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Best Wishes from Cecilia Bartoli
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia
Il Turco in Italia

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni

ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109177 [3 discs: 485:00]

Arthaus Musik seems to have set out to take the heat out of the pricing of opera on Blu-ray and DVD. This is done by re-packaging, at a reasonable price, recordings from ten or more years back. It first dipped its corporate finger in the water with their Legendary Performances. These were presented in cardboard slipcases and before that there were multi-buy boxed sets of mixed-date recordings. Some of these, as is one in this trio, are in the old 4:3 aspect. The viewer has to decide whether to have black bands down the side or use the aspect ratio of the TV to fill the screen, putting up with the size distortions involved. For the price and the amount of opera you get with this collection, with only one of the works in 4:3, that may be a tolerable state of affairs for many building a collection or just interested in past performances at a reasonable price. That might be acceptable if it were the only downside of the 'stack it high and sell it cheap' philosophy reflected in the Best Wishes series. This is the second such set to come my way: see review of Pavarotti collection. The downside, however, includes the complete lack of any supporting leaflet listing chapters or full casts or stage team in some cases. I have tried to rectify this by research on the web, not always to my complete satisfaction. I have done my best to fill in what I consider to be the basic details of a performance and its presentation. Starting with the earliest recording I now give my impressions.

Il barbiere di Siviglia
It is many years since I first saw this production in video format. In the meantime I have reviewed several other recordings including half a dozen on DVD and Blu-ray. Some of that latter total have included idiosyncratic producer concepts and visual realisations, some finding the spirit of Rossini’s sparkling creation, others missing by a mile. The present production by Michael Hampe with sets by Ezio Frigerio is traditional with a capital T. The opening scene is the outside of Bartolo’s home with the balcony from which Rosina, dropping notes, flirts with an unknown man, rising from a pocket-size square. The small stage of the tiny, but delightful, rococo theatre (1752) that houses the Schwetzingen Festival, and of which we get a brief glimpse along with the applause at the end of scenes and acts, has no room for Figaro’s shop. The second scene and the rest of the opera is set in the inside of Bartolo’s house with the balcony clearly seen through the window. This is a view which is vitally important as Figaro and Almaviva plan to enable Rosina to escape her lascivious guardian who has eyes on her despite the age difference. The set and the production proceed with a natural flow that is a delight in every respect. Not only is the singing notably good in nearly every way, the whole performance is kept on an even keel, and with brio and zip, by Gabrielle Ferro on the rostrum. As to the singing, much focus is on Bartoli as Rosina in one of her earliest stage assumptions caught on video. It is contemporaneous with her earliest studio recording for Decca of Rossini arias conducted by Giuseppe Patanč (review). In that review I linked Bartoli’s name with that of Marilyn Horne, the distinguished American mezzo who was outstanding in the Rossini repertoire. In listening once more to Bartoli’s Rosina, Horne’s name again came to mind with the rich lower tones of the former well in evidence. Add Bartoli’s coloratura facility, her trim figure, facial as well as vocal acting and this is one of her very finest stage performances. My thoughts were that had she pursued this fach she would have been the natural successor to Horne in Rossini's great dramatic mezzo roles. As it is she took her voice upwards into the neo-soprano repertoire represented by her performances of Susanna in Mozart’s Figaro, ceding dramatic Rossini to Daniela Barcelona. As Rosina’s suitor, David Kuebler’s tenor is rather monochrome and has something of an edge to it. His voice lacks the gracious phrasing and heady vocal mellifluousness of the likes of Gimenez or Araiza let alone Alva in the role around that time. Gino Quilico as Figaro is commendable in both his sung and acted portrayal. Carlos Feller as Bartolo blusters occasionally, as the old man might well have justifiably done given the circumstances. Robert Lloyd’s smarmy Basilio is finished to perfection by vocal sonority. Edith Kertész-Gabry (1927-2012) as Berta sings her aria well.   More recent issues, such as that featuring Juan Diego Florez, are more complete, particularly in the inclusion of the long second act aria for Almaviva, Cessa di piu resister (review).

Don Giovanni
At least in this 2001 production Bartoli isn’t the only class vocal act, good as she is, with her flashing eyes and facial expressions fully in tune with the action. Whenever she is on stage you notice her. It is the same with all truly great artists and something I noted when I first saw the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff. Whenever he was on stage ones eyes were drawn to him and his actions. So it is with Bartoli as her flashing eyes are even evident behind a mask. It is to do with the way that such singers contribute and involve themselves totally in the stage action as well as the true greatness of their vocal skills. At least in this performance, she is not alone in her quality but is joined by Rodney Gilfry as Don Giovanni and László Polgár as a rather seedy Leporello. The way the two change the tone and weight of their voices as they interchange cloaks and pretend to be the other is excellent operatic artistry. Gilfry loses out in his Champagne Aria as Harnoncourt takes it too fast.

