Il barbiere di Siviglia – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Cesare Sterbini [sung in Italian]
Figaro – Rolando Panerai
Rosina – Teresa Berganza
Il conte d’Almaviva – Luigi Alva
Bartolo – Fernando Corena
Don Basilio – Ivo Vinco
Fiorello – Ronald Lewis
Berta – Josephine Veasey
Un ufficiale – Robert Bowman
The Covent Garden Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded 21 May 1960 at Royal Opera House, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: December 2011
CD No: ICA CLASSICS
ICAC 5046 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 9 minutes
The ICA Classics catalogue already contains two live Covent Garden performances from the 1950s, Renata Tebaldi in the 1955 Tosca and Maria Callas in her 1958 La traviata. In this 1960 Barber of Seville the main attraction is the conductor. Carlo Maria Giulini’s reputation as an operatic conductor rests largely on his musical leadership of the ground-breaking Visconti-directed Don Carlo from two years before and it is not hard to believe that expectations ran high when he returned to the Royal Opera House for a staple of the nineteenth-century Italian repertoire.
ICA presents this recording as “The acclaimed Royal Opera House Performance 21 May 1960”. The acclamation consists of quotations from a review in The Times (anonymous, as reviews in that newspaper were in those days). The favourable assessment of a single critic seems rather flimsy justification for the chosen adjective: more widespread approval is implied. As quoted in the booklet note: “any dramatic excess had been avoided by Giulini’s tight control throughout” and David Patmore goes on to shower with compliments the conductor’s influence over rhythm, texture, articulation and ensemble in the performance.
I fear that Mr Patmore has been selective in his critical sources. At the risk of doing the same I turned to Harold Rosenthal’s review in Opera for July 1960 and found his assessment to be a far cry from the unstinted praise afforded by The Times correspondent: “I do not think Giulini is a natural opera-buffa conductor. There was grace and elegance in the orchestra and in much of the singing but the work did not sparkle and the conductor did not smile with the music.” The Editor of Opera also attended a subsequent performance and found Giulini’s conducting to be “even more heavy and serious”. I suspect that the saintly status which Giulini (1914-2005) was later accorded as man and musician has affected judgement of this episode in his operatic career, which ended as early as 1968, though I am inclined to agree with the comments on the conductor’s good management of ensemble passages, such as the vivace section in the first Act finale.
The cuts are difficult to take though. The exclusion of ‘Cessa di più resistere’ was to be expected but slices are excised from nearly all the solo numbers and Figaro’s duets with respectively the Count and Rosina in the first Act suffer from the same procedure. The shortening of the second Act finale makes the opera’s ending seem perfunctory. Though none of this was uncommon at the time, the surrender to this inartistic practice belies the conductor’s reputation for fastidiousness.
The booklet announces this as “A BBC Recording” but the distortion of some loud passages (admittedly acknowledged in the annotation), the thunderous timpani on occasions and the failure to balance the solo voices properly is disappointing. Stage noise and audience laughter (for reasons unseen to the listener) become quite troubling in the second Act.
As for the cast, Fernando Corena is caught doing what he did best, using his comic acting talents. Vocally he copes well with the patter music of ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’. The voice sounds huge, the characterisation highly colourful. It is the scenes in Act Two in which he appears which bring forth the most uproarious audible response from the audience.
Ivo Vinco, who later seemed to come as part of a package deal in opera productions with his wife Fiorenza Cossotto, sounds more of a basso cantante than a basso buffo. His ‘Calumny’ aria is quite subdued, the basic nobility of the voice only vitiated once with a vulgar slide downwards before “E il meschino calluniato”. His interpretation is a far cry from the oily schemer we hear in hardcore contemporary productions.
Rolando Panerai was a mellifluous lyric baritone, admired in the early 1950s, unusually for an Italian baritone, for his singing of Mozart. Here good taste is abandoned in favour of good old-fashioned macho exhibitionism, made less agreeable by the marked natural vibrancy of the voice. The sound-picture favours him throughout. In the duet with the Count he goes horribly wrong in one phrase with slovenly gruppetti, while his entry in the Act One finale is gruffly barked. I suppose I must exempt Figaro’s ‘cavatina’. If an Italian baritone cannot be permitted to display his power and exuberance in ‘Largo al factotum’, when can he? Panerai belts it out, bullying the music, exulting in his top notes, though offering only limited respect to some of the others. Giulini launches the aria with admirable zip and maintains a united front of jubilant extroversion with his singer almost throughout, only seeming to lose patience with Panerai’s showing-off at the final cadence, bringing the orchestra in when the baritone is still holding his top G. Nevertheless Giulini’s reputation as a purist in Italian opera is not fulfilled by the leeway he offers this singer.
The cast boasts two singers of true distinction. Luigi Alva, the Peruvian tenor then in his early thirties, puts ne’er a foot wrong either in terms of general elegance or in his very personal, papery, aspirate-free treatment of the fioriture. Vocally he steers clear of any of the excesses going on around him. He combines the aristocrat and the romantic lover ideally. His casting as the Count (aka Lindoro) is a reminder of how things have changed in the fifty years since this performance vis-à-vis the tenore di grazia for whom Rossini wrote the part. Few then could sing the part as accurately as Alva does, indeed that situation pertained for several years afterwards: when Claudio Abbado recorded the work for Deutsche Grammophon in 1971 he turned to the same tenor. Today the revival of early-nineteenth-century Italian operas can call on a plethora of singers to fill the tenor roles.
Abbado’s Rosina was also shared with this Covent Garden performance. Teresa Berganza was in the early stages of her career in 1960, though she was already known in London and at Glyndebourne. Her casting in the role was significant in terms of the heritage of Rossini singing. These were the first performances of Barber by the Covent Garden company since the end of World War Two (although the visiting San Carlo company had brought it for a brief season at the end of 1946). The theatre had been the main focus for Conchita Supervia’s contribution to the Rossini revival of the 1930s when the part of Rosina was returned to its original mezzo-soprano status after years of being stolen by sopranos (the San Carlo casts shared the role between two such).
Berganza has just the right timbre and weight of tone, firm and prepossessing well below the stave. The upper extension with which she was also blessed allowed her to offer the best of both worlds. Rosina’s ‘Cavatina’ is sung at the original pitch but in its closing bars she is able to round it off with a cleanly-taken top B. Her impeccable scales in the opening recitative signal the technical assurance with which she will deal with the florid music throughout. However, overall, this issue (available for the first time) does not live up to its billing and Berganza and Alva can be heard elsewhere in their roles.