on 29 February 2016
This February I had the incredible fortune to see Il barbiere di Siviglia performed live on the exact date (20.2.2016) marking the bicentenary of the work’s first ever performance in Rome’s Teatro Argentina on 20.2.1816. My 20.2.2016 Barber was the promising young baritone Dionysios Sourbis, who recently made his ROH debut, and that anniversary performance catapulted me straight back to this production of the work, which must certainly be the best one. I still listen to this from its “Highlights” EMI cassette tape, and although that still plays fine, I thought it was time to have it on CD. Even though it is not available as a staged performance (pity no one filmed it!), this Alceo Galliera Barber from 1957 with Gobbi, Callas, Alva etc. is certainly the definitive one, the way that Claudio Abbado’s 1981 Cenerentola with Von Stade, Araiza, Montarsolo etc. and staging/direction by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, is the definitive (much copied never surpassed) Rossini Cenerentola.
This should be in any Rossini fan’s collection, no matter what other Barbers you might want to own (the 1974 Abbado production available on DVD, with Berganza, Prey and an Alva that is admittedly a bit past his prime, is another great production that pops to mind).
It is not just the singers’ vocal performances that make this Barber stand out. It is their inimitable ability to act the text out with their voices. All of this cast are incredible actors. Tito Gobbi is not playing the Barber here, he IS the Barber. The man’s confidence that he can pull off anything people ask him to do (with compensation, of course) shines through in the way Gobbi delivers his effortless “Largo”. Many other barbers seem to concentrate so much on their singing that they forget to act this one out; yet if a singer doesn’t sound bold and cocky in “Largo”, then that aria sounds devoid of any joy and feels limp. Gobbi elevates it to the level it needs to be.
Luigi Alva is at his prime here, providing sheer delight. When the work’s famous overture bleeds into Act I and subsequently into “Ecco, ridente in cielo” Alva gives one the shivers! Incidentally, I’ve always found it very interesting that both Alva and Juan Diego Flórez, (the other tenor most associated with performing “Ecco, ridente…” in London) are Peruvian! This aria now sounds to me like a Peruvian anthem…
Fritz Ollendorff makes for a very expressive Dr Bartolo, whose humorous acting shines especially in the superb “Pace e gioia” duet with Alva, and Nicola Zaccaria is a perfectly bombastic Don Basilio, delivering a “Buona Sera” that will make your floor shake. All of these singers are not just doing their jobs here- they act out their lines in such a way it brings home that unavoidable truth that opera is, ultimately, a piece of musical theatre, and that the acting is as important as the singing if a performance is to be unforgettable, and if an opera production is to prove successful and longevous.
As for Callas, she is at her best for this recording; it shows most in “Una voce poco fa”: It is an aria she used to frequently perform in recitals, in order to fully exhibit her vocal range, but here she’s toned it down a notch, because she’s a member of a cast and not on her own. It fits her more this way! Her voice is at once expressive, sweet and cheeky, and there’s the inimitable way that she says “ma!” (“but”…), which serves the text so well: “Yes”, says Rosina via Callas, “I might be a nice, well behaved, obedient girl, BUT if you hit my weak spot, then I’ll certainly make you regret it”. It is a direct threat aimed at her guardian, delivered in the sweetest way possible. No one has ever said that “ma!” quite like Callas does. Her acting shines again in “Dunque io son” where the Barber asks Rosina to write a message to Lindoro. “Un biglietto?” Rosina says, with apparent utter surprise showing in Callas’s voice. The very next second Rosina produces an already written note! “Eccolo qua!” she exclaims cheekily. Callas was not a very beautiful woman, but she was a very expressive actress, employing her incredible voice to acting all of a text’s words out to perfection, and this is what has always made her stand out. Like Gobbi, she doesn’t merely sing, she becomes her character… And then, there is that joke, that she died aged 53 because she had forgotten to take a breath in the previous 25 years… It proves true here, as she seems to forget to breathe while she delivers “Una voce”. Anyone who’s seen this opera performed live will know very well how many times singers need to pause in order to deliver these notes correctly…
All in all, this recording conveys the soul of the work, the fun and joy of it. The Barber was made intentionally to be a fun opera: It was composed purposely as a “carnival” piece (the period preceding Lent and Easter that is still very much celebrated in catholic and orthodox Christian countries with masked parties, parades and disguises all taking place). Carnival often falls in February, and Italian composers used to create works with a carnival hue especially for this very festive of periods, which was (and still is) very important to their Italian audiences. That the Barber was meant for carnival is evident from the title (initial) page of the work’s original libretto from 20.2.1816, which is often reproduced in today’s programmes of the work: “Nel Carnevale Dell’ Anno 1816” it says. It has a good subject matter for the period, what with all of Count Almaviva’s disguises and plotting.
