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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  ADD
Experience Classicsonline

When this set was first released in 1958 it was hardly greeted with great enthusiasm, far less so Callas’s debut in the opera two years previously. At La Scala in 1956, eschewing the direction of Franco Zeffirelli - whose role had added to the success of Il turco in Italia the previous season - Callas was reportedly all at sea in a creaky production in which a distinct lack of stage direction was rather over-compensated for by outrageously hammy acting. For decades those performances were the stuff of notoriety as one of Callas’s rare failures in a new role. Now that one of those performances is available on CD (see review) we can all hear for ourselves that the rumours, unlike the acting, were not exaggerated.
Despite all, Walter Legge was still determined to take Callas’s assumption of the part of Rosina into the studio. With her came two other alumni of that La Scala cast, Luigi Alva (Almaviva) and Tito Gobbi (Figaro). La Scala was replaced by the Philharmonia, and Giulini (the conductor at La Scala) by Alceo Galliera. Furthermore, the score was presented in a more complete form than that used at La Scala - one can only imagine the intelligent, noble Giulini bowing his head in shame at the atrocities committed by producer and cast on that front - although by no means entirely without cuts. The studio performance was recorded in stereo at a time when such a luxury was not guaranteed; Sawallisch’s roughly contemporaneous Capriccio springs to mind. And, despite those indifferent early notices, the recording has become something of a gramophone classic: one of the most cherished recordings of the opera. It now arrives as part of EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’, dedicated, incidentally, to the memory of Ken Jagger, compiler and editor of the series. This also places it in direct competition with the Glyndebourne recording of five years later, also much loved and certainly just as worthy of the ‘Great Recording’ moniker.
That later recording shares with the present one the casting of Alva as Almaviva. His is a lovely voice, supple and clear, used with intelligence and a supreme sense of style. His youthful ardency reminded me at times of Alfredo Kraus in his prime and, in a way, of Juan Diego Florez. His Act 1 aria ‘Ecco ridente’ demonstrates the mellifluousness of his tone and his keen sense of line. Comparing this to his later recording, there is a noticeable gain in richness, the voice gaining a slightly baritonal quality in the lower register, but a slight loss of the purity that was so evident in 1958. Nevertheless, Alva is ideal for this part, the voice alone conveying all the seductiveness and daring of the young count. That he can also convey a smile, a nudge and a wink without appearing to try is something special indeed.
Alva also scores points for not over-acting his ‘drunk’ scenes. Gobbi also resists the urge to overplay his hand and the result is yet another classic portrayal from this vintage period. His ‘Largo al factotum’ is masterfully done. The level of wit on display here, whilst by no means unexpected from this artist, is rare in the recorded history of this - particularly well-served - opera. There is a definite sense of this Figaro being the central character, the crux around which all the machinations of the plot revolve. His interaction with Alva in Act 1 Scene 1 is a delight to hear, the two voices matched superbly, his duet with Callas’s Rosina in the following scene electrifying. Zaccaria doesn’t entirely escape a sense of bluster in his performance of Basilio’s ‘Calumny’ aria, but the character shines through and his huge voice is heard to great effect at the climax. The relatively unknown Fritz Ollendorff makes for a very good Bartolo, not ideally steady at times but, again, acted with a keen sense of comedy without hamming it up.
Which brings us to Callas and, if it is certainly not a case of ‘saving the best till last’, neither is it any particular statement of weakness on her part. More it is an acknowledgement that in this opera, above any other that Callas committed to disc, the diva is not centre-stage. I have already noted that Gobbi’s portrayal of Figaro looms large over the proceedings, though that is only as it should be rather than a display of ego on the part of the great baritone. And then Almaviva is the more loveable character, particularly when so winningly sung.
