Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia
Not everyone will approve, but there are ways in which this brand-new super-budget recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia puts to shame just about every other version of the opera there has yet been. Those it may not please are specialist vocal collectors for whom Il barbiere is primarily a repository of vocal test pieces, a kind of musical Badminton. If, on the other hand, you regard Il barbiere (Rossini, ex-Beaumarchais) as a gloriously subversive music drama—vibrant, scurrilous, unstoppably vital—then the new set is guaranteed to give a great deal of pleasure.
Let me stress that this isn't an over-the-top, eye-rolling production that pays scant attention to the letter of Rossini's score. (For that, go to Leinsdorf's 1959 Metropolitan Opera recording with Merrill, Corena, Tozzi, and Roberta Peters as a pert soprano Rosina.) On the new Naxos set, the text—played absolutely complete—is that of Alberto Zedda's Critical Edition, an edition that does acknowledge the need for a certain amount of improvisatory freedom. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of the conducting of the brilliant German-born Will Humburg is his ability to wear his scholarship lightly. This is not one of those Urtext readings that serves up the music straight from the freezer, hygienically disembowelled and neatly trussed. It simply uses the Urtext as firm ground on which to pitch a truly living performance. (Gui does likewise in his mid-price 1963 Glyndebourne set, using his own pre-Zedda researches.)
'Performance' is the key word here. Humburg is described in the Naxos booklet as ''Conductor and Recitative Director''; and for once the recitatives really are part of the larger drama. The result is a meticulously produced, often very funny, brilliantly integrated performance that you will almost certainly find yourself listening to as a stage play—rather than an opera with eminently missable (often arbitrarily abbreviated) recitatives.
With a virtually all-Italian cast, the results are a revelation. Never before on record have I felt so strongly the erotic allure of the duet ''Dunque io son'', arising as it does here out of the brilliantly played teasing of Rosina by Figaro about her new admirer. Similarly, Don Basilio's Calumny aria, superbly sung by Franco de Grandis, a black-browed bass from Turin who was singing for Karajan, Muti and Abbado while still in his twenties. This takes on added character and colour from the massive sense of panic created by de Grandis and the admirable Dr Bartolo of Angelo Romero when Basilio comes in with news of Almaviva's arrival in town.
Then there are production details, many of them requested in the text, others freely improvised. Here the musicians really do tune up before Almaviva's ''Ecco ridente'', money audibly changes hands at various points in the drama, Almaviva can be heard kissing Dr Bartolo in the Act 1 finale. These details are sanctioned by the text. Equally, were he alive today, I am sure Rossini would be avidly notating Naxos's running 'door' joke. The range of sounds is astonishing, from the clump of oak slammed in anger, to the sweet song of Rosina's boudoir door, or the sad sour creak of one of Dr Bartolo's entries. Whoever improvised these sounds for Naxos during the sessions must be to the hinge-and-door what Paganini was to the violin.
All of which suggests production values (and skills) more usually associated with radio drama than with the sonic embalming usually favoured by the classical record industry. In this respect, the Naxos set breaks just about every rule in the embalmer's book—in particular the rule which states that no extraneous sound is admissable during the singing of an aria. During the opening bars of the Calumny aria Dr Bartolo is allowed to continue his panic-stricken mutterings; later, at its conclusion, Basilio pauses, panting with sadistic glee. There are a lot more noises-off from Dr Bartolo during Rosina's singing lesson in Act 2, funny and aptly timed. This is the scene in which the old boy is simultaneously suspicious of the music master and bored by the coloratura. I particularly like his muttered ''finalmente'' as the aria eventually finishes.
Yet, as I say, this is never cod Rossini. In the Act 2 elopement trio, Servile's Figaro is genuinely angry and impatient. Nor does Humburg ever allow musical values to suffer at the hands of stage business. For all Bartolo's evident disgruntlement, Rosina's aria is brilliantly executed by Sonia Ganassi, a wonderful young mezzo-soprano enviably possessed of stage presence and a first-rate vocal technique. Her account of ''Una voce poco'' is also very fine. (Typically, Humburg elides the diminuendo of the final chord of the aria into the rising arpeggio of the recitative that follows, music and text rendered seamless.)
Put on the first CD and it may be some time before the performance's special qualities begin to emerge. The Overture is done with evident relish, the playing of the Failoni Chamber Orchestra (a group from within the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra) nothing if not articulate. The Mexican-born tenor Ramon Vargas gives us a virile account of ''Ecco ridente'' that is less an essay in the bel canto style, more a down payment on a performance that establishes Almaviva as a red-blooded grandee who is going to outsmart all opposition. (Played like this, Almaviva has every right to his showpiece aria ''Cassa di piu resistere'' at the end of Act 2. Vargas brings it off superbly.) Similarly, though there have been more insinuating readings of Figaro's entrance aria (by Gobbi, for instance, on the famous Callas/Galliera set), the drama requires nothing more than the kind of clear, vibrant performance we have here from Roberto Servile.
In the end, Il barbiere is an ensemble piece distinguished, as Verdi observed, by the distinctive quality of its musical declamation. Humburg re-establishes these points in a quite remarkable way. Aided by a clear, forward recording, a sine qua non with musical comedy, the cast communicates the Rossini/Sterbini text—solo arias, ensembles, recitatives—with tremendous relish. They are never hustled by Humburg, nor are they spared: the stretta of the Act 1 finale is a model of hypertension and clarity. What we have here is a real conductor, no mere time-beater. He paces the music with a mixture of youthful daring, unswerving dramatic insight, and a genuinely musicianly feel for the infinitely subtle gearing of Rossini's rhythms. He directs the drama, not just the notes.
Drawbacks are few and far between. There are one or two rough edges technically. (Figaro's ''Numero quindici'' sounds slightly off-mike.) It would have been nice to have an English version of the libretto, but you can't have everything at rock-bottom prices and Naxos do provide an excellent track-by-track synopsis. Super-Scrooges might complain that 158 minutes of music could have been shoe-horned on to two CDs, but three CDs is a fair deal for a complete Il barbiere, and the layout is first-rate: Act 1 broken before Rosina's ''Una voce poco fa'', Act 2 complete on the third disc.
Last September AB was bowled over by the new super-bargain Naxos set of Wagner's Der fliegende Hollander ''virtually [jumping] to the top of the pile in a single leap''. This Il barbiere does likewise. As operatic pole-vaulters, Naxos are now clearly in the Olympic class.'