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Availability: Classicsonline

Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792–1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
Luigi Alva (tenor) – Conte d’Almaviva; Melchiorre Luise (bass) – Bartolo; Maria Callas (soprano) – Rosina; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Figaro; Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass) – Basilio; Pierluigi Latinucci (bass) – Fiorello); Anna Maria Canali (soprano) – Berta; Giuseppe Nessi (tenor) – Un Ufficiale
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milano, 1956
HÄNSSLER PROFIL PHO 8015 [72:58 + 67:43]
Experience Classicsonline

Without knowing anything about the provenance of this recording one thinks one will be in for an inspired and inspirational evening. Without looking for further details one puts disc one in the player and leans back. Overture!

The opening phrases are sensitively sculptured, though with some heavy accents, but he makes you listen. Giulini, isn’t it? One doesn’t expect outgoing jolliness from him, rather nobility and this is rounded, even mellow music-making. But isn’t the recording poor? The orchestra doesn’t sound too bad but there is no real bloom and there is a serious lack of upper frequencies. And in the last resort there is also a lack of fizz in the playing – and in the conducting. Rossini would have been depressed. Some minutes into the opera proper even I begin to feel depressed. The sound doesn’t improve, quite the contrary, and the measured tempos make the whole affair rather bloodless.

Luigi Alva has to struggle to keep the line in Ecco ridente, but he sings with elegance and mellifluous tone and there is also some metal in it. But it is bloodless.

Wait, here comes Tito Gobbi, and he is never dull. No, he is in ebullient mood, but he tends to shout. He is as detailed as ever in his pointing of words and the patter singing is secure, but is he any fun? No, I find this a reading from the brain, not from the heart, and it doesn’t get better. The sound also deteriorates, it comes and goes due to the placing of microphones – was there more than one? – and it distorts. Enter Callas and Una voce poco fa is technically brilliant, as far as I can judge through the veils of aural mist, but does she charm the listener? Not a bit.

Shall I go on or shall we stop playing hide-and-seek? I knew from the beginning the origin of this: Maria Callas, who primarily sang the heavy dramatic roles, had an early success in 1950 in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia. In 1954 she recorded the role for EMI and the following season she wanted to do it La Scala under the direction of Franco Zeffirelli. Again it was a success, so for February 1956 she demanded Il barbiere di Siviglia. This time she didn’t want Zeffirelli – nobody knows why – and instead La Scala dusted off an old production which had never been very good in the first place and with no strong director at hand the singers had to create their role portraits on their own and what has been intimidated during the first half-hour is confirmed with knobs on as the comedy goes on. There is a lot of over-acting, especially from Callas, about whom a critic wrote that her interpretation of the role was ‘nearly worthy of a psychoanalytical study.’ She may be the worst sinner but not the only one. Luigi Alva sometimes fall in the same trap and Gobbi, for all his acting abilities, seems less than inspired. There also seems to have been an anti-Callas claque in the audience, who loudly booed her and, even worse, greeted Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s disastrous La calunnia with ovations. The veteran Melchiorre Luise, who plays Bartolo, is more or less the best of the bunch, and that in a role that really invites over-acting. I am not 100% certain but probably it was the premiere that was recorded. The CD cover only gives 1956.

Callas and Gobbi admirers are lucky though, since EMI, despite this unfortunate production, chose to record the opera under studio conditions in Kingsway Hall a year later. Alva sings Almaviva again, which he did during the next fifteen years another four times, and with Nicola Zaccaria as Basilio and the excellent Fritz Ollendorff as Bartolo this is a set worth owning. In is now in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. See review.

And the present set – for the dump? There is really little positive to say about it but inveterate Callas fans will still want it, I suppose, and as a blueprint for the EMI set it might at least be valuable as a reminder that something close to catastrophe can be turned, with good guiding – Walter Legge was the producer – into something valuable.

To end on a negative note, though: the track-list is inadequate, there are two few cue-points and the inlay has a long essay in German and English on Rossini and Il barbiere di Siviglia and thumbnail bios on the artists but nothing about the actual recording. That information comes from Tony Locantro’s liner notes for the GROC issue referred to above.

Göran Forsling


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