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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Comic Opera in Two Acts [128 :28]
Luigi Infantino (Il Conte d’Almaviva), Carlo Badioli (Bartolo), Giulietta Simionato (Rosina), Giuseppe Taddei (Figaro), Antonio Cassinelli (Basilio), Piero Poldi (Fiorello), Renata Broilo (Berta)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano della RAI/Fernando Previtali
Recorded in Milan, Italy, 10th October 1950
WARNER FONIT 5050467-1050-2-7 [65:07 + 63:21]

I was recently commenting on a live "Barber" from the Met in 1941 and was alternately fascinated and appalled to find that it offered a peep into a lost world of comic opera production; the recitatives (and even parts of the ensembles) were frequently ad libbed in a form of "Sprechstimme", with added asides and generally little respect for what Rossini wrote. The score was obviously seen as a prop rather than an anchor. So how many of the same habits would be found in this Italian studio performance of less than a decade later?

Well, in one respect both performances are in full agreement – to cut the score down to a bare minimum. Everything that can possibly be cut has been snipped out, the later stages of Act 2 reduced to a bare synthesis. In other respects, the two are very different, and the differences seem to stem from the conductor. From the outset we note that Previtali is aiming at a crisp, rhythmic, buoyant performance (within the limits imposed by the newly-founded Milan radio orchestra); in some respects he anticipates Abbado in concentrating on the purely musical values of the score. However, Gennaro Papi at the Met, in his more laissez-faire manner, creates much more sense of the theatre (obviously it helps that the performance is live); for Previtali perhaps anticipates Abbado in another way, in that his well-scrubbed liveliness almost seems to preclude any sense of fun. If he had also insisted on a complete text the set might have proved more significant. He sees, however, that the singers respect the notes Rossini wrote in the recitatives and controls the ensembles with a firm hand.

Under the circumstances, it is to the singers that we must turn for Rossini’s comic spirit. Two of the male principals are little-remembered and it is regrettable that the booklet limits itself to a brief note on the opera itself and the Italian libretto; this series continues to be very inconsistent in its presentation. However, if neither Badioli nor Cassinelli have remarkable voices they know their business. Luigi Infantino is somewhat better remembered and at this point in his career could boast a youthful, unforced "tenore di grazia", easy in his high notes and untroubled by the fioriture. It is an attractive assumption. However, it is for Giuseppe Taddei that most collectors will want this version and his warmth of tone, technical ease and lively characterization will not disappoint. All the same, one wonders if he would not have found more sparkle still if Vittorio Gui, for example, had been conducting.

Unusually for those days (and unlike the Met), this version has a mezzo Rosina. The trouble is, this was a mezzo with all the big tone needed for Azucena, Amneris and the rest, and any hopes that her timbre may have been more delicate in her relatively young days are quickly dashed. Also, she is in poor form in "Una voce poco fa", often singing flat. Later she recovers and her coloratura is certainly neat.

However, I could cheerfully ignore the drawbacks in exchange for a lively portrayal of the character. Boredom, alas, seems to be a leading factor in Giulietta Simionato’s life. Quite recently, in 2001, I was present at one of the many Verdian commemorations in Milan, of which the crowning event was to have been a speech by the then 91-year-old lady, still in remarkably good health, I must say. She explained to her adoring public that she was getting heartily sick of this Verdian year, with all the events she was compelled to attend, and was jolly glad it was nearly over. Fifty years earlier she interpreted Rosina in similar spirit. Truth to tell, though admired for a magnificent voice, genuine emotive participation was all too often missing, throughout her career.

So all-in-all, this looks like one for Taddei fans, though connoisseurs might give Infantino a hearing. It never did have much running in the catalogue, being swiftly overtaken a few years later by the classic Gui Glyndebourne set and, in terms of completeness, Leinsdorf’s performance with a typical Met cast of the day. The sound is not bad for the date but that hardly alters the situation.

Christopher Howell

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