It was generally thought that Rossini composed this opera in the space of two weeks, but we now know, from the correspondence exchanged between Rossini and his librettist, that it actually took about 28 days to compose. Rossini, (who believed in reusing material and said that it was a good idea to put the best pieces of his previously unsuccessful and lesser known works into his new ones), reused in the Barber some of his old material, most notably melodies from his “La pietra del paragone”. He also “borrowed” from traditional Spanish melodies for the overture, and from the work of other composers: Most known here is the use of Haydn’s “The seasons” (Die Jahreszeiten) for the melody in the “Zitti zitti piano piano” part of “Ah, qual colpo inaspettato!”
So, there were tricks! Still, 28 days to compose such a work remains a fact that, by today’s standards, makes it a most remarkable achievement. It wasn’t so in Rossini’s day of course: In those days the Italian opera industry was very demanding and all composers had to create in these rhythms. We think of Rossini as an exceptional wizard because he still is very popular today, but every composer had to work like this, and just imagine!: Donizetti once actually famously said that “Rossini’s good, but he is a bit slow at composing”.
Due to its beautiful melodies and exact rhythms, the opera has acquired longevity on the world’s stages and the people’s hearts. It makes us happy and “delirious” (a word that, incidentally, Rossini is very fond of using, via his librettists). And who would not be delirious after the (very precisely timed) havoc, which takes place in the Barber’s Act I Finale: “Fredda ed Immobile.” This 1957 recording shines here, also. I have seen this opera performed live enough times to know that not many productions manage to deliver this finale in all the magnificent glory in which it is delivered here- and in which it deserves to be delivered! The scene is, after all, notorious for its mysterious text: One of the most bizarrely texted scenes in opera history (something about a “fucina” and your head pounding as if it’s being hit with a hammer), its meaning and how it fits in the opera is very hard to decipher; its complexity has perturbed dramaturgists and directors alike for decades, and baffled audiences since its inception. There are various interpretations out there about what it aims to convey. My favourite insight on it is by Norbert Abels, titled “Sembra una statua- zu Rossinis Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” which was included in one of my opera programmes, and which comes from his book “Ohrentheater: Szenen einer Operngeschichte” (Aural Theater: Scenes of an opera story), 2009. He argues poignantly that this scene reflects Rossini’s own thoughts on the newly industrialised 19th century, which Rossini was observing and trying to describe with an “18th century ear,” and says that Rossini “an accurate observer of his time…. highlights here as central theme the incapacity (of his time) in transmitting emotions.” Rossini as 19th century Kraftwerk, then. If you read the whole thing, Abels makes a hell of a point. And it is always a delight to read what people have to say about this Finale in opera programmes! Abels in his Barber study also poses a very interesting question: The mystery of Rosina’s love. Who is she in love with? Almaviva changes four times: First he is Lindoro, the poor student, then he is a drunk soldier, then a music teacher. Only in the end he reveals himself as Count Almaviva. Now, I’ve always thought that Rosina’s not really in love at all, just wishing to be free from her aged guardian Bartolo, who’s hell bent on marrying her (probably a large inheritance plays a role in that, too, and Dr Bartolo is not in love with Rosina either, but with retaining control of her money). But Abels has changed my viewpoint and now I think that Rosina is probably in love- in love with a voice, the original one, of the student that first serenaded her, and which voice is the only constant through all of Almaviva’s disguises…
Voice as a constant you can fall in love with is to me a very charming proposition. In a way, it reveals the very essence of music itself, why we the audiences love it and what it truly means to us- not just fun, but, ultimately, freedom.
Rossini is, for me, a magician. So much so that, as he was born on February 29thand had a literal birthday every 4 years, I like to muse whether he might still be alive and walking around us, aged 54 or so… That’s how relevant everything that he has composed seems to be. And not only that; he was an inspiration to other artists we love: He is a master to our masters. Heinrich Heine (in his 1829 “Travel Pictures III”) called Rossini a “divine teacher,” a “sun of Italy whose music shines all over the world” and in a recent visit to the Wigmore Hall, I discovered that Schubert, too, was a lifelong lover of Italian opera and of Rossini in particular. He seems to have excelled in everything he attempted: He gave up composing aged 40, only to return to it at the end of his life with some works of religious nature (eg his“Stabal Mater”). In between, he excelled as a quasi-chef. With the aid of professional chefs, he created two of the best dishes that carnivores can ever hope to taste: The Cannelloni Rossini, an absolute culinary dream: They are the ones with the béchamel sauce- the only ones worth having! And he also created that most deliciously complicated (just like the Finales to his various opera Acts) tournedos: The Tournedos Rossini. Even though it was made by a chef, the entire dish was his idea and was made following his precise instructions; he supervised its creation himself. (Regarding this, you could read Ira Braus's book “Classical Cooks”, with quotations by culinary historian J.F. Revel.)
As today is February 29th and the great man’s birthday, I see no better way fitting than to celebrate it by ordering this excellent recording! Viva!