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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - Comic opera in two acts.
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on Beaumarchais’s play.
First performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome 20 February 1816 as Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (the useless precaution)
Count Almaviva, Ramon Vargas (ten); Figaro, a barber, Roberto Serville (bar); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina, Angelo Romero (buffa bar); Rosina, Sonia Ganassi (mezzo); Basilio, a singing teacher, Franco Grandis (bass); Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper, Ingrid Kertesi (mezzo); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva, Kázmér Sarkáney (bass)
Hungarian Radio Chorus
Failoni Chamber Orchestra, Budapest/Will Humburg
Recorded by Alpha-Line Studio, Italian Institute, Budapest, 16-28 November 1992
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660027-29 [3 CDs: 43.03 + 51.26 + 63.13]


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The first two decades of the 19th century were a period of transition in Italian opera. The works of Paisiello, Cimarosa and their contemporaries, whilst still admired, were considered passé in some circles. Opera continued as the major art form across all social groups with division amongst them being more by theatre affordability than operatic type. That affordability reflected the size of the theatre, its perceived social position in the hierarchy, the complexity of its productions and the professionalism, or otherwise, of its orchestra. Each major city in the then separate provinces that now constitute Italy, some under foreign occupation, boasted two or three theatres presenting opera. The impresarios of these theatres were always seeking new works. Once a composer got known and had even a moderate success there were plenty of openings as well as many composers to fill the demand. There were, however, problems for both aspiring and established composers. They were often required to find a suitable subject, one that did not offend the susceptibilities of the local censor, get a poet to transcribe it into verse, write the music and rehearse the singers, all often at great speed. With his five one act farsa for Venice’s Teatro San Moise (see review) Rossini had shown the necessary skills as well as his ability to write tunefully in a manner that had public appeal. In his melodramatic Tancredi, premiered on 6 February 1813 in Venice’s main theatre, the Fenice, one month after the last of the one act farsa, Rossini thrust his name to the forefront of the list of contemporary composers working in Italy. He quickly consolidated his position with L’Italiana in Algeri, presented at Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto on 22 May 1813, and was offered the post of Musical Director of the Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo, in Naples. It was for the San Carlo, with its professional orchestra and superb stage facilities, that Rossini composed his great opera seria starting with Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra premiered on 4 October 1815. A clause in his contract at Naples allowed Rossini to accept odd commissions from other theatres. It was a clause that Rossini took much advantage of, certainly stretching it beyond the limits the impresario Barbarja had intended when he brought the composer to Naples. In the first two years of this contract Rossini composed no fewer than five operas for other cities, including four for Rome.

The first of the Rome operas was Torvaldo e Dorliska. It opened the Carnival Season at the Teatro Valle on 26 December 1815. Previously, on 15 December, Rossini signed a contract with the rival Teatro de Torre Argentina in Rome for a comic opera to be presented during its Carnival Season and to be delivered by mid January! It was decided that the opera would be based on Beaumarchais’s play Le Barbier de Séville. For Rossini this posed a difficulty in that Paisiello had set an opera by the same name in 1782 and both it, and the composer, were greatly respected. Rossini moved to ensure Paisiello took no personal offence with his younger colleague and the opera was presented as Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (the useless precaution) with the sequence of scenes distinctly different. Despite Rossini’s efforts Paisiello’s supporters created a disturbance on the first night and turned it into a fiasco. On the second night Rossini was tactfully ill and did not attend the theatre, as stipulated in his contract. The performance was an unprecedented success after which the cast and supporters walked to Rossini’s lodgings carrying candles and singing tunes from the opera. After its initial seven performances in Rome the opera began to be called Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was soon performed as such around Italy and reached London on the 10 March 1818 and New York the following year. It is the only opera by Rossini to have maintained its place in the repertoire in the theatres of Italy, and elsewhere around the world, throughout its life.

