Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia
It is 21 years since the appearance on LP of Claudio Abbado's earlier DG recording of Rossini's Il barbiere. It was the first recording of the opera to use Alberto Zedda's critical edition of the score and it remains perhaps the best of the extant sets to use that edition. That said, Vittorio Gui had also worked assiduously on the text of the opera. The edition he recorded for HMV in 1962 presents us with a generally clean text, and a reasonably full one. (The recording is competitively packaged nowadays on two mid-price EMI CDs or on a pair of bargain-priced Classics for Pleasure cassettes: (Cassette) TC-CFPD4704, 9/87.) It is also arguable that Gui had the better cast with Sesto Bruscantini as a more spontaneous and Italianate Figaro than Abbado's Hermann Prey.
Abbado's new recording, made in studio sessions earlier this year in Ferrara's Teatro Comunale, proves to be something of a servant with two masters. In one sense, it is an Abbado re-make using an even fuller text than before. Equally, it is a commercial property guilefully cast to attract the maximum attention in an over-crowded market.
The two most potentially eccentric ploys— Placido Domingo as Figaro and Kathleen Battle as Rosina—work rather well. It is difficult to make out a case for a soprano Rosina. Rossini wrote the role for his favourite voice-type, the mezzo-soprano. We don't have chapter and verse why he did this but it was almost certainly aimed at bringing rich shadings to the characterization. (In La Cenerentola the higher-lying roles go to the bird-brained ugly sisters.) One thing is certain: Rosina is no adolescent shrew; though this is what she often became in days gone by when soubrettes appropriated the role. (On record, Roberta Peters is a fairly good example on Leinsdorf's three-CD mid-price 1959 RCA set.)
Fortunately, as well as possessing a fabulously fluent coloratura technique, Kathleen Battle also has richer, smokier tones in her voice. Her Rosina is sexually alluring, agile and ingratiating, but never vapid. Abbado doesn't allow transpositions of key. Raimondi sings the Calumny Aria in D (with wonderfully waspish quiet colourings but, alas, no longer with genuine cannon-charges of tone at the climaxes) and Battle sings ''Una poco voce fa'' in E. (Peters on RCA sings it up a tone in F.) That is not to say that there aren't dozens of small adjustments and occasional octave lifts in Battle's performance. Some of these falsify Rossini's textural colourings; and then one longs for the authentic touch of a Berganza or a Callas (with Gobbi, Alva and Galliera on two EMI CDs). Rarely, though, does Battle seem out of sorts with the role. Only one passage seriously worried me. The mock-pathos in the Act 1 finale of Rosina's ''Sempre un'istoria'' is oddly charmless as Battle delivers it with various pert soprano adjustments.
Domingo's Figaro reveals the astonishing craft and natural musicianship of this great singer. It is in many respects a masterly performance; yet in the last analysis the whole idea is subverted by the casting of a curiously baritonal tenore di grazia as Almaviva. In the opening recitatives Frank Lopardo often sounds like Figaro, whilst Domingo sounds like the ardent aristocratic Almaviva. In the Act 1 duetto ''All'idea'' Domingo's Figaro is a more patrician figure than Lopardo's somewhat plebeian Count. Domingo the irrepressible lover surfaces again in the duet with Rosina. Lopardo's Almaviva is a decent enough performance (he gives us a memorably whinging music-master in Act 2) but he has been miscast. But, then, who could have sung Almaviva to Domingo's Figaro? Pavarotti, perhaps. But who else?
Lucio Gallo's furtive, dapper, inwardly angry Dr Bartolo is as much a triumph of guileful characterization as it is of high-wire virtuoso musicianship. Indeed, the virtuosity of the pattersinging is one of the set's most remarkable features. In almost every instance the opening up of familiar theatre cuts in patter sequences extends our pleasure as much as it must have tasted the stamina of the cast during the sessions.
In all this, Abbado's experience proves crucial. But, then, he was always very good at controlling Rossini ensembles. What we have from him on this latest set is an entirely new sense of the inner detail of Rossini's score. More than ever, he seems willing to chance his arm with Rossini in a way he rarely does with, say, a Beethoven symphony. (The worlds are not entirely remote from one another. Rossini's Act 1 finale and Beethoven's Eighth Symphony are stars in the same constellation.) Certainly, it is difficult to imagine a recording of Il barbiere—unless it is Gui's—that is better conducted. Abbado has always had a fine ear for Rossini's texturing and a keen sense of rhythm, to which are now added relish, imagination and a willingness to live dangerously. In all this the players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are his fearless confederates.
The Ferrara recording is right for Rossini, never cramped but sharp-edged and immediate. There is more 'production' than you sometimes get from DG, most of it effective, though the yawning and sneezing recitative (Rossini not daring to challenge Paisiello's witty ensemble at this juncture) is rather tame. As with several rival sets, one is occasionally aware of a complex patchwork of takes that hasn't made for entirely seamless editing.
The text is one of the fullest we have had on record, though this is not all gain. Even with some cuts remaining in the recitatives, what we have can seem interminable. (The recitatives between Figaro's entrance aria and Almaviva's ''Se il mio nome'' last nigh on seven minutes.) Abbado now reinstates the Count's final aria ''Cessa di piu resistere''; the opera can do without it, but it was part of the first performances and so its inclusion is justified. I am much less certain about the inclusion of an extra Act 2 scena and aria for Rosina that Rossini may have written for Josephine Mainvielle-Fodor in 1819. Among other things, it adds seven minutes to CD 2 and forces DG into a catastrophic disc change four minutes into the Act 1 finale. So shame-faced are they about the change, they actually provide an overlap, the same chords that abruptly end CD 1 cropping up again at the start of CD 2.
Miscalculations like this—a great movement broken up to accommodate a bauble—and fuzzy thinking on the casting of Almaviva, Basilio and to a lesser extent Rosina, tend to compromise what is in many ways a brilliant set. As it is, Gui's Glyndebourne recording remains the best library choice, with the foreshortened Galliera set, featuring Callas and Gobbi, also a necessary acquisition.'