this role all the more impressive.

Peter Kálmán sang Bartolo with flair and colour, adapting perfectly to Harnoncourt’s wishes while Ildikó Raimondi’s Marcellina sounded vocally much older than I would have liked in the recits. She was, however, able to win our hearts through her acting, particularly in her Act III aria. Barbarina was played by Christina Gansch, someone I look forward to hearing great things from in the future. She has charisma to spare, and a beautiful voice in which one can already hear shades of a Countess to be.