The downsides of the recording are the idiosyncrasies and lack of cohesion in the production as well as some mediocre singing from the other principals. The staging of the statue of the Commendatore at Giovanni’s supper is appallingly poor. Other opportunities to clarify or illuminate Mozart’s score go begging, particularly the scenes involving Zerlina and Masetto.
Il Turco in Italia
The story of the opera is one of the more complex of Rossini’s opera buffa. The libretto by Felice Romani concerns Fiorilla, the capricious and flighty wife of an elderly husband, Geronio. She puts herself around male company in general and has in tow an ardent admirer, Narciso. Fiorilla takes a fancy to Selim, a Turkish Prince who arrives in Italy to survey the local ladies and who quickly becomes besotted with her. Selim has already spurned his long-time lover Zaida who is heartbroken and pursues him. The narrative is completed by the fact that a poet, Prosdocimo, looking for a story for his next play, sees in the circumstances of the various liaisons the perfect situation for his plot, which he helps along from time to time. All ends well with Fiorilla duly contrite about her behaviour and Selim and Zaide back together. The poet has his plot and only Narciso seems left in the air, his passion unsated.

The enjoyments of this 2002 Zurich performance are, if I am blunt, restricted to Bartoli’s sparkling performance in her first assumption of the role of Fiorilla. Her singing and acting are outstanding. Her presence illuminates the stage in a manner to match her singing in all its diversity and coloratura skill. However, whereas in the Don Giovanni above where her quality is matched by at least two others, in the case of this Il Turco in Italia she stands alone. The name of Ruggero Raimondi will stand out to many. Well, he looks and to a degree, sounds his age. How a flighty bird like Fiorilla would fall big-time for an ancient roué belies belief, even after he has been spruced up and a neat hairpiece applied. His acting is excellent but he cannot disguise his age in appearance or vocal resource. They bear no comparison with his assumptions in this repertoire in the then previous two or so decades.

The production is quirky, but colourful, whilst doing little to illuminate the story. The Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House respond to Franz Welser-Möst's alert baton in a wholly sympathetic and Rossinian manner.

Bartoli is a pleasure to see and hear throughout these three operas but too often is partnered by mediocrity.

Robert J Farr
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - Melodramma Buffa in two acts (1816)
Count Almaviva, in love with Rosina – David Kuebler (tenor)
Figaro, a barber and general factotum - Gino Quilico (baritone)
Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina – Carlos Feller (buffa baritone)
Rosina, ward of Bartolo – Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo)
Basilio, a singing teacher – Robert Lloyd (bass)
Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper – Edith Kertész-Gabry (soprano)
Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva – Klaus Bruch (baritone)
Choir of Cologne City Opera
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gabriele Ferro
rec. live, Schwetzingen SWR Festival, 1988
Stage Director: Michael Hampe
Set Designer: Ezio Frigerio
Costume Designer: Mauro Pagano
Television Director: Claus Viller
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, French, German, Spanish
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni - Dramma giocoso in two acts K527 (1787)
Don Giovanni - Rodney Gilfry (baritone)
Leporello - László Polgár (bass-baritone)
Don Ottavio - Roberto Saccŕ (tenor)
Masetto - Oliver Widmer (baritone)
Elvira - Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo)
Zerlina - Liliana Nikiteanu (soprano) Commendatore - Matti Salminen (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Stage director: Jürgen Flimm
rec. Zurich Opera House, 2001
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound formats: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish

Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il Turco in Italia - Dramma buffo in two acts (1814)
Selim, a womanising Turkish Prince captivated by Fiorilla – Ruggero Raimondi (bass)
Fiorilla, capricious wife of Don Geronio – Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo)
Geronio, elderly husband of Fiorilla – Paolo Rumetz (baritone)
Don Narciso, admirer of Fiorilla – Reinaldo Macias (tenor)
Prosdocimo, a poet and friend of Geronio – (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of Zurich Opera House/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. Zurich Opera House, 2002
Stage Director: Cesare Lievi
Picture format: Aspect 16:9
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo; DTS 5.1
Subtitles: Italian (original language), German, English, French, Spanish



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