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Francisco BARBIERI (1823-1894)
El barberillo de Lavapies (1874)
Bruce Boyce (baritone): Maria Perilli (soprano): Marjorie Westbury (soprano): Thomas Round (tenor): Ian Wallace (bass-baritone): Norman Lumsden (bass): Andrew Gold (tenor): Ronald Evans (tenor)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/BBC Chorus/Stanford Robinson
rec. February 1954, BBC recording studios, London
No texts
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9115 [32:17 + 51:51]

This is one of a number of off-air broadcast items from the Itter collection put out by Cameo Classics. Recorded on acetate discs the transfers have been carefully produced and have proved highly successful in capturing this 1954 mono BBC production presided over by Stanford Robinson.

El barberillo de Lavapies is a zarzuela in three acts composed in 1874 by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri. The libretto, by Luis Mariano de Larra, was translated into an English version by the work’s producer, Geoffrey Dunn. Interestingly for those who admire his music, Roberto Gerhard was drafted in by the BBC to produce a new orchestration of the work. I’m indebted to the booklet for the information that he modernised some rhythms and ‘sweetened’ harmonies, adding counterpoint, and excising one brief orchestral interlude.

The work’s title inevitably evokes The Barber of Seville and proved to be a huge success at its premiere in Madrid, not least because the central character represented an anti-authoritarian, politically liberal position. Rooted in Franco-Italian music though it is, its plot owes something to the Marriage of Figaro – the triumph of the servants, in a nutshell – though there is plenty of buffo fun to be had at the expense of the cartoonish police force. You won’t find the libretto or any texts in the booklet though you will find a synopsis. This shouldn’t worry English speakers, as almost everything is crystal clear thanks to the clarity of articulation of all the singers, from top to bottom.

There is a creditable amount of stage business – ribald chatter, gossipy promenades – in the opening scene and the close-up, occasionally raw-sounding percussion demonstrates the fidelity of the recording. There are plenty of arias, duets, ensembles, a Seguidilla or two, a quartet, choruses and much besides in this tuneful, vivid work, written in the best zarzuela tradition. Fortunately, too, the text is put across with a certain amount of gusto by the singers – there’s nothing sticky or static about this, it’s forward-moving, quick-witted and engaging. Foremost among them in this respect is the Canadian Bruce Boyce, who takes the starring role. He is joined by the love interest, Maria Perilli, a coquettish seamstress, whose name seems authentically Roman but who was actually born in Worthing on England’s south coast – admittedly to Italian parents.

True, the dialogue is very much of its time and will strike most, I suppose, as ‘very English’ – but, then, how could it not be? - and a not-so-distant cousin of elements to be found in G & S. But it also affords plenty of room for innocent characterisation, for a truly tongue-twisting Act I trio for soprano Marjorie Westbury, Perilli and Boyce and – Gerhard’s doing, this – a saucy interpolation from Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat in the first act’s raucous finale.

There are other ardent singers to be admired – notably tenor Thomas Round and, as the gruff Chief of Police, commanding bass Norman Lumsden – for whom both Britten and Walton wrote important roles - and who achieved fame later in life for a TV advert (the ‘Fly Fishing by JR Hartley’ one) but who had also acted in Clint Eastwood’s film White Hunter, Black Heart. Ian Wallace takes the role of Don Juan, which must have appealed to him. There are plenty of incidental felicities, from whimsical police choruses to an Act III song about linnets.

Given Gerhard’s re-orchestrations, one brief excision, and the Falla interpolation and given, of course, the English translation and very local ethos, this is very much zarzuela-in-translation. But it preserves a vibrant slice of life which must have served a happy musical and stylistic function for the listening audience in 1954.

Jonathan Woolf
 



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