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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - Comic opera in two acts (1816)
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the play by Beaumarchais
First performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, 20 February 1816
Count Almaviva, Fritz Wunderlich (ten); Figaro, a barber, Hermann Prey (bar); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina, Max Proebstel (bar); Rosina, Erika Köth (mezzo); Basilio, a singing teacher, Hans Hotter (bass-bar); Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper, Ina Gerhein (mezzo); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva, Karl Ostertag (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera/Joseph Keilberth
Recorded live, 25 December 1959 in MONO sound
Producer: Herbert List. Stage design and costumes: Max Bignens. Television production: Harald Gericke
A production at the Bavarian State Opera recorded for television relay by Bayerischer Rundfunk 
Picture format: NTSC. Black and White. 4:3
Subtitles in German (original language), English, Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4116 GH [141:00]



As Thomas Voigt notes in an introductory essay to this essentially historical document, early efforts at live transmissions from opera houses were rare and not particularly successful. He lists, amongst the earliest transmissions, those of Der Rosenkavalier with Eleanor Steber and Erna Berger from the Met in 1949 and Don Carlo the following year with Jussi Björling and Cesare Siepi. In the 1950s several operas made it onto film with singers often being substituted by actors and actresses with more cinematic appeal. These films often had variable lip sync as the order of the day. In the 1970s opera productions were transferred to the film studios as with the recently issued DVDs of original Unitel films recorded in full colour and stereo sound, but with lip-sync still the norm. In between, an adventurous, innovative and also technologically sophisticated Bavarian Radio recorded several performances from the Bavarian State Opera for live transmission. This performance broadcast by ARD on Christmas Day 1959 was the first of a series that extended to 1963 and included several Richard Strauss works. These were particular favourites and specialities of the conductor Joseph Keilberth who is in charge of proceedings on this performance.

The issue of this recording at this time is probably connected to the 75th anniversary of the tenor Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966) who takes the role of Count Almaviva. His premature death, in an accident, deprived the world of the outstanding Mozart tenor of his generation. His essential lyric tenor was expanding into the heavier classical Italian roles of the fach at the time of his death. His voice here is still sufficiently pliable to work its way round Rossini’s fioritura although he lacks the innate style of the genre or the ease and fluency of the phrasing (Ch. 4), matters compounded by the opera being sung in German whose prosody is often in conflict with Rossini’s music. This limitation of the language affects all the singers, none more so than Hans Hotter as the slimy Basilio. The outstanding Wotan of his generation he shows himself to have a good feel for comedy. What he hasn’t got is the depth of colour and tonal sonority that is ideally required as is evidenced in his calumny aria (Ch. 14). Plenty of humour is to be found in the portrayal of Max Proebstel as Rosina’s ward who has his elderly eye on less reputable activities for her than her care and well being. None of these singers has as natural a way in the genre as that shown by Hermann Prey as the eponymous barber. This is a role he recorded in audio for DG under Abbado and which is also caught on the Unitel film of the La Scala production (see review), both in Italian. His lithe appearance and comfort with the role is obvious in his acted portrayal, and his Largo al factotum is roundly applauded (Ch. 7). As might be expected the style of the sets and production is rather dated. What is more dated is the acceptability of the singer taking at least one bow after an aria, or in Prey’s case returning to the stage, twice, to take the applause. Audience applause is something we have to accommodate on DVD recordings of staged performances somewhat difficult after years of the silent aria endings and the dramatic continuity of studio opera recordings. Nowadays, and for some time past, it is rare for singers to break role to acknowledge even excessively vociferous applause, a welcome state of affairs. In the role of Rosina, Erika Köth has a flexible but tonally thin voice with little colour or capacity for characterisation. Although she has some nice free notes in her Una voce poco fa (Ch. 12) the overall impression is rather tweety and even squeaky at the top of the voice. This may be a limitation of the sound recording that becomes rough in places. The sound also lacks the wide tonal range we have come to take for granted as the stereo era has progressed and which is generally the norm on recordings from say the middle-1970s.

Dated is also the name of the game with the production, sets and costumes. Wunderlich has a very shapely leg in tights and his early scene costume belies attempts to pass himself off as anything but an aristocrat. The film director uses the limitations of the contemporary technology with imagination. In the overture we see the conductor from the auditorium and the audience within what is obviously a very fine theatre that would, I suspect, appear resplendent in colour. During the performance there are none too subtle camera changes from mid to close-up, but the visual representation of the staging does not suffer from this limitation. On the rostrum Joseph Keilberth has a stately feel for Rossini’s brio and phrasing and concentrates on giving his singers every support.

The introductory essay about the recording and the generous synopsis is given in English, French and German.

This issue is very much for those with a special interest in seeing the stage persona of singers who are not often found on video recordings and particularly the opportunity to see and hear them perform outside their usual fach. The dated staging will be fascinating to those interested in the evolution of opera presentation. For enthusiasts of Il barbiere di Siviglia there is plenty of choice among well-sung and recorded DVDs available in colour, with modern sound, particular favourite singers as principals and sung in the language of its composition. Very much for special interest only.

Robert J Farr





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