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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Il barbiere di Siviglia
Il Conte d’Almaviva – Paolo Barbacini (tenor)
Bartolo – Enzo Dara (bass)
Rosina – Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano)
Figaro – Leo Nucci (baritone)
Basilio – Samuel Ramey (bass)
Barta – Raquel Pierotti (mezzo-soprano)
Fiorello – Simone Alaimo (baritone)
Ambrogio – Carlo Folcia (bass)
An officer – Silvestro Sammaritano (bass)
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 1982, Centro Telecinematografico, Milan
Synopsis in English, French and German SONY 19075811272 [3 CDs: 155:58]
It is almost unbelievable that this recording was made more than 35 years ago! I never bought it when it was new – due to some negative reviews I read – nor was I tempted when it was reissued some years ago, but when it appeared again in its – at least – third incarnation, I couldn’t withstand the opportunity.
On paper it seems very promising. It was recorded at La Scala, Milan, under Riccardo Chailly who, Milan born, became assistant to Claudio Abbado at the house at age 20 and made his conducting debut there in 1978, when he was 25. Shortly after that he made his recording debut with Massenet’s Werther (for Deutsche Grammophon) which was the start of an intense recording career. He was still not yet 30 when this Barbiere was set down. The soloists – almost all of them – were in their heydays in the front line and appeared in the big opera houses, and they were renowned Rossinians.
The recorded sound, I could establish from the overture, is full and atmospheric, and when the proceedings begin that early morning in Seville, I find a natural balance between singers and orchestra. There are some off stage effects well realised, some stage noises – doors opening and shut, Almaviva loudly knocks on the door, Figaro crashes things in Bartolo’s bathroom – and there is a wide stereo image.
Another valuable feature is that the score is absolutely complete; even the recitatives are performed in their entirety. The drawback – common for many reissues like this – is the absence of a libretto. The synopsis gives a general outline, but so many of the verbal felicities are lost. That is a pity. Many readers probably have librettos to other recordings but will probably experience the same nuisance as I did: there are cuts here and there and one soon loses one’s way.
So much for the framework. What about the execution? Chailly is today a leading authority when it comes to Rossini, but 35 years ago he already had this music in his veins, and this is a youthful reading, rhythmically alert and with fizz in the virtuoso ensembles – but still sensible tempos. Galliera, Gui, Abbado and Marriner are top-contenders in the CD-catalogues but Chailly certainly belongs in their company.
The first voice we hear after the overture is Fiorello, Almaviva’s servant, and though he is rather distant, halfway off-stage, he makes his mark. He turns out to be Simone Alaimo, then fairly early in his career but already singing leading roles in primarily bel canto repertoire, the title role in Don Pasquale for instance. The next one to appear is his master, Il Conte d’Almaviva, singing Ecco ridente. Paolo Barbacini is the least known of the singers on this set, and his recording career was relatively limited. The opening of the aria goes well, he has a beautiful voice, he can sing softly, but pretty soon he reveals his flaws: the tone hardens in the upper register and he has to press the voice, resulting in a rather gritty tone, far from bel canto smoothness and elegance. His coloratura isn’t flawless either, and all this is almost painfully obvious in the technically very challenging aria in the last scene, Cessa di piů resistere (CD 3 tr. 18). Interestingly he is better in the scenes where he isn’t Almaviva – the supposedly drunk soldier and the fake music-master Don Alonso. To his credit must also be said that he can be theatrically expressive, as in the duet with Figaro, All’ idea di quell metallo (CD 1 tr. 10) and he is lively in the recitatives.
Leo Nucci, born in 1942 and still at the time of writing (April 2018) active, has been one of the leading Verdi singers of his time, but he made his debut as Figaro in Barbiere in 1967 and I have always admired his Malatesta in Don Pasquale in the Muti recording. His Figaro here is strong and vital, technically good, utterly expressive but not always very elegant. But he has a rich pallet of vocal colours and this is a winning performance. The Factotum aria, the duets with Almaviva and Rosina and his vivacious recitatives are certainly on a par with his Malatesta.
Enzo Dara, who passed away in August 2017 aged 78, was one of the great basses during a long and successful career and Doctor Bartolo was probably his greatest role assumption. He was strong and sonorous and had a superb sense for timing, so important for a buffo. His enunciation was crystal clear and he never went over the top as some buffos can do. All his best qualities can be savoured in A un dottor della mia sorte (CD 2 tr. 6) where not least his patter singing is fabulous. And his bass colleague Samuel Ramey as the music-master Basilio delivers another highlight in La calunnia (CD 2 tr. 2), the aria where he so graphically describes in a great crescendo how the slander spreads. A marvellous voice he had, and here at the height of his powers he impresses through the beauty of tone, the steadiness, the evenness of sound from top to bottom and the brilliant and effortless top notes. He has been accused of being rather monochrome and there is a limited supply of vocal colours, but considering his many virtues it is churlish to complain.
Raquel Pierotti is a charming Berta, who actually is allotted more space than in most other performances, but the real star is Marilyn Horne as Rosina. Considering that she was in her late forties when this recording was made, her tone is surprisingly girlish, even though a mezzo-soprano hasn’t the natural prerequisites for youngsters. She at once knocks the listeners out with her official first entrance – she has been heard fleetingly a couple of times already – with Una voce poco fa (CD 1 tr. 12). Here is a true bel canto artist with fluent coloratura, elegance and ability to caress the phrases. Moreover she embellishes her solos lavishly but stylishly, which obviously was what the audiences expected in the good old days. Contro un cor in her singing lesson (CD 3 tr. 4) is a highlight in that respect.
Well, what is the sum of all this? I listed some favourite recordings above and can add the Naxos recording under Will Humburg as a further recommendation, not least for its great theatricality. The drawback with this issue is the lack of libretto and the singing of Almaviva, which isn’t as ingratiating as one could wish. But he is never less than acceptable and with the other four main characters in excellent form, this issue should win admirers among even the most discriminating connoisseurs.