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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - comic opera in two acts
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the Beaumarchais play.
First performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, 20 February 1816
Count Almaviva, Luigi Alva (ten); Figaro, a barber, Hermann Prey (bar); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina, Enzo Dara (buffa bar); Rosina, Teresa Berganza (mezzo); Basilio, a singing teacher, Paolo Montarasolo (bass); Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper, Stefania Malagú (mezzo); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva, Renato Cesari (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Claudio Abbado
Recorded July and August 1972.
Unitel Film based on a production at Teatro Alla Scala, Milan
Staged, directed and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponelle
Presented in PCM Stereo/5.1 DTS Surround Sound. NTSC/Colour/ 4:3
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4039 GH [140:00]

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After the success of Tancredi (Feb. 6th 1813) and L’Italiana in Algeri (May 22nd 1813), both premiered in Venice, Rossini’s position at the forefront of his profession was assured. You can read about this in my review of the re-issue of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Warner). Rossini was summoned to Naples and offered the musical directorship of the two royal Theatres of that city, the San Carlo and the Fondo. Under the terms of his contract, he was to provide two operas each year for Naples whilst being permitted to compose occasional works for other cities. Rossini spent eight years in Naples composing nine of his opera serie containing some of his greatest music. In the first two years of his contract he also composed no fewer than five 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 26th December 1815. Previously, on 15th December, Rossini signed a contract with the rival Teatro de Torre Argentina for a comic opera to be presented during its Carnival Season. This was 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 offence and the opera was presented as Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (the useless precaution). 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, breaking a stipulation in his contract. The performance was an unprecedented success and 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 performed in London on 10th March 1818 and in New York the following year as well as elsewhere in Italy and around the world. It is the only opera by Rossini to have maintained its place in the repertoire throughout its life.

Under a sympathetic conductor Il Barbiere di Siviglia’s tunes flow from one aria or duet or ensemble to the next; there is scarcely a dull moment. Given that the libretto, music and production, were put together in little over a month it is hardly surprising that Rossini indulged in some self-borrowings. Certainly, 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 (CH. 33) was first heard in La Pietra del paragone (1812) (review) and subsequently in L’Occassione fe il ladro ( see The five One Act Farsa composed for the Teatro San Moise, Venice. 1810-1813. Brilliant Classics. 8CD Box. 92399 review). Elsewhere in Il Barbiere Rossini developed and extended tuneful lines from earlier works into full-blown arias and duets. I do not know whether the cerebral Claudio Abbado had reservations in these respects but his conducting here lacks the familiar flair and brio found on his audio recordings of L’Italiana in Algeri and Il viaggio a Reims. I at first wondered if this was connected to the filming being in small sections, but of course the singing is dubbed onto the film; this also reflects in the singers’ visual portrayal of their roles. Among the downsides of the filming of a staged production pure and simple are the chances of the odd fluffed entrance or note. These may be correctable if more than one performance is recorded. Less easily overcome is the intrusion of applause, often at inappropriate moments, with consequent damage to dramatic cohesion. Here there are no such intrusions or fluffed notes but the results are curiously wooden. Just occasionally, as when Paolo Montarasolo sings his slander aria (CH. 16) or the slimy way he accepts Almaviva’s bribe of his ring in the finale (CH. 36) there is a touch of the natural stage actor that he is. This is even more evident in the manner that Enzo Dara’s portrayal of Bartolo comes over. The consummate buffa of his day, Dara’s portrayal is marred by too many close-ups of his painted moustache and quivering jowls. Caught in his prime years, Dara’s singing is full of sap and nuance; it is a pity that too much fussy cinematic business mars appreciation of a consummate portrayal. As with the DG audio recording, made in London with the same cast and conductor, Teresa Berganza’s Rosina is rather lacking in character although all the notes are well sung. Surely Almaviva would have been more likely to be besotted by a more sexy and sparky woman. Technically her Una voce poco fa (CH.12) is fine but Berganza comes over as too virginally bland to have entered into the goings-on to lever her out of Bartolo’s house to run off with a young student. Likewise the manipulation of Almaviva by Figaro fails to come over as it might, because, I suggest, of too much film business. We see too many close-ups and not enough of the larger picture with the finer detail highlighted when relevant. It really is an issue of whether it’s a film of an opera or an opera on film. Along the way we lose Hermann Prey’s lithe acting and movement and his well-articulated and tasteful singing. As Almaviva Luigi Alva is wholly dependable in his singing with well articulated runs. He does his best to convey the Count’s ardour and his manoeuvrings as the substitute singing master are well played.

Based on the La Scala production, the sets are very realistic. The fountains in the square cascade with water and the rain during the thunderstorm pours down realistically on the proliferation of umbrellas. The opening scene is very dark; elsewhere colours often look somewhat anaemic. The stereo sound is somewhat flat and harsh. There is no clearly defined placing of voices on the sound-stage. Whilst I welcome the opportunity to watch an opera on DVD without the intrusion of applause, I feel the benefits of a filmed and dubbed performance as found here is not sufficient compensation. Overall this Il Barbiere lacks the fizz that is within the music and which I would normally expect to be present with this conductor and singing cast, all versed in their roles. I suspect many of my reservations in this latter respect arise from the fussiness of the film producer although I recognise he was well respected on the operatic scene and had many commendable stage productions to his name.

Robert J Farr

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