This Zürich Opera production, recorded last year,
runs into tough opposition right away with the recent DVD transfers
of the Cecilia Bartoli Barber conducted by Gabriele Ferro in
1988 and the legendary 1974 Abbado production with Teresa Berganza.
Zürich provides real competition.
First of all, it delights the eye. Before the main
curtain rises a decorated gauze curtain is on display in the shape of
a semi-circle like an open fan. This proves to be a visual theme that
runs through the sets, each of the rooms in Dr Bartolo's house being
designed with the same background shape in delightfully contrasting
colours. The rooms are interconnected and the stage can revolve according
to the demands of the scene, meaning that more than one room can be
in full view at any one time. It allows for all sorts of witty, creative
stage business and this is well exploited without ever tipping over
into pantomime slapstick. It would only work, of course, if the cast
can cope, but without exception the singers are talented actors who
work in a team with the conductor to produce, on the whole, superb results.
For example at the beginning of Act 2 - the scene where
Almaviva enters Bartolo's house disguised as a music teacher, the teamwork
is witty and crisply timed, the singing beautiful in its lyricism and
sharp in the patter work. The large ensemble finale to Act 1 is not
quite so successful, with a hint of scrappiness in the stagework and
conductor Nello Santi takes the music so fast that the singers are struggling
to cope with the patter. Having said that, there is a certain frisson
deriving from being on the edge and one has the feeling that Santi knows
exactly what he's doing. All is captured with some very shrewd camera
work that makes the most of the sets and at the same time aids the characterisations.
This production has been around for a few years so
we have the advantage of seeing a well honed result. The cast has been
interchangeable since 1996 with the exception of its trump card - Vesselina
Kasarova, a Zürich ensemble member since 1989. The Bulgarian mezzo,
during that time, has emerged as one of the great Rosinas of our time,
something New Yorkers are currently able to judge for themselves at
the Met. Her voice has extraordinary versatility in technique, timbre
and range and is used to subtle effect in characterising her part. Perhaps
not always so subtle. She approaches a major high note as a mini campaign,
coiling like a spring so you know it’s coming and when it does, unleashing
it as a chandelier buster. There is a fine chandelier at Zurich which
remains intact, although it must have been touch and go. Still, that
is what some people go for. Not only is this Rosina vocally formidable.
Kasarova portrays a character who knows what she wants and nothing is
likely to stand in her way to get it. Anyone who prefers a coy Rosina
will be disappointed.
The rest of the cast is very strong. Early on, with
Almaviva’s two serenades, we hear in Reinaldo Macias a tenor of lyric
beauty, exactly the sort of voice Rossini wanted in the part. He, together
with Carlos Chausson as Bartolo, are talented actors and in Kasarova’s
veteran compatriot Nicolai Ghiaurov we have as fruity a Basilio as you
could wish for.
The production is set in the 20th century
but pinning down the period is not easy. Almaviva makes his entrance
on a trendy modern-day scooter (the foot propelled variety) followed
by Figaro with a smart motor cycle and side car that looked to me of
1940s vintage – though I’m no expert. Almaviva wears something like
a dinner jacket with V-neck pullover (surely not the done thing in any
period) and Figaro an expensive red leather jacket and long scarf.
The orchestral playing is very fine and the veteran
Italian Nello Santi, Zürich director throughout the 1960s, presides
over the musical proceedings like some portly Godfather figure – an
absolutely sure hand at the helm.
So this production competes easily with the two rival
DVD tranfers from the past I mentioned earlier, not to mention a DVD
edition of Netherlands Opera’s eccentric 1992 Dario Fo production with
Jennifer Larmore as Rosina. Where Zürich outguns them, of course,
is with its "made for DVD" picture and sound quality and for
many who want to make a choice that will tip the balance.