Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia
This is the most stylish and engaging account of Il barbiere to have appeared on record since the famous de los Angeles/Bruscantini set recorded by HMV with Glyndebourne forces in 1962. There the orchestra, Beecham-trained and Gui-led, was the RPO; here, making a rare but welcome appearance in an opera recording, it is the comparably stylish Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The ASMF has already shown itself to be a front-rank Rossini ensemble in its integral recording of the overtures (Philips 6768 064, 10/80). If the new recording of the overtures is a degree or so less trenchant than the old, what follows is a consistent delight musically and theatrically. Apart from a gabbled Allegro vivace midway through Dr Bartolo's aria, this is as pointed and sure-footed an account of the score as you could hope to hear, a reading which entirely belies the much-publicized fact that this is Neville Marriner's operatic debut on record. Played as it is here, with a fine overall line and a wealth of instrumental detail dancing attendance on the drama, the Act 1 finale is fit to be ranked with the Act 2 denouements of Mozart's Figaro and Verdi's Falstaff.
Quite how the producer, in duets, ensembles and recitatives, created so live a sense of theatre in so essentially unconvivial a place as Watford Town Hall north west of London must for ever remain a mystery; there is here a real and (away from the privileged domains of Sussex and Kent) rare sense of the delighted interplay of character: a tribute, in the first place, to the degree to which Thomas Allen, Francisco Araiza, Domenico Trimarchi, Agnes Baltsa, Robert Lloyd and their fellows are inside their roles musically and dramatically.
There is no vulgar horseplay in the recording; the decorum of the ottocento style is closely noted; but equally there is nothing slavish or literal about the way in which Rossini's, and Beaumarchais's, comic felicities have been realized. The text is Zedda, more or less. Robert Lloyd takes the Calumny Aria in C (D is the 'authentic' key), rightly so, for his is a magnificent bass voice. It's a grand characterization, very much in the Chaliapin style, though surer of pitch than the great man generally was. Lloyd treats the text's scabrous onomatopoeia with abundant relish whilst the orchestra seeths and fulminates below. The climax on ''colpo di cannone'' is a resounding one, Lloyd's voice and the splendidly placed bass drum making an unforgettable ensemble.
If that is a representative highlight, Thomas Allen's Figaro and Francisco Araiza's Count bring out the opera's virility, its peculiarly masculine strength. (Agnes Baltsa is by turns cunning, charming, and passionate; but this is a man's world, one feels, full of an ardour and energy which she complements but never initiates.) Allen has a vivid sense of character and a brilliant technique. The ''Largo'' is a tour de force, and not only in the stretto; earlier there is as much verbal pointing as you'll find in Gobbi's performance (HMV/galliera) or Bruscantini's (HMV/Gui), alongside an animal magnetism which had me briefly wondering (here and in ''Dunque io son'' where Allen is marvellously deft) why this Rosina wasn't as taken by Figaro as the Count. Allen also has a ripe sense of comedy and a nice sense of timing; the syncopated candle-snuffing in the final vaudeville is a typical small felicity.
Araiza is similarly compelling. Technically he is first-rate. His divisions are unusually bright and clean (though rapid triplets tend to go unshaded), the top (including some flashy cadences) true. He gives us the whole role, with no cuts in the cabalettas and with the big Act 2 scene, usually omitted and invariably muffed when included, shaped in a way which is both musically vivid and dramatically right, rounding out Araiza's portrait of an aristocrat distinguished by his ability to dominate and dispel mere domestic imbroglio. Equally, Araiza can be confiding, and funny. His whining music-master (shades of Isacco in La gazza ladra) is a delight, right down to an unscripted attempt at a reprise of ''Pace e gioia'' at the end of the scene, cut off by a petulant ''Basta!'' from the excellent Bartolo, Domenico Trimarchi. Baltsa's Rosina lies somewhere between Victoria de los Angeles's charm (HMV/Gui) and Maria Callas's mettlesome minx in the famous HMV set under Galliera. Baltsa, too, is infected by the set's general liveliness: witness the delighted gurgle of joy which escapes from her at the news of the Count's intentions.
Recitatives, edited down here and there, are very alert, theatrically pointed; and Nicholas Kramer's accompaniments on a sweet-sounding fortepiano are an added pleasure. Like the HMV engineers on the Gui set, Philips have preferred a dryish, intimate acoustic; I confess I like the small-theatre atmosphere this confers, the more so as it allows Marriner the opportunity to conduct with a tautness and vigour which a boomier, more open acoustic would disallow. Once or twice the editing appears to interrupt the dramatic flow. Would Basilio's recitative immediately after the Calumny Aria really be so poised? I doubt it. Similarly, Araiza's brilliant account, with chorus, of the cabaletta to ''Cessa di piu resistere'' sounds as if it is a product of a different session from the aria itself.
But these are minor quibbles, mere pinpricks by comparison with the endemic unstylishness of Chailly's recent set on CBS. With excellent choral work in the all important ensembles, and with a delightful Berta from Sally Burgess, this is undoubtedley one of the very best Barbers the gramophone has yet given us.'