As noted, the libretto and music were written and the opera produced in little over a month. It is hardly surprising that Rossini indulged in some self-borrowings, a not unusual practice among composers in that period when even a successful work might receive only a few performances in one city and never travel elsewhere.  The overture was that used for Aureliano in Palmira in 1813, and re-used with heavier orchestration for Rossini’s first Naples opera, Elisabetta. Similarly the storm scene of act 2 (CD 3 tr. 16) was first heard in La Pietra del paragone (1812) (see review) and subsequently in L’Occasione fe il ladro one of the five one act farsa referred to. Elsewhere in Il Barbiere Rossini developed and extended tuneful lines from earlier works into full-blown arias and duets.

This 1992 Naxos recording is graced by a number of singers in their early careers and who have gone on to be welcome at the best addresses. Ramon Vargas (b. 1960) is a lyric tenor Almaviva. His tone is stronger, has more metal in it, with less heady honey, than a tenore di grazia such as Florez or Gimenez who commonly essay this and other florid Rossini tenor roles. His youthful voice is even and true over its extended range and his phrasing is delicate and graceful when called for (CD 1 tr. 3). He characterises well and doesn’t overdo the comic business as he seeks to convince Dr. Bartolo of his status as Rosina’s replacement singing teacher for the supposedly ill Don Basilio (CD 3 tr.2). As Bartolo, Angelo Romero, who has sung the role at La Scala, has a well-covered tone. He acts well with his voice, and if not erasing memories of Enzo Dara’s inestimable portrayal (see review), he is at least the match of contemporaries on other versions (CD 2 tr.11). Similar strengths are to be heard in the portrayal by Franco de Grandis (b. 1960) of the sleazy and easily bribed Basilio. He has sung under Karajan at Salzburg, Vienna under Abbado as well as appearing at La Scala and the Met. His voice is steady and true and his La calunnia (CD 2 tr. 6) is well sung. In the ultimate analysis he doesn’t quite portray Basilio’s two-faced standard, but nor does he let the side down.

The Rosina of Sonia Ganassi and Figaro of Roberto Serville are both full-toned portrayals. She has a wide vocal register that is particularly strong in the lower part of her voice. Whilst her Una voce poco fa (CD 2 tr. 1) is sung rather carefully, and lacks a little viperish sparkle, her overall portrayal and characterisation has many strengths and is underpinned by her, even legato, creamy tone and sense of style. As the somewhat egocentric barber of the story, Roberto Serville doesn’t over-use the strengths of his big voice although he cannot fine it down in his self-advertising cavatina Largo al factotum (CD 1 tr. 6) as Gobbi does (EMI GROC with Callas) and which is integral to Prey’s vocal quality (Abbado on DG). The result is a little heavy. In the reality of the social relationship between himself and Count Almaviva I always think that Figaro should cajole and manoeuvre rather than boss his aristocratic paymaster. Perhaps Will Homburg could have lightened the textures for his baritone with more lively sprung rhythms. By that I do not wish to imply a too strait-laced approach by the conductor in what is after all an opera buffa. However, his is a rather square interpretation compared with Marriner (Philips), Chailly (Decca with Bartoli as Rosina) and above all the scintillating, but heavily cut, Galliera (EMI GROC with Callas and Gobbi). He paces the extended recitatives included here, and the abundant ensembles, with more flair. Although no performing edition is credited this very full version extends the opera onto three discs, as does the Chailly version on Decca. The virtue in this well recorded and balanced Naxos issue, with appropriate added sound-effects such as the knocking on doors, is that it is only one third the price of the starrier cast Decca.

The Naxos booklet has a brief essay on the background to the work’s composition, an excellent track-related synopsis and also artist profiles, all given in English, German and French. A full libretto in Italian, without any translation is also provided. The large number of recordings in the catalogue reflects the popularity of Il barbiere di Siviglia. In terms of value for money, as well as completeness, this well sung Naxos issue is in a league of its own. It is a perfect complement to other less complete, but starrier cast recorded performances and is worthy of a place in any opera lover’s collection.

Robert J Farr




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