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ROSSINI (1792–1868) Il barbiere di Siviglia(1816)
(soprano) – Rosina; Luigi Alva (tenor) – Il
conte d’Almaviva; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Figaro; Fritz
Ollendorff (bass) – Bartolo; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Basilio;
Gabriella Carturan (mezzo) – Berta; Mario Carlin (tenor) – Fiorello
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Alceo Galliera
rec. 7–14 February 1957, Kingsway Hall, London
texts and translations included EMI CLASSICS
GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 3920462 [66:09
Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione was
the title of this opera when it was premiered on 20 February
1816. Rossini and his librettist Cesare Sterbini had changed
the name out of respect for Paisiello, who had set Beaumarchais’s
play more than thirty years earlier. The opera was still
a resounding fiasco, due to both intrigues and actual mishaps
during the performance. The very next night it was received
with enthusiasm, however, and thus it has been ever since.
When Maria Callas sang Rosina at La Scala in 1956 she was
no success – for
the first and only time in her career. The reason seems to
have been that it was an old production that had been dusted
off and the singers were left to make their own interpretations
which in the case of Callas led to her overplaying the part
severely. A critic wrote that her reading of the role was “nearly
worthy of a psychoanalytical study”. No such problems when
she recorded the role the year after. The producer was Walter
Legge and, knowing what he wanted, he obviously guided her
with a safe hand through the score. She is superb in the
recitatives, light and lyrical with very accurate coloratura
in her arias and in duet with Tito Gobbi in Dunque io
son we are in for some of the best singing-acting ever.
She sings both Una voce poco fa and Rosina’s lesson
in the mezzo-soprano key but in some other places she has
to change the vocal line where it becomes too low.
In this opera though, Callas has to put up with playing second
fiddle. Of course she is the object of both Bartolo’s and Almaviva’s
love. Rosina is a clever puller of strings, but the real
protagonists are Figaro and Almaviva. Both Tito Gobbi and
Luigi Alva sang their roles in the La Scala production and
they are wonderfully inside their parts. There are few better
Figaros: Gobbi is ebullient, scheming, vocally brilliant
and relishing his every word. For some reason he doesn’t
start his entrance aria off-stage but that hardly matters.
In ensembles and duets he is superb. Just listen to All’ idea
di quell metallo (CD1 tr. 11) where Alva is also magnificent.
He made the role of Almaviva very much his own, recording
it no less than five times, of which this is the earliest.
By the way, I am talking of ‘official’ recordings – there
are a number of off-the-air or unofficial live recordings
as well. Here he is at his youthful best with creamy tone
and eager characterisation – listen to him distorting the
voice when disguised as singing teacher in the second act.
His runs may not be perfect but he has charm in abundance.
Niccolo Zaccaria is an expressive Basilio, singing a dynamic La
calunnia but the great surprise is Fritz Ollendorff
as Bartolo. He is fairly light-voiced but expressive and
the patter singing at the end of his aria (CD1 tr. 25)
is truly impressive for a non-Italian – but, then, he did
study in Milan. He is little represented on record: there
are some German highlights discs and also a second complete Barbiere from
1965, sung in German with Peter Schreier and Hermann Prey
in the cast.
Gabriella Carturan sings Berta’s aria decently but the
orchestral thunderstorm that follows tends to make her
Alceo Galliera leads an idiomatic performance with the Philharmonia
in fine shape. The sound is brilliant – this was during the
infancy of stereophonic recording – but not aggressively
so. The 164-page booklet is, as always in this series, a
model of its kind with an essay on the coming into being
of the opera and about the recording, a cued synopsis and
full texts and translations into English, German and French.
I had a very pleasant evening listening to this set and there
a dull moment. How does it compare to other versions? Competition
is undeniably keen. EMI re-recorded the opera half a decade
later as part of the newly-started Angel Series. Older collectors
surely remember the white LP covers with a circular image.
This one was based on the recent Glyndebourne production,
although the cast was not fully identical. The conductor
was Vittorio Gui, arguably the greatest Rossinian of his
time. Sesto Bruscantini was a mercurial Figaro, challenging
even Gobbi. Luigi Alva repeated his Almaviva and Victoria
de los Angeles was the loveliest imaginable Rosina. I would
place this version a notch or two above the Galliera but
it is let down by a charmless Basilio and a Bartolo who certainly
knows all the buffo tricks but is dry as a biscuit. Decca
recorded it under Silvio Varviso a couple of years later
with Teresa Berganza, Ugo Benelli, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Fernando
Corena splendid but with a dull-voiced Figaro ruining the
proceedings. In the early 1970s Claudio Abbado recorded it
for DG - there is also a film version - with a starry cast,
Berganza (again), Alva (again), Hermann Prey (yes, he had
recorded it in German), Enzo Dara and Paolo Montarsolo. There
are no weaknesses here; instead a great deal to commend.
From more recent times Neville Marriner on Philips is a winner
with Agnes Baltsa, Francisco Araiza, Thomas Allen, Domenico
Trimarchi and Robert Lloyd. This would be my choice if I
could stretch to only one version but the even later Naxos
recording at budget price, conducted by Will Humburg, is
a tough contender and the most theatrical of all. We are
spoilt for choice but Galliera is definitely among the finalists.