Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - Melodramma Buffa in two acts (1816)
Count Almaviva, in love with Rosina – Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Figaro, a barber and general factotum - Pietro Spagnoli (baritone); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina - Alessandro Corbelli (buffa baritone); Rosina, ward of Bartolo – Joyce DiDonato (mezzo); Basilio, a singing teacher - Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper - Jennifer Rhys-Davies (soprano); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva - Changham Lim (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, July 2009
Stage Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Set Designs: Christian Fenouillat. Costumes: Agostino Cavalca. Television Director: David Stevens
NTSC all regions. Picture format: 16:9 Colour. Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5:1 Surround
Subtitles in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish
VIRGIN CLASSICS DVD VIDEO 50999 6945581 9 4 [2 DVDs: 102:00 + 74:00 plus bonus]
First night disasters in the history of opera performances are numerous. They usually involve aspects of performance, production, inappropriate singers or inadequacy of composition. La Traviata, Madama Butterfly and Beethoven’s Leonora spring to mind. Except in Beethoven’s case, which took ten years, some minor compositional adjustments, or a more appropriate cast and the damage was quickly reversed. But there were a few occasions when the derision mounted on the first night was as quickly reversed. This was the case with Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. His paramount position among fellow Italian opera composers led to his being appointed Musical Director of the Royal Theatres in Naples. It was for the San Carlo, with its professional orchestra that Rossini composed his great opera seria, starting with Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra premiered on 4 October 1815. A clause in his contract at Naples allowed Rossini to accept odd commissions from other theatres. It was a clause that Rossini took much advantage of, certainly stretching it beyond the limits the impresario Barbaja had intended when he brought the composer to Naples. In the first two years of this contract Rossini composed no fewer than five operas for other cities, including four for Rome.

The first of the Rome operas was Torvaldo e Dorliska. It opened the Carnival Season at the Teatro Valle on 26 December 1815. Previously, on 15 December, Rossini signed a further contract with the rival Teatro de Torre Argentina in Rome for a comic opera to be presented during its Carnival Season. It had to be delivered by mid-January! Quick composition was the order of the day. With time short it was decided that the opera would be based on Beaumarchais’play Le Barbier de Séville. For Rossini this posed a difficulty in that Paisiello had set an opera by the same name in 1782 and both it, and the composer, were greatly respected. Rossini moved to ensure Paisiello took no personal offence with his younger colleague and the opera was presented as Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (The useless precaution) with the sequence of scenes distinctly different from Paisiello’s creation. Despite Rossini’s efforts Paisiello’s supporters created a disturbance on the first night and turned it into a fiasco. On the second night Rossini was tactfully ill and did not attend the theatre, as stipulated in his contract. The performance was an unprecedented success after which the cast and supporters walked to the composer’s lodgings carrying candles and singing tunes from the opera. After its initial seven performances in Rome the opera began to be called Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was soon performed as such around Italy and reached London in March 1818 and New York the following year. It is the only opera by Rossini to have maintained its place in the repertoire in the theatres of Italy, and elsewhere around the world, throughout its life.
There can be few performances of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia that got off to a worse start than the series of performances scheduled at Covent Garden in 2009. A superb cast had been assembled for what was to be the eminent Music Director’s first assumption. The intention was to play a performance on the big screens in London and elsewhere and film a performance for DVD issue. Before the first night the singer cast in the eponymous role withdrew. Worse, in the first act, running off stage after her display aria Una voce poca fa (CH 15) the diva singing Rosina, Joyce Di Donato, tripped and damaged her ankle. After some treatment she carried on with the help of a stick as a crutch and the support of her colleagues. In the event it turned out that she had broken a major leg bone and was put in plaster for six weeks. As she explains in a very informative interview, as one of the bonus tracks on the first DVD, she and the theatre were left with various alternatives, none of them entirely satisfactory. These included a replacement, not easy after very detailed rehearsal and the Director having departed, or having her sing from the pit and somebody walking the role through. What was decided, however, was that she would sing the role from an athlete’s wheelchair moving along the narrow channel between the raked set and the orchestra pit. As Pappano explains in the introductory Chapter, this was done without rehearsal. However, as DiDonato says, with the help of the consummate actors in the other roles it seems not to matter at all. She had the biggest problem of sitting on cushions and raising herself by her arms to allow her diaphragm to drop and her lungs to fill. Given her capabilities, and the full cooperation and participation of her colleagues, the outcome is one of the most enjoyable and well-sung performances of Il Barbiere I have seen or heard for many years.
