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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792–1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
Maria Callas (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

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 singing pale.
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 wasn’t 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.
Göran Forsling

EMI Great Recordings of the Century page 


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