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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
Figaro – Riccardo Stracciari (baritone)
Rosina – Mercedes Capsir (soprano)
Il Conte d’Almaviva – Dino Borgioli (tenor)
Bartolo – Salvatore Baccaloni (bass)
Basilio – Vincenzo Bettoni (bass)
Berta – Cesira Ferrari (soprano)
Fiorello – Attilio Bordonali (baritone)
An Officer – Aristide Baracchi (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Lorenzo Molajoli
rec. 21 November 1927 (Overture) & 24 June-5 July 1929 in Milan
First issued on Italian Columbia D 14564/79.
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO161 [64:49 + 60:59]

This is without doubt one of the most legendary opera recordings of the inter-war years – to be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Heger’s Rosenkavalier and Bruno Walter’s Walküre act I and a few others. It has far too long been unavailable and it is a real blessing that Pristine now can offer it in vastly superior sound – and at the same time announce that the companion recording, Rigoletto, made the following year and with the same conductor and the same three principal singers, is due before long. Of all the great Italian baritones of the first half of the previous century, Riccardo Stracciari must be ranked among the three or four top contenders and for his all-round excellence he probably surpasses them all. Born in 1875, two years younger than Caruso, Stracciari was already 54 when this recording was made, but his vocal resources were undiminished and his experience (he is supposed to have sung Figaro 1000 times) as actor made him ideal for this role. His vocal condition actually allowed him to pursue his international career until 1944, when he was approaching 70. He is of course the star of the recording but his co-singers are all in the top league and there are few recordings of Barbiere that can compete with the present one when it comes to vocal excellence. The recorded sound is of course another matter, and a recording made 90 years ago can hardly compete with a state-of-the-art recording made yesteryear. However Mark Obert-Thorn has worked wonders with the old shellacs and no one with a serious interest in good opera singing should feel discouraged from acquiring the set on sonic grounds. Both the orchestra and the voices leap out of the speakers with surprising clarity, there is no lack instrumental details and though the dynamic range is more limited than on a present-day recording the sound is full and meaty. There are still a couple of problems that Mark Obert-Thorn discusses at some length in his liner notes. The first is the piano, which accompanies the secco recitatives. It is tuned much lower than the orchestra, which can lead to some ‘jarring transitions’. Obert-Thorn chose to leave these differences as they were, and it didn’t bother me an iota. The other problem is the dry acoustics of the small studio, but he didn’t want to add artificial reverberation, ‘so as not to muffle the rapid-fire delivery of the recitatives.’

With these limitations in mind – and they are easy to overlook – we can concentrate on the music making. The orchestra – on the original labels named Milan Symphony Orchestra, but it is the La Scala forces – is conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli, who until quite recently was thought to be a pseudonym for another conductor. It was even thought that it could have been Toscanini. But Molajoli existed, though he worked in provincial theatres in Italy and also in the Americas and South Africa. But between 1928 and 1932 he was Columbia’s house conductor and recorded no less than twenty complete or abridged operas. And there is no doubt that he is a conductor who knows his trade. There is nothing quirky about his tempos and he is lenient to the singers who are given time to caress a phrase a little extra – with wonderful results. The overture – recorded separately a year and a half before the opera proper – is springy and bodes well for what is to follow. The first character we encounter when the curtain is raised is Fiorello and he is sung with beautiful tone and elegant delivery by Attilio Bordonali. Then Il Conte d’Almaviva appears and he is Dino Borgioli, one of the finest tenore di grazia of the 20s and 30s. Ecco ridente is elegantly embellished and his diminuendos are almost otherworldly. Stracciari’s Largo al factotum is sung with such facility that one could believe he is fresh from his high school training, and he caresses the phrases and colours his voice so tellingly. His patter singing is superb and his rapid secco recitatives are so fluent that only a native Italian could produce. Se il mio nome is marvellously sung with half voice and embellishments – tastefully done. In the duet All’ idea di quell metallo both singers deliver bel canto singing of the highest order. In scene 2 we meet Rosina in Una voce poco fa. Mercedes Capsir has a lovely voice and her coloratura is excellent. Her voice sails off to the stars with glittering precision. And her final note – Wow! Vincenzo Bettoni is a name that today is largely forgotten but the way he sings Basilio’s La calunnia he should certainly be well remembered. Figaro and Rosina in duet, Dunque io son, is another highlight. Then comes a surprise. Bartolo’s A un dottor della mia sorte is replaced by Manca un foglio, written by Pietro Romani for a production in Florence. It is nice to hear and Baccaloni sings it with his usual verve, but it can’t supplant the original, which however Obert-Thorn has included as a bonus track with Salvatore Baccaloni recorded a dozen years later in New York, and there he is really in his element. He was probably the leading buffo of his generation and spent the later part of his career at the Metropolitan Opera from 1940 until his very last performance in 1965, aged 65, which was as Bartolo, and that was also the role he debuted in when he was 22.

The conversational scene with the disguised Lindoro is full of life – these singers could make their characters alive.

In the second act there is another surprise. Rosina’s ‘Lesson scene’ is another insert: an adaptation Capsir made of Mozart’s 12 Variations on ‘Je suis Lindor’¸K 354 which was based on a theme composed by Antoine-Laurent Baudron for Beaumarchais’ Le Barbiere de Séville. Again she is lovely in her coloratura with pin-point articulation of the top notes.

To sum this up: this is certainly one of the greatest recordings of Il barbiere di Siviglia, and I urge readers to invest in it, irrespective of how many recordings they already have. No one will regret the purchase!

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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