Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia

  • (Il) Barbiere di Siviglia, '(The) Barber of Seville'
  • (Il) Barbiere di Siviglia, '(The) Barber of Seville'

In a letter written in March 1882, Verdi singled out a passage in Il barbiere di Siviglia that was in his view a model of musical declamation: ''In Il barbiere the phrase 'Signor giudizio per carita' is neither melody, nor harmony: it is the word declaimed, exact, true and musical... amen''. The phrase in question—an aside by Figaro to Almaviva—comes shortly after Figaro's rumbustious entrance into the Act 1 finale. On the 1964 Decca set, conducted by Varviso, Manuel Ausensi makes rather a meal of the aside; with Sesto Bruscantini on the 1962 Glyndebourne set it is dropped in just as it should be—singing, you might say, that is exact, true and musical... amen.
Perhaps it is a shade misleading to refer to this classic 1962 EMI recording as a ''Glyndebourne'' set. It has all the ingredients of a Glyndebourne production: notably the cast, the orchestra and chorus, and that doyen of Rossini conductors, Vittorio Gui. But as far as I can see there was no actual stage production of Il barbiere in 1962. Nor was the recording, for all its dryness and sharp-edged immediacy, actually made in Glyndebourne. It is a well-honed, conservatively staged stereophonic studio recording made by EMI in their Abbey Road Studio No. 1 at the conclusion of the 1962 Glyndebourne season.
The Decca recording was made in Naples, and though the orchestral sound is as immediate and beautifully focused as on the EMI set, the stage picture is bigger and more diffuse, with a wider range of special effects. Some of these, such as the hammering at the door at the start of the Act 1 finale, are otiose. But what is worse is the blur of space around the voices in several key scenes. It is nice to have a really rowdy riot near the start of the opera; but I am less happy when a singer like Ausensi (described by Philip Hope-Wallace as ''robust but unmercurial'') is made to sound even more blustery than he already is.
For all the astuteness of Varviso's conducting, the Decca set now has a slightly old-fashioned feel to it. Ghiaurov's Don Basilio goes back to the hammy old Chaliapin tradition (his ''La calun- nia'' is down a tone in C where Gui's Carlo Cava sings it in the original key of D); and Fernando Corena is—well, Fernando Corena: a fine old 'character' actor who makes contact with the letter of the score less often than one might wish. Gui's Dr Bartolo, Ian Wallace, is also a fine old character actor, but he is given much more space by Gui. This allows his portrait of Dr Bartolo to emerge as a classic compromise between the letter and the spirit of the part.
And here, indeed, we have the secret of Gui's way with Il barbiere. It is a performance so astutely paced that whilst the music bubbles and boils every word is crystal clear. This—to take up Verdi's point—is a wonderfully declaimed reading of the score, but also a beautifully timed one. Gui's steady tempos also allow the music to show its underlying toughness. We are reminded how radical a piece this was in 1816: a score whose initial popularity was with aficionados like Beethoven rather than with the public at large. Gui also secures characterful playing from the RPO, from the wind players in particular. Back in 1962, the RPO (still very much Beecham's creation) was the resident Glyndebourne orchestra.
There is not, perhaps, a great deal to chose between the two Almavivas; or between the two Spanish-born Rosinas. Berganza (Decca) could seem bland on record but this is a bubblier performance than I had remembered. Where Victoria de los Angeles is so memorable is in the beauty of her singing and the originality of the reading. She is much less of a virago in this role than her famous Spanish predecessor Conchita Supervia; and less of a virago than Callas with Galliera on EMI. I have never heard a Rosina who manages to be both as guileful and as charming as de los Angeles. Team her up with the incomparable Sesto Bruscantini and, in something like the nodal Act 1 duet ''Dunque io son'', you have musical and dramatic perfection.
There are one or two tiny cuts in the recitatives on the Gui set; but the plot (if such a thing interests you on record) emerges more clearly than on the Galliera. Neither EMI set gives us Almaviva's big Act 2 aria ''Cessa di piu resistere'' but I can't say I miss it. Rossini was surely right to turn a blind eye to the aria's removal after the opening run in Rome.
The choice between the Gui and Galliera sets is difficult. The Galliera has, perhaps, the stronger sense of theatre about it without in any sense being crassly theatrical in the way that so many recordings of Il barbiere are. Gui is the more characterful conductor; but Galliera and the Philharmonia Orchestra, fluent and stylish, merely need to keep the show on the road when Callas is singing Rosina and when Gobbi is the barber. Both are classic sets. If the Galliera is hors concours dramatically, the Gui could none the less be said to boast the purer Rossinian pedigree.'

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