The name of the Neapolitan
composer Giovanni Paisiello has stuck
in the history books. This is largely
down to the scandalous premiere of Rossini’s
Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 1816.
Admirers of the aging Paisiello, who
died the same year, booed the performance
out of displeasure with Rossini’s use
of the same story on which Paisiello
had based his possibly most successful
opera more than twenty years earlier.
That opera, which is still revived occasionally,
certainly has much to recommend it and
even though it can’t compete with Rossini’s
for melodic invention and spirituality
it shows Paisiello as a skilled composer
with a fine melodic vein and a flair
for surprising ideas. Among Paisiello’s
musical numbers there is, for example,
a trio for singer, yawner and sneezer.
Paisiello was invited
to St Petersburg in 1776 by Empress
Catherine II and during the eight years
he stayed there he wrote both Il
barbiere di Siviglia and La serva
padrona, in which, ironically enough,
he re-used an old libretto, namely the
one that Pergolesi had set almost fifty
years earlier. This recycling was due
to pressure of time and was by no means
unique in the operatic world of the
time. Many librettos were set by a number
of composers and in this case Paisiello
made several adjustments, such as adding
asides, omitting lines and also restructuring
some parts. There are no musical references
whatsoever to the Pergolesi work and
while Pergolesi employs a string band
with harpsichord, Paisiello’s orchestra
has double flutes, oboes, clarinets,
bassoons and horns added to the strings,
which in this recording number twenty.
La Cetra play on period instruments
and the recitatives are accompanied
by a forte piano. Giuliana Retala, the
pianist, is allowed to embellish the
accompaniments quite extensively – and
also quite deliciously. The winds and
the fairly large number of strings make
it a much grander affair than Pergolesi’s
more chamber-like intermezzo. Conductor
Attilio Cremonesi pulls out all the
stops and goes for knock-out from the
beginning. The whole opera is played
with a fire and pizzazz that is breath-taking
even though this "straight-to-the-point"
approach may rob the music of some subtlety.
It’s an easy loss to take, considering
the vibrant vitality of this performance.
According to the booklet it was recorded
live, but there is very little audience
noise. On the other hand perhaps the
presence of an audience inspired the
lively and expressive acting and singing.
The Uberto, Antonio
Abete, sports a flexible and light (as
opposed to heavy) but dark (as opposed
to light) bass voice. He articulates
extremely well and sings with face.
Cinzia Forte sings well as Serpina but
with less individuality of utterance
than Abete. For some reason she sometimes
seems to be in a different acoustic
from Uberto, as in their first duet
(tr. 4) where she is surrounded by a
lot of reverberation. This appears again
in her aria (tr. 11) which opens act
2. I wonder if this is an acoustic illusion
as a result of interference between
the high strings and her voice. I reacted
the first time and noticed it the second.
Even so it does not detract from the
enjoyment of the performance. This aria,
by the way, has a really catchy tune.
Tracks 17 and 18 stand out from the
rest of the score, since we are temporarily
transported into the world of opera
seria – not in real earnest, of course.
It is however a departure from the comedy
when Uberto in the accompanied recitative
and the following aria realises that
he may have feelings for the poor girl.
‘Is it love or pity?’ he asks in the
aria and the double basses rumble in
sympathy, revealing the conflicting
feelings deep in his heart. After the
intervention of the mute Vespone everything
is settled to the contentment of both
parties and they sing their hearts out
in the lively and happy final duet.
Being very familiar with Pergolesi’s
little masterpiece, I derived a lot
of pleasure from this up-sized version,
which is about one third longer. There
is a well researched essay in the booklet
and the libretto in Italian, French
and English. Whether or not one knows
Pergolesi’s ‘original’ is of little
consequence; this is good entertainment
from one of the finest Italian opera
composers before Rossini.