Believe it or not, there has been no studio recording of this opera since the three made in 1992, of which this is one. There have been some pleasing live composites such as that starring Elina Garanca, Lawrence Brownlee and Nathan Gunn but many collectors have returned to the classic Callas-Gobbi set or the complete, bargain Naxos recording.
This has many merits although for some it lacks the last ounce of sparkle and fun, mainly because everyone concentrates on really singing the notes and letting the comedy emerge subtly and naturally. Personally, I miss some of the mugging and vocal buffoonery that distinguishes for, example, Fritz Ollendorf's Bartolo in the old Galliera recording. I find Haken Hagegard almost too light and refined of voice for the insolent Barber and he lacks the vocal colouring or clarity in divisions that Gobbi brings to the role but he is fleet and lively and his co-singers are a starry bunch. Raul Gimenez is the consummate, elegant Rossini tenor, matched by Jennifer Larmore's rich, caramel mezzo with its startling upper extension into full soprano territory, rather in the mode of soprano sfogato Isabella Colbran, Rossini's wife. Sam Ramey's essentially noble-sounding basso cantante is not quite right for the scurrilous Basilio but he sings beautifully. Similarly, a young Barbara Frittoli sounds too youthful for the crabby Berta but makes much of her aria. Corbelli does good work as Bartolo without eclipsing Ollendorf and "fruitier" basses.
The playing and ensemble work is superb; Lopez-Cobos keeps everything bouncing along in jolly style and nothing drags. We are hardly spoilt for choice when it comes to more modern-sounding recordings so this one deserves serious consideration.
In reviewing a recording of 'Il barbiere', you have to compare it with other versions because there are so many. I started my collection with the Bartoli/Patané on Decca and I still quite like it, although Leo Nucci is not my ideal Figaro but Bartoli as Rosina and Matteuzzi as Il Conte are in youthful top form. Enrico Fissore is my ideal Bartolo, what a great character role he makes of it! Next was the Callas studio recording on EMI. It really got me hooked on this opera. Although a soprano Rosina is not what Rossini meant, she is startling. Callas really can be funny! And in Tito Gobbi I find an ideal Figaro. Even Luigi Alva is very good as the Count. Some years later I was curious enough to buy the Marriner with Thomas Allen as Figaro, Agnes Baltsa as Rosina and Francisco Arazia as Almaviva. Great singing and conducting, my favorite mezzo Barbiere so far. And then I got this one, because it got some great reviews and the names of Larmore and Ramey looked very promising. But what a disappointment it is! I really got to force myself to listen it out. The main problem is the conducting of Lopez-Cobos, without any humour and wit. Just getting the notes from his orchestra and that's it. The beauty of the orchestration is not illustrated at all, the orchestra even sounds second-rate most of the time. Sometimes tempo gets uncomfortably slow, for example in Rosina singing lesson aria. This weighs on the singers, and they could do much better leaded by someone else. Jennifer Larmore is a great artist and in the theatre she would be excellent as Rosina, but here she leaves me indifferent. Raul Gimenez is not a bad Almaviva, but I like every other Count more, even if he gets his last aria. If I want to hear 'Cessa di piu resistere', I turn to the Juan Diego Florez recital disc (conducted by Chailly). Even Samuel Ramey as Basilio is not in top form, to my surprise he sounds nasal here and I never disliked any of his other recordings! And it goes on: I love all Rossini roles of Corbelli but not his Bartolo. Blame it on the conductor, again! Finally Hakan Hagegard is a disaster as Figaro, regardless of the entourage. Listen to his 'Largo al factotum' and you hear the lack of 'body', he sounds as if he has a tiny tenor voice in some places. The explosions in the singing that make this aria a total winner, are totally absent. Hearing Gobbi, Allen and even Nucci singing 'lalalalalalalalalalaaaaaaaaa'..., you will jump out of your seat. Hagegard simply lacks the vocal means to be succesful. There are so many Barbiere's available, I will expand my collection further with the Berganza/Abbado and de los Angeles/Gui. I am sure these will also be better than the Teldec. This one will stay untouched on my shelfs for ever, perhaps I will even sell it on ebay. It was a waste of money, but as a record collector you win some and you loose some ... Get another one, there is plenty to choose from!