Yes, the singing in this 1979 Le nozze di Figaro is wonderful. José van Dam is a witty Figaro, Ileana Cotrubas is a warm Susanna, Tom Krause is a haughty Count, Anna Tomowa-Sintow is a long-suffering Countess, and Frederica von Stade is a singularly fetching Cherubino. Yes, the orchestral execution is essentially ideal. With a graceful tone, easy ensemble, and elegant technique, the Vienna Philharmonic proves once again why it is the best Mozart orchestra in the world. And yes, the conducting is technically perfect. Every phrase is placed, every balance is poised, every tempo is measured, and every sonority is sumptuous.
But yes, along with forward motion and human drama, the interpretation is completely devoid of sympathy and understanding. Back in 1950, Herbert von Karajan had recorded a marvelously alive Le nozze, but by 1979, he had long ago departed the land of the living, breathing, and profoundly human Mozart and passed on to the world of the sublime, transcendent, and quite dead Mozart. No matter what van Dam or von Stade do with their parts -- and they are wholly real and alive right from the start of their Act 1 duet -- Karajan's icy perfection freezes everything it touches. His tempos, while not too slow, are still too heavy; his textures, while not too thick, are still too weighty; and his interpretation, while brilliantly executed, invariably drains the life out of the performance. For listeners unfamiliar with Le nozze, there are dozens of more convincing recordings -- try one or two of Böhm's, then Kleiber's, Abbado's, Mackerras', Solti's, and yes, Karajan's 1950 -- but stay away from this one. Decca's late stereo sound is clean, deep, and full.