Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
Rosina - Agnes Baltsa (mezzo)
Figaro - Thomas Allen (baritone)
Almaviva - Francisco Araiza (tenor)
Basilio - Robert Lloyd (bass)
Bartolo - Domenico Trimarchi (baritone)
Berta - Sally Burgess (mezzo)
Fiorello - Matthew Best (bass-baritone)
Un ufficiale - John Noble (baritone)
Ambrosia Opera Chorus/John McCarthy
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner
rec. Watford Town Hall, June 1982.
DECCA 478 2497 [68:49 + 79.19]

This recording presents two debuts: Marriner as an opera conductor and Francisco Araiza’s first full operatic role on disc. The former is an unqualified success, the second more debatable. I have never warmed to Araiza’s rather nasal, throttled tone; it is somewhat grating and immediately contrasts oddly with the plummy, muffled vocal production of Matthew Best’s Fiorello. Nor will Araiza’s aspirated divisions please purists who become exercised over such things; Lawrence Brownlee in the more recent Sony set is a far neater and conventionally elegant singer with a much mellower, more ingratiating sound.
Agnes Baltsa is a rather ferocious Rosina, long on vocal athleticism with an impressive range but a little short on charm - and she too aspirates her runs more here than in her Rossini recital discs. Thomas Allen is not ideally refulgent of voice as Figaro - I like a Stracciari, a Gobbi or at least a more resonant Italianate sound - but his energy is infectious. His frequent use of mezza voce and falsetto contributes to a light, nuanced, mercurial account - less of an overbearing self-publicist than some singers make the barber out to be. He is fleet and agile, taking top note options and verbally he is extraordinarily varied and fluent - with impeccable Italian. Figaro’s banter with Rosina is as sharp and as wittily inflected as any I have heard and there is always a sense of interplay between characters. Marriner’s direction is impeccable: sappy, sprung and alive; the ASMF sound as though they are having fun and although the sense of theatricality is not as pronounced here as it is in the widely praised, super-budget Naxos set, it is still one of the least studio-bound I know and the Act One finale in particular exhibits special joie de vivre.
Robert Lloyd is a terrific Basilio; he is not afraid of distorting his beautiful bass for comic effect and vivdly creates an aural picture of the seedy old sponger. He really relishes the role and like all the cast here, seems completely at home in the quickfire patter. The intrinsic quality of his enormous bass rather shows up Trimarchi’s thin, wobbly sound, but the latter is a seasoned buffo campaigner and camps it up splendidly. Sally Burgess is a characterful Berta.
Despite its many virtues, this set does not inspire in me the same admiration and affection as it does in some commentators and for sheer vocal personality my first loyalties still lie with the famous (but cut) Callas-Gobbi version. As a theatrical experience I rate this Marriner set highly but also enjoy very much the Humburg set on Naxos and also the fleet, youthful Sony recording conducted by Miguel Gomez-Martinez with Nathan Gunn, Lawrence Brownlee and a rather ordinary Elina Garanca, who is outshone by Baltsa.
This 2 CD set is one of a new series of bargain issues by Decca in crude, 1960s pop-art style in hideous, acidic colours. Despite their appearance, they are very good value, even if there is no libretto.
Ralph Moore 

Very good value, even if there is no libretto.