The production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier was first seen in 2005. Christian Fenouillat’s set is simple in the first scene with the Almaviva of Juan Diego Florez climbing into a tree to serenade Rosina who appears at a window - no problem for her there. After this the set is static in a shoebox shaped raked space with high walls and with doors and windows appearing for the many entrances and exits. The costumes by Agostino Cavalca are very colourful and the DVD camera-work unobtrusive. What makes the performance so special is the singing of the soloists. My notes for DiDonato read like a eulogy of excellence with her command of coloratura, appropriate decoration, excellent diction, phrasing and vocal characterisation all being of the very highest order. I have never heard Rosina’s display aria sung as well on record or in the theatre. Her vocal distinction is matched by her sung and acted interaction with her colleagues and which, thanks to them as well as her, does not require any allowances whatsoever for the circumstances. As her lover, Juan Diego Florez is equally outstanding. His command of the idiom and ease and fluency of his singing in this music is unmatched. In his bonus interview he explains the difficulties of his long second act aria Cessa di piu resistere, which for many years was cut, even in recorded performances. His legato, expression and pinging high notes are a delight whilst he acts the part of the drunken soldier and, later, the substitute singing master, with easy facility and without recourse to slapstick. He is not bettered on the world stage in this repertoire at the present time.
I have long admired Pietro Spagnoli who took on the role of Figaro when the carded Simon Keelyside withdrew. His singing and acting were first class. In his native language Figaro’s Largo al factotum (DVD 1 CH.7), sung as he entered via the stalls, held no fears and neither did Pappano’s brisk tempi. He sang the rapid patter words with clarity and precision. Added to those skills was his liveliness as an actor manipulating the activities as Figaro should. The other two male Italians, Alessandro Corbelli as Don Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Basilio, were of similar standard as actors and singers. Corbelli in particular can play any buffa role to the manner born and his expressive and characterful singing of A un dottr della mia sorte (DVD 1 CH.22) along with his facial and body expression could hardly be bettered. Similarly his acting during Rosina’s singing lesson in act two, with the supposed substitute tutor - in reality Almaviva - was superb. Ferruccio Furlanetto was physically imposing as Bartolo, making the most of the role’s seedy side whilst phrasing La callunia (DVD 1. CH.17) with every expressive nuance.
Jennifer Rhys-Davies was an excellent Berta although I could have done without the silly noses she, the gardener and the policemen had to wear. It made the policemen, already rather out of period in their costumes, look like spares for a G&S comedy version. Opera buffa is comic opera not comedy. Similarly I could have done without Almaviva cocking a pistol to get out of a tight corner. Regrettably, all directors seem unable to resist such gimmicks no matter the consideration they give to detail in other respects. Jennifer Rhys-Davies had the task of trashing the set during the act 2 thunderstorm which should have been Rosina herself expressing her frustration at her situation, but this was not possible. It was well done and did not matter with Rosina herself using her good leg, and from her wheel chair reduced to kicking over one of the stands with her good leg. It exploded magnificently. This level of professional improvisation and cooperation was evident throughout. Consequently, the diva’s incapacity was as nothing. This professionalism in delivering the goods converted what could have been a disaster into a triumph.
Pappano’s tempi were sometimes on the brisk side. He is not yet in the Zedda class in Rossini, but it was hardly a drawback and outstanding for a debut. The sound is first rate. Any grumbles? Well yes. Although this Virgin double DVD set is issued at bargain price (£14 GBP in the UK) this hardly excuses a lack of track listing. Those I have given for the reader’s guidance were derived from my second playing. One can forgive the lack of an essay, and even of a synopsis at the price, but the coloured photographs and long list of credits on the four-sided leaflet could have been better utilised. Ships, pennyworths and tar come to mind.
Robert J Farr
An outstanding sung and acted performance that converted adversity into unmitigated triumph. It goes straight to the top of the list. ... see Full Review