Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il Barbiere di Sivilglia - Commedia in two Acts (1816) [129:06]
Figaro – Rolando Panerai (baritone); Rosina – Teresa Berganza (mezzo); Il Conte d’Almaviva – Luigi Alva (tenor); Bartolo – Fernando Corena (bass); Don Basilio – Ivo Vinco (bass); Fiorello – Ronald Lewis (baritone); Berta – Josephine Veasey (mezzo); Un ufficiale – Robert Bowman (baritone)
The Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, 21 May 1960, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
no libretto included
ICA ICAC 5046 [66:42 + 62:24]

The collector of “historic” live opera recordings needs to be equipped with almost inexhaustible optimism. The chances are that to poor recording quality, noises from on-and off-stage, and variable casts must be added the inevitable slips and inaccuracies that even the best artists are prone to in live performance, as well as the inevitable “off” nights. When you are listening live these may be of little importance, but they can add up to a major irritant on repetition. All too often the result is at best routine and at worst a deeply disappointing experience.

For the keen collector however there is always the chance that even the most unpromising recording will turn out to be pure gold; a performance that takes wing and which captures the listener in its spell whatever its sonic or other limitations. The present discs offer just such a recording. Over fifty years old but with sound that, as restored by Paul Baily, is certainly tolerable if little more, it recalls what was obviously an immensely enjoyable evening. The audience at the time certainly enjoyed it – their applause and laughter is very obvious – and the performers clearly had them in the palm of their hands. Teresa Berganza and Luigi Alva made studio recordings of the work but here sound much freer and more communicative. The two basses were both experienced and justly praised performers in their roles and the young Josephine Veasey makes the most of Berta’s little aria. The only disappointing soloist is Rolando Panerai whose exaggerated and excessively free performance seems somewhat coarse in this company, but I have heard many worse and he is never less than lively and involved. What matters above all is the way in which the singers interact together and with the orchestra, and I suspect that this is largely due to the eloquent and sparkling conducting of Giulini. The deliciously pointed phrasing of the opening of the Overture alerts us to this and thereafter we are never disappointed.

There must be serious regret at the edition used, or rather, at the amount of the opera that is simply missing from the performance. The usual extensive theatre cuts made at that time are observed but they are added to. This would be disappointing at any time but even more so when the performance is so good.

This is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for a recording of the opera, so that the lack of a libretto or even a synopsis is not as serious as it would be otherwise. My personal favourites remain the versions conducted by Galliera with Callas and Gobbi and that conducted by Gui with de los Angeles and Bruscantini. They share the use of Luigi Alva, as does the present version, but above all each of them manages to bring out the very special character of the opera. I would not be without any of them, but I suspect that from now on it will be the present recording that I will play when I want to experience that thrill that comes from being present at an evening at this most delightful opera when almost everything goes right.

John Sheppard

Pure gold; a performance that takes wing and which captures the listener in its spell whatever its sonic or other limitations.