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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - Melodramma Buffa in two acts (1816)
Count Almaviva, in love with Rosina - David Kuebler (tenor); Figaro, a barber and general factotum, Gino Quilico (baritone); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina - Carlos Feller (buffo baritone); Rosina, ward of Bartolo - Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo); Basilio, a singing teacher - Robert Lloyd (bass); Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper - Edith Kertész-Gabry (soprano); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva - Klaus Bruch (baritone)
Choir of Cologne City Opera
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gabrielle Ferro
rec. live, Schwetzingen SWR Festival, 1988
Stage Director: Michael Hampe
Set Designer: Ezio Frigerio
Costume Designer: Mauro Pagano
Television Director: Claus Viller
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3.
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, French, German, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102305 [158:00]

In 1814, after the great successes of Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, Rossini, at the age of 22, found himself in the vanguard of Italian composers. This led to his being summoned to Naples by the leading impresario of the day, Domenico Barbaja. There he was appointed Musical Director of the Royal Theatres of that city, the San Carlo and the Fondo. It was in Naples, with the professional orchestra of the San Carlo, that Rossini composed his great opera seria, starting with Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra premiered on 4 October 1815.
 
A clause in Rossini’s Naples contract allowed him to accept occasional commissions from other theatres. It was a clause of which Rossini took much advantage, almost certainly stretching it beyond the limits Barbaja had intended. In the first two years Rossini composed no fewer than five operas for other cities, including four for Rome.
 
The first of the Rome operas was Torvaldo e Dorliska. It opened the Carnival Season at the Teatro Valle on 26 December 1815. Two weeks previously Rossini signed another contract with the rival Teatro de Torre Argentina in the city for a comic opera to be presented during its Carnival Season and to be delivered by mid-January. Quick composition was the order of the day. With time short it was decided that the opera would be based on Beaumarchais’s play Le Barbier de Séville. For Rossini this posed a difficulty in that Paisiello, a much-respected predecessor, had set an opera by the same name in 1782. Rossini moved to ensure Paisiello took no personal offence and the opera was presented as Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (The useless precaution) with the sequence of scenes distinctly different from Paisiello’s creation. Despite Rossini’s efforts Paisiello’s supporters created a disturbance on the first night and turned it into a fiasco. On the second night Rossini was tactfully ill and did not attend the theatre, as stipulated in his contract. The performance was an unprecedented success after which the cast and supporters walked to the composer’s lodgings carrying candles and singing tunes from the opera.
 
After its initial seven performances in Rome it began to be called Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was soon performed as such around Italy and reached London in March 1818 and New York the following year. It is the only opera by Rossini to have maintained its place in the repertoire in the theatres of Italy, and elsewhere around the world, throughout its life. In respect of Il Barbiere, when Rossini visited Beethoven, during the Vienna season of his operas in 1822, the great man said to his Italian counterpart: “I congratulate you; it will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa.”
 
In view of the fact that the libretto, as well as the music, were put together in little over a month it is hardly surprising that Rossini indulged in some self-borrowings. The overture was that previously used for Aureliano in Palmira in 1813, and re-used with heavier orchestration for his first Naples opera, Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra. Similarly the storm scene of act 2 (CH.21) was first heard in La Pietra del paragone (1812) and subsequently in L’Occasione fe il ladro in September and November 1812 at Venice’s San Moisé and La Scala respectively. Elsewhere in Il Barbiere, Rossini developed and extended tuneful lines from earlier works into full-blown arias and duets. 

It is many years since I first saw this production in the video format. In the meantime I have reviewed ten or more recordings, including half a dozen on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as several live performances. Of that total a number have included idiosyncratic producer concepts and visual realisations, some finding the spirit of Rossini’s sparkling creation, others missing it by a mile. This production by Michael Hempe with sets by Ezio Frigerio is traditional with a capital T. The opening scene is the outside of Bartolo’s home with the balcony from which Rosina flirts with the unknown man, dropping notes, rises from a small square. The diminutive stage of the tiny, but delightful, rococo theatre (1752) that houses the Schwetzingen Festival, and of which we get a brief glimpse along with the applause at the end of scenes and acts, has no room for Figaro’s shop. The second scene and the rest of the opera is set inside Bartolo’s house with the balcony clearly seen through the window, a view which is vitally important as Figaro and Almaviva plan to enable Rosina to escape her lascivious guardian who has eyes on her despite the difference of age.
 
The set and production proceed with a natural flow that is a delight in every respect. Not only is the singing notably good in nearly every way with the whole performance being kept on an even keel, there’s brio and zip from Gabrielle Ferro on the rostrum. As to the singing, much focus is on Cecilia Bartolias Rosina in one of her earliest stage assumptions caught in the video format. It is contemporaneous with her earliest studio recording for Decca of Rossini arias conducted by Giuseppe Patanè (see review). In that review I linked Bartoli’s name with that of Marilyn Horne, the distinguished American mezzo who was outstanding in Rossini repertoire. Listening again to Bartoli’s Rosina, Horne’s name came to mind once more with the rich lower tones of the former being well in evidence. Add Bartoli’s coloratura facility, her trim figure, facial as well as vocal acting and this is one of her very finest stage performances. My thoughts were that had she pursued this fach she would have been the natural successor to Horne in the great dramatic Rossini mezzo roles. As it is she took her voice upwards into the neo-soprano repertoire represented by her performances of Susanna in Mozart’s Figaro, ceding dramatic Rossini to Daniela Barcelona. As Rosina’s suitor, David Kuebler’s tenor is somewhat monochrome with something of an edge. His voice lacks the gracious phrasing and heady vocal mellifluousness of the likes of Gimenez or Araiza let alone Alva. Gino Quilico as Figaro is outstanding in his sung and acted portrayal, as good as anybody on record. Carlos Feller as Bartolo blusters occasionally, as the old man might well have justifiably done given the circumstances. Robert Lloyd’s smarmy Basilio is finished to perfection by vocal sonority. Edith Kertész-Gabry as Berta sings her aria well.
 
There are excisions, mainly in the recitatives, but more significantly compared with later practice, of the long second act aria for Almaviva Cessa di piu resister. Its inclusion has been promoted in recent years by Juan Diego Florez who deploys it on the recording of Emilio Sagi’s production for the Teatro Real, Madrid (Decca DVD 074 3111).
 
Robert J Farr 


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