One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             




Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - comic opera in two acts (1816)
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the Beaumarchais play
Premiere: Teatro Argentina, Rome, 20 Feb 1816 as Almaviva, ossia Líinutile precauzione (the useless precaution)
Count Almaviva, Luigi Alva (ten); Figaro, a barber, Tito Gobbi (bar); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina, Melchiore Luise (buffa-bar); Rosina, Maria Callas (sop); Basilio, a singing teacher, Nicola Rossi Lemeni (bass); Berta, Dr. Bartoloís housekeeper, Anna Maria Canali (mezzo); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva, Pierluigi Latinucci (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Tetro alla Scala, Milan/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, 16 February 1956. mono


Il barbiere di Siviglia is the only one of Rossiniís thirty-nine operas to have remained in the repertoire since its composition. It was one of the works the composer squeezed in during his contract as Musical Director of the Royal Theatres at Naples where he was supposed to present two new works every year. In the first two years of his contract he composed no fewer than five operas for other cities, including four for Rome. After the successful premiere of his first Naples opera, Elisabetta, regina dí Inghilterra on 4 October 1815, Rossini travelled to Rome to present Torvaldo e Dorliska to open the Carnival Season at the Teatro Valle on 26 December. Whilst there, on 15 December, he signed a contract with the rival Teatro de Torre Argentina for a comic opera to be presented during its Carnival Season, the score to be delivered by mid-January! After one unsuitable subject was put aside, and by now in some haste, it was decided to base the new opera on Beaumarchaisís Le Barbier de Sťville. This was despite the fact that the widely respected Paisiello had already composed an opera based on that story in 1782. Rossini moved to ensure Paisiello took no offence and the opera was presented as Almaviva, ossia Líinutile precauzione (the useless precaution), later reverting to the title by which we now know it. Despite Rossiniís efforts Paisielloís supporters created a disturbance on the first night and turned it into a fiasco. On the second night the composer was tactfully ill and did not attend the theatre, as stipulated in his contract. The performance was an unprecedented success and the cast and supporters walked to Rossiniís lodgings carrying candles and singing tunes from the opera.
During the 1955-56 La Scala season the newly slimmed Callas, then as much on the front pages as on the arts pages of the Italian daily papers, was the diva of the moment. During that season she appeared no less than thirty-seven times in operas as varied as Norma, La Traviata and Fedora as well as Il barbiere. As an informed brief booklet essay by Michele Di Libero explains, Callas took on the role of Rosina determined to unravel it fully and get out of it more than any recent predecessor. To this end the original tessitura for mezzo was restored with the addition of the traditional embellishments and fioritura. The critical press was divided. Some found her interpretation crude, making criticism of coarse poise and aggressiveness in interpretation and questioning whether Callasís Rosina would have remained under Bartoloís subjugation. There were also questions raised as to whether a coloratura soprano, with spinto roles in her repertoire, was laying bare her shortcomings in her lower register. Listening carefully, her Rosina is certainly a viperous handful for Bartolo. As to failings in the lower register, she is certainly more comfortable in the coloratura of Una voco poco fa (CD 1 tr. 11) than in parts of her act two Contro un cor che accende amore (CD 2 tr.7). As in so many of her interpretations Callasís vocal inflection, characterisation and insights are well thought out. In this role, as in so many others, the singer broke conventions and boundaries. This approach may have influenced the comments of contemporary commentators seeing an interpretation beyond the norm of the time. With the Rossini revival some way off they were perhaps not fully aware of or in sympathy with the inner substance of this opera. The audience received her act 1 showpiece aria with warm, but not over-enthusiastic applause, but warmed to her act 2 aria.
Just as on the later EMI recording, with the same duo of Gobbi and Alva, Callas reacts well to them in duet and trio. She is not overawed by Gobbiís biting tone as Figaro nor the urgency and appealingly plangent singing of Alva as the Count. Callas and Gobbi are histrionically and vocally as matched in Dunque io son (CD 1 tr. 16) as one could ask; likewise with Alvaís Count in the act 2 duet (CD 2 tr. 6). Singing in a large theatre, Gobbiís tone is a little raw at the very top of his voice in his Largo al factotum (CD 1 tr. 6). Elsewhere his tone is well covered and his vocal acting is outstanding. The lukewarm response to Callasís act 1 aria is strange in comparison with that to Nicola Rossi Lemeniís uninspiring rendering of La calunnia (CD 1 tr.14) when the applause, mixed with some booing, goes on for nearly one and a half minutes. Although I have read about it, I had never heard the La Scala claque before, and that is what I suggest this response is. I suppose the singers at that famous theatre, and at others in Italy, got used to it, and if they thought it necessary, paid for it! In those circumstances, and with those practices, the audience response does not necessarily reflect the quality of what it has just heard!
As I have indicated, three of the same principals recorded the work for EMI under Alceo Galliera in 1958. Together with the remake of Tosca in 1964 it is one of the few Callas-Gobbi collaborations caught in stereo. Unlike too many of her other recordings in the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s she is in good voice and characterises well. Regrettably, as with this recording, it applies the usual theatre cuts, missing out several important interplays, particularly in act 2. The Galliera issue is spirited and characterful, fully reflecting the spirit of the opera. Good as Galliera is Giulini is better. For whatever reason Walter Legge did not often cast the Italian maestro as first choice for the recording studio and this despite the critical admiration of his recordings of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Giuliniís conducting is fleet and brings out the rhythmic brio of Rossiniís wonderful score to perfection as is immediately obvious from the overture (CD 1 tr. 1). Likewise his handling of the finales is full of† brio and pulsating rhythm as is his Temporale storm music (CD 2 tr.15). Yes, enjoy the stereo and the absence of excessive audience involvement in Gallieraís studio version, but I also urge you to listen to this Giulini version too. The sound is remarkably good, better than many mid-1950s mono recordings made under the Columbia/Callas/La Scala contract. On the basis of this recording I will certainly be on the lookout for any other gems from the archive of the Instituto Discografico Italiano.
Robert J Farr




Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.