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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia [120:26]
Figaro - Riccardo Stracciari (baritone)
Il Conte Almaviva - Dino Borgioli (tenor)
Rosina - Mercedes Capsir (soprano)
Dr. Bartolo - Salvatore Baccaloni (bass)
Don 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, Milan
Appendix: A un dottor della mi sorte [4:32]
Salvatore Baccaloni (bass), orchestra / Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 6 February 1941, Liederkranz Hall, New York City. Mono
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO161 [2 CDs: 125:49]

This was the third complete recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia – or at least, sort of complete at two hours, as subsequent recordings which including absolutely everything Rossini wrote run to over half an hour longer than this, but the essentials are here - it even includes Berta’s arietta – and its fleetness might be also be the result of the speed and fluency with which the singers deliver the stretto and patter passages and the recitativo (accompanied by an egregious and horribly tuned-flat piano). The whole thing chugs along at a tremendous lick. It is the companion piece to the Rigoletto made for Columbia in 1929 with the same three principal singers, conductor and orchestra.

Richard Osborne in “Opera on Record” published in 1979 calls this recording “a near-disaster. All vestiges of a Rossini style seem to have vanished. A piano accompanies the recitatives, the note values are abused, and none of the principals stays in the saddle long once Rossini launches him or her into a round of more or less difficult fioratura. The Rosina, Mercedes Capsir, is deft and silly, the Count is undistinguished, the bass dull. Nor does Riccardo Stracciari, then in the twilight of his career, greatly distinguish himself. No longer able to cope with Rossini’s virtuoso writing for Figaro, he indulges in vocal skips, intrusive cackles and frequent changes of pace to the point where the reading finally parodies itself.”

So is this recording as bad as Osborne claims? He is a respected biographer and critic of Rossini so one might assume that there must be some basis of truth in his dismissal of this vintage account, but the condemnation is too extreme to be credible or objective. Stracciari was only fifty-four at the time and hardly in his “twilight” years, although it is true that he had already been singing professionally for thirty years, having performed Figaro around a thousand times; indeed, he sang until 1944, a remarkable feat considering the high tessitura of roles such as Figaro and Rigoletto and the different demands they make on the baritone voice.

However, let’s skirt the singing issue for the time being and first consider the sound and conducting. As I often remark, a studio recording from the early electronic period is often as acceptable as, say, a live, pre-stereo recording from the 50’s on magnetic tape, especially when it is well remastered from good sources, as here by Mark Obert-Thorn. Balances are fine, distortion minimal and everything is crystal clear with a minimum of background noise. I think Molajoli’s conducting is typically idiomatic allowing for the interpretative licence of an era rather more tolerant of what would no doubt be considered wilful indulgence by straitlaced purists of a more modern age. It is indeed a performance redolent of the spirit of that age and highly enjoyable, too.

Pace Mr Osborne, I think lyric tenor Borgioli has a very attractive, elegant voice and is indeed distinguished; his divisions are neat and his ornamentations delightful; the “pulling about” of tempi and distortion of note values are done for expressive effect and are…well, effectively expressive. Stracciari makes his entrance with the Úlan and confidence of a man who knew just what to do with the role and still had the voice to deliver it. His inimitably rich, concentrated tones and crystalline diction are a joy and as far as I am concerned, he animates the text with wit and humour. His top notes are wholly intact and his agility in coloratura unimpaired; make comparison on YouTube with the similarly great Apollo Granforte’s delivery of the famous Largo recorded on film three years later and you will hear a similar freedom and exuberance. It is true that I prefer a mezzo-soprano as Rosina to Capsir’s and as there is a touch of the tweety-bird about her characterisation and vocalisation she is for me the least satisfying element here, but how such accomplished singing could be described as “silly” escapes me – although it is certainly deft. If you have to have a soprano Rosina, she is excellent. A little novelty is that in the music lesson she sings her own adaptation of Mozart’s Variations on “Je suis Lindor”, appropriate because it was itself composed by Antoine-Laurent Baudron for Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de SÚville. Vincenzo Bettoni as Basilio has a rich, sonorous bass and celebrated buffo baritone Baccaloni makes a lively, amusing Bartolo. According to the practice of the time, the easier – and in truth, rather dull - “Manca un foglio” was substituted for his original aria but in compensation that is included as an appendix in the form of Baccaloni’s spirited later recording of it. The supporting cast and chorus are uniformly pleasing.

In short, as an operaphile of forty years’ standing with a devotion to fine singing, I honestly haven’t a clue what Osborne was talking about; this is a gem of a historical recording.

Ralph Moore

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