I believe that is why Callas is so much more successful here in the studio than she was at La Scala. Despite Rosina not being the central character, at La Scala Callas was the reigning Prima Donna and the audience flocked to see her, even if it was only to jeer and boo. With such lack of actual direction it seems only natural that Callas would overact to the point of one critic deeming her interpretation of the role ‘nearly worthy of psychoanalytical study’. In the studio, with the character re-positioned in the plot as appropriate, Callas suddenly seems more relaxed than on any other of her recordings. The disastrous attempts at comedy have been refined down to an easy-going sense of fun. Even her passage work, often a sticky area for this artist, just seems to pour out naturally with no sense of effort. When the voice is called upon to take flight, as at the climax of ‘Una voce poco fa’ - sung, unlike most of the rest of the score, in the mezzo-soprano key - it does so with such little effort and such refulgence of tone that one marvels at the supreme qualities of a voice that even at this time was in decline.
Received wisdom would have it that Callas’s portrayal of Rosina was ‘waspish’ or ‘viperish’. There are certainly elements of the fire-spitting Callas on display here, but I think in these more enlightened times, ‘waspish’ can be substituted with ‘feminist’. This is no naïve innocent but an intelligent young woman who, heavens forbid, might be the equal of the men who surround her: over-bearing guardian, cunning music teacher, handsome but predatory suitor. Callas shows temperament, she sings the notes, she is stylistically aware, she is in fabulous voice.
Yet for all these individual qualities, what makes this recording so memorable is the sense of ensemble. It helps that Callas, Alva and Gobbi were used to working together and that Zaccaria was no stranger either. But the whole performance is held together wonderfully by Galliera. Not exactly a household name, even back then, it is telling that the majority of his relatively small commercial discography was produced at the helm of a series of concerto recordings with the Philharmonia - such as Lipatti’s famous Grieg. Here he once more demonstrates his talents as an accompanist, giving his singers ample support and flexibility when necessary. And yet he also encourages sharply characterised playing from the, then, peerless Philharmonia, clearly apparent from the fizzing account of the overture onwards. His swift tempi and lean, transparent textures today feel somewhat ahead of their time; fast forward to the 1962 EMI recording conducted by Gui (review) and you’ll hear what I mean. Gui’s tempi, whilst not exactly sluggish, do not convey nearly as much joy as those employed by Galliera.
It is that Glyndebourne recording, however, that I’m tempted to go back to. It has the benefit of Alva again and of the legendary Glyndebourne stalwarts Sesto Bruscantini (Figaro) and Ian Wallace (Bartolo). And anyone who knows Gui’s Glyndebourne recording of Le nozze di Figaro (review) from 1955 will appreciate, there was always a sense of fun when conductor and company were reunited for a recording. Above all it has the benefit of the Rosina of Victoria de Los Angeles. Hers may be a more traditional assumption of the role than that of Callas, but it is none the worse for it and Los Angeles’ voice can be heard at its absolute prime. At her worst, this singer could have run rings round Callas in terms of vocal control, tone and sheer malleability.
Having heard Callas, Alva, Gobbi and Galliera I would certainly not want to be denied the opportunity to hear this recording again, and it certainly deserves classic status. The choice between the two EMI recordings is likely to be reliant on mood in future. Both are recordings to live with. The Gui set is slightly fuller in sound, the Galliera slightly cleaner of texture. For a relatively modern recording I would not want to be without Patané’s 1988 Decca recording with a young Cecilia Bartoli as Rosina, a stylish William Matteuzzi as Almaviva and the ever-dependable Leo Nucci as Figaro (Decca 00289 425 5202). It is a relaxed, genial reading that, much like the Callas recording has rarely been out of the catalogue since its release. It remains an extravagance on three full-price discs. The budget price Naxos set under Will Humberg (see review) will satisfy most, although it is worth noting that three Naxos CDs retail for roughly the same price as either of the two-disc EMI sets.
EMI’s presentation as part of their ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series is much as we have come to expect; smartly produced, with informative notes, synopsis and full libretto.
Owen E. Walton

see also review by Göran Forsling

EMI Great Recordings of the Century pages



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