‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’: Some Sharper Than Others

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<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” flopped at its Rome premiere in 1816, a victim of the disruptive carryings-on of a claque representing the idol of the preceding generation, Giovanni Paisiello. He had written his own, hugely successful “Barbiere” in 1782, while Beaumarchais’ writings, from which the plot is drawn, were still fresh.

Amid the recent rush to record Rossini’s comic masterpiece--whose case, one might feel, hardly needs additional pleading--someone has come up with the admirable notion of providing Paisiello’s now completely eclipsed score for comparison by returning to circulation a 1959 recording employing some of the finest Italian singers of the time: Rolando Panerai in the title role, Graziella Sciutti as Rosina, Nicola Monti the Count, Renato Capecchi and Mario Petri as Bartolo and Basilio, with Renato Fasano conducting the Virtuosi di Roma (Palladio 4138/9, 2 CDs).

It’s good to have it back, if for no other reason than to confirm Rossini’s superior genius at every turn, his ability to present a character in an individual light (the graceful music for Paisiello’s characters is virtually interchangeable), his gift for harmonic surprise and contempt for operatic convention.


Palladio’s enterprise is, however, mitigated by a failure to provide even minimal notes or synopsis, to say nothing of a libretto in any language.

Three new recordings of Rossini’s “Barbiere” have recently been added to one released early this year (Deutsche Grammophon 435 763, 2 CDs). In the latter, a tenor, Placido Domingo, sings the baritone role of Figaro sounding like a tenor, and Frank Lopardo, whose vocal coloring, if not range, is baritonal, takes the tenor role of Almaviva in an edition that revives the time-dishonored tradition of a soprano, Kathleen Battle, chirping the mezzo role of Rosina--all under the tough baton of Claudio Abbado.

The most ambitious of the current versions (EMI 54863, 3 CDs) re-examines even Alberto Zedda’s critical edition by reconstructing what some experts surmise to have been the composer’s original recitative accompaniment, employing fortepiano, cello and double bass where other versions use only keyboard.

The conductor is Gianluigi Gelmetti, stressing the score’s fragrant wind coloring, for the most part moving the music smartly and drawing playing of exceptional warmth from the Orchestra della Toscana.

EMI’s cast is state of the art, led by Thomas Hampson’s agile, canny, appealingly youthful Figaro. The Almaviva is Jerry Hadley, who, while initially making heavy weather of Rossini’s fioriture--which he further complicates with his own ornamentation--creates a strong, aristocratic character and ultimately triumphs over Rossini’s most hazardous technical traps.

Susanne Mentzer hits the notes without quite encompassing the color and charm inherent in Rosina’s music. There’s a welcome undercurrent of menace to complement the clownishness of Bartolo and Basilio, strongly sung by Bruno Pratico and Samuel Ramey, respectively.


For Teldec (74885, 2 CDs) Jesus Lopez-Cobos leads a swiftly efficient, somewhat aloof reading with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra.

His experienced Figaro, Hakan Hagegard, is overly insistent on being the bright fellow, pushing his voice, and tempos, too hard. But Jennifer Larmore presents an attractively sung Rosina, with warmth and intelligence to complement the character’s independence of spirit.

Alessandro Corbelli is a sonorous, quick-witted Bartolo, with Ramey present again as Basilio, decorating his phrases more freely than for EMI.

Still, the star of this presentation is tenor Raul Gimenez as the Count, singing with honeyed elegance of tone and rhythmic vivacity while finding no terrors in the composer’s heights and flights.

Finally, there’s a budget recording (Naxos 660027-29, 3 CDs), with a cast of virtual unknowns, that is distinguished by the Figaro of Roberto Servile, the possesor of a powerful, pliable baritone wedded to a predilection for ancient shtick, e.g., the insertion of chuckles and long-held high notes, a keenly perceptive Bartolo from Angelo Romero, and a technically gutsy tenor, Ramon Vargas, as Almaviva.

Elsewhere, things fail to rise above routine, with Sonia Ganassi’s labored Rosina well below that level. The pacing by conductor Will Humburg is energetic, but there are rough string edges to offset the expert winds of the Failoni Chamber Orchestra of Budapest.