Haas | Brooklyn | 01/20/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A GROC reissue at last! This simply delightful 1957 BARBER is the first opera recording I ever loved, and it is indeed a classic performance. In fact, its distinctly subtle, insightful humor has never been equaled. I assure you, it rarely gets better than this.
Many listeners seem to have very strange and confusing opinions on how "funny" comic opera should be (i.e. Buffo vs. BUFFO!), as demonstrated by reviews of this 1957 recording. It's unpleasant to point out that generally people have either a bad sense of humor, which is tedious, or no sense of humor, which is sadistic, but of course no two people can agree on what is bad taste and what is completely lacking taste altogether. Of this I am certain: Rossini's BARBER is funny. It expands Beaumarchais's commedia-based characters and situations rather than reducing them. Just listen to the quintet near the end of Act One, "Ehi, di casa, buona gente," or the other quintet in Act Two, "Don Basilio! Cosa veggo!", instances when Rossini's music fits beautifully with the thoughts, actions, and emotions of the characters. As with many comic operas, BARBER actually benefits from the intimate, toned-down nature of the microphone, which I suppose may be analogous to filmic acting versus acting for the stage. Do not be misled: this set is by no means "un-theatrical." Gobbi and Callas were two of the best singing actors of their generation, and Galliera leads them impeccably well.
For better or worse, Maria Callas is this set's major attraction. It is frequently mentioned that her best roles were Violetta, Norma, Anna Bolena and Lady Macbeth, followed then by Lucia, Tosca and Amina, et al., according to one's own taste. I tend to agree. Rosina, however, may be the most like Callas -- or at least the idea of "La Callas" -- than any of her other heroines, if only for her cunning and intelligence. Even if she found the character tough to pin down on stage, we have on records a truly brilliant rendition, a singular vision of the character Rosina, but I dare say it isn't enough -- it's only a sketch, a suggestion of what might have been. She didn't have a Visconti-like director nurturing her comic skills -- after all, she had only seriously begun to explore her art as a tragedienne in 1955. Callas biographer Michael Scott frequently suggests that she had no sense of humor at all, which may or may not be true, but even he would admit that many people fail to understand why Rosina or the entire opera is precisely funny in the first place. Situations are funny, not a performer's act of "being funny"; in fact, Beaumarchais's characters, like Seinfeld & Co., find themselves in humorous situations based on their own penchant for exasperation. Mr. Scott also proposes that, especially in the mid-50s and on this recording in particular, Callas tended to "confuse artfulness with artistry," a notion that I'm still pondering. Is it her voice, her musical interpretation, her acting -- or the whole shebang? Is it vis-à-vis Legge's influence, which also encouraged Schwarzkopf to be overly "cutesy"? Who knows. Here's what I do know: it's true that her voice is not as notably beautiful in 1957 as it was in 1954 for her COLORATURA LYRIC session with Serafin, featuring an inspired "Una voce poco fa"-- coloratura singing that is nonpareil. Still, 1957 was a good year for her vocally (especially in Votto's LA SONNAMBULA), and it's important to observe her journey within the role, which has a real three-dimensional arch. At the end of the first act, her "Ecco qua! Sempre un'istoria..." is genuinely sorrowful, and, nearer to the end, her "Ah, qual colpo inaspettato" is, as the words describe, delirious with nervous happiness. Callas's voice can do so many special things. Her duet with Gobbi, "Dunque io son," is an all-time favorite of mine: it's heartwarming, funny, and gorgeous to listen to all at once.
Galliera had been known for conducting Beethoven and Richard Strauss with the Philharmonia, but never 'Il barbiere di Siviglia' (except for its Overture). Walter Legge knew that he was the right conductor for the work. Our fabulous threesome, Alva, Gobbi and Callas, are tremendous throughout. Luigi Alva was a brilliant and charming singer, and hands-down THE Almaviva of his generation (even if he never sang "Cessa di più resistere"). In his later recordings, however, especially those with Abbado, I've noted how his singing became increasingly "ROSSINIAN!", which means he is playing more and more the idea of Rossini style than actually singing it with conviction. It happens a lot, particularly in the works of Mozart and Wagner. In essence, conveying "style" becomes the overall goal, which is ultimately untruthful or, in the case of Rossini, unfunny. Sometimes it's unnoticeable except by comparison. In 1957 he was truly miraculous: youthful, impetuous (read: spontaneous), enormously funny, and in beautiful voice. A joy! Tito Gobbi is, as usual, terrific; no one portrays Figaro's propensity for mischief and adventure better than he.
The supporting characters, Ollendorf (Bartolo), Zaccaria (Basilio), and Carturan (Berta), are just fine on this recording. Maybe they're not big names or even big voices, but they play the drama along with their outstanding leads quite well. Ollendorf's "Pace e gioia sia con voi" with Alva is particularly charming and funny, and Zaccaria's thoroughly obnoxious first act dialogue with Bartolo makes him truly fun to hate.
Cuts are heavy but pretty standard (who cares?). If you're looking for a nice complete recording with terrific modern sound I must recommend the Lopez-Cobos with Larmore, Giménez and Hagegard. This 1957, though, is a personal favorite. The Philharmonia forces play like crazy, and the sound is excellent. I hope you'll choose this recording for your opera library!"
CCacci | Boston MA (roughly speaking) | 01/23/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This recording was performed in 1958. It has been digitally remastered and sounds great! It is also a Wikipedia "selected recording". For my taste, it is an excellent choice over the many newer performances."