Many years ago I had a jealously, carefully preserved disc of this back in the days of record players. It got copied to cassette (loss of sound quality) pretty quickly for frequent playing to avoid the inevitable scratches. A CD version was a very expensive import, almost unobtainable, and I regretted there was no digital remastered version. Fortunately at some point I reviewed it on Amazon, bewailing the digilack and a kind commentator on my review alerted me that there WAS! (2009 release)
Duly downloaded I discovered an annoying problem, that somehow it had been filed on the PC as Track 1, Track 1, Track 2, Track 2 etc (originally this had been a 2 disc set, but the digi download did not separate the discs. Much work was called for moving files around to be able to play this (a later, more expensive release pf the same production has it as a continuous track for the act, though the Act I overture is listed apart, so I guess this would make for instant playing) though if you wanted to replay specific tracks, harder Rossini: The Barber of Seville
So why would anyone want a version released originally back in the 50s, given the sound engineering was so unsophisticated, compared to today?
Well a more ecstatic, vibrant, incomparable trio of leads is impossible to imagine. First, there is the extraordinary surprise of Maria Callas's fabulous Rosina. Known for the depth and almost unbearable suffering of the tragic bel canto repertory - Norma, I Puritani and verismo roles like Tosca, she could never have been the most obvious casting for Rossini's quicksilver, fizzy, playful Rosina. Well, think (or rather, listen) again. I defy anyone to produce such a delicious, effortless, flirtatious irrepressibly joyous Una Voce Poco Fa
And then we have Tito Gobbi, whose Figaro is sex on vocal legs, so to speak - dangerous, seductive, heavily male (swoons away!) Such vocal virility must surely result in a Rosina who will declare 'sod the story, I'm off with the barber!' But that is before the wooing, idealistic, romantic Lindoro of Luigi Alva bursts into song, and Rosina, as she must, melts and our lusty Figaro will do all he can to help the couple achieve love's young.
(Alas, the opera savvy amongst us know that Lindoro will, in Mozart and da Ponte's Figaro turn out to be a betrayer, that Rosina's heart will be broken. She should have run away with the barber, after all)
But let us stay for a moment with this divine , sparkling trio not to mention other principals, ensemble and orchestra. Lucky us, to be able to unpick this little bit of musical heaven from its era. Brava! Bravo! Bravo! not to mention Bravissimo and Bravissima
Like many of my generation, I have been indelibly imprinted with this performance as the first I encountered and still the best I know, despite the fact that it employs illegitimate orchestration and implements several cuts such that it now fits onto two CDs. Those cuts are not that damaging and were standard in that era; the only serious omission is Almaviva's last big aria, "Cessa di piu resistere"; otherwise it is only recitativo scenes which are missing and we still get Bertha's perky aria, so often cut. For the complete score in a scholarly edition with the instrumentation Rossini actually wanted, the super-bargain Naxos issue remains the best bet although there is also a nice modern one starring Elina Garanca, Nathan Gunn and Lawrence Brownlee which is beautifully sung but perhaps a little po-faced compared with this one.
This recording was made in London in 1957 following the troubled La Scala production the previous year - although you would hardly guess that there had been difficulties, as it exudes fun and high spirits. As ever, Gobbi exhibits some dryness on his top notes and Callas wobbles a bit in the stratosphere - perhaps unwisely singing a high D at one point which is true of intonation but shakes somewhat - but otherwise they give a masterclass in how to inflect comic Italian text; Gobbi's verbal dexterity is a marvel. Callas's "single word "Ma" in her first big aria and "Un biglietto - eccolo qua" are both more cases in point; I can never understand how people could accuse her of being a humourless singer. She is certainly sharp and waspish but also charming and flirtatious - and her coloratura is superb, especially when she exploits her gift for perfectly even portamento. The dialogue/recitative leaps out of the speakers, it is so animated; the exchange between Figaro and "Lindoro" just before Rosina's first appearance and the famous "Dunque io son" duet between Figaro and Rosina are both further instances of great comic pace and timing.
Alva starts off just a little waveringly but soon shows his mettle, singing in honeyed tone and his divisions become firmer and better articulated. The supporting cast has a genuinely funny Bartolo in Fritz Ollendorff, a neat, richly voiced Gabriella Carturan as Bertha and a suitably sly, saturnine and oleaginous Bartolo in Nicola Zaccaria. Galliera galvanises the Philharmonia to play beautifully; everything is perfectly gauged and never dull.
More recent re-masterings have made the sound a bit brittle and reproduced at too high a volume; by all accounts the earliest CD manifestation is the most successful but these things trouble me less than some audiophiles. I have a 1993 re-mastering and am happy with it.
I also have the recording made by Prey [late lamented], Alva and Berganza. That is a 4 and a half stars recording. In this recording Callas is just a shade better than Berganza and maybe, Gobbi, just shades it compared with Prey. But the differences are very small in each case. The joy of both recordings, to my mind, is the superb tenor voice of Luigi Alva. His partnership with both Gobbi and Prey is absolutely first class. His drunken billeting officer, wimpish Don Alonso and nervous Lindoro are such joys to which to have the pleasure of listening. Add to that my favourite orchestra[ Philharmonia] and chorus and the expertise of conductor Galleria and the supporting singers Ollendorff, Zaccaria, Carturin and Carlin thw whole performance is an absolute gem. It has to be a must for anyone interested in definitive operatic performances.
This really is, in my humble opinion, the definitive performance of this comic opera. All the people involved are excellent. I suppose I am a little biased because the Philharmonia is my favourite symphony orchestra and as is proved on this recording, orchestra, chorus and conductor, Galleria, are superb. The supporting singers, Ollendorf, Zaccaria, Curturan and Carlin are also in fine voice and complement the principals so well. In such a high quality career I don't think Callas has sung better than in this performance. Tito Gobbi, is well, Tito Gobbi, and this is really the definiive Figaro even considering the Prey version. To me though, above all, the performance that sets this apart is that of Luigi Alva as Almaviva. His drunken officer, creepy Don Alonso and nervous Lindoro are a joy to hear. Not to mention his duets with Gobbi such as 'Quel invenzione prelibata' The total performances are sheer delight.
This is a terrific recording of Rossini's most popular opera based on the eponymous Beaumarchais play. Callas positively sparkles and the partnership between her and Tito Gobbi is electric. Add this to Alceo Galliera's effervescent conducting and you get what is still for me the best Barber around.