Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (CD review)

Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Luigi Alva; Alceo Galliera, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. EMI 5099 9 4564442 9 (2-disc set, plus CD-ROM).

Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote the comic opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in 1816, based on one of French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais's three plays (or operas comique) on the subject. Mozart had already done the second of Beaumarchais's plays several decades before Rossini did his, so audiences were already familiar with some of the characters.

I have no idea if conductor Alceo Galliera's account of the opera with Maria Callas is the best one available. For at least the past century we've had a multitude of recordings of Il Barbiere. The fact is, though, I've lived with this EMI set for so long, I have little with which to compare it. I came to the 1957 recording sometime in the early Sixties when I was in college, and I've owned it on LP and CD ever since. EMI remastered the recording in 2007 and issued it in their "Great Recordings of the Century" line. Now, in 2010, they've re-released it in a three-disc set, this time with a CD-ROM containing a synopsis and libretto.

Maria Callas is hardly a singer one usually associates with lighthearted comedic roles, but she excels in Il Barbiere. She's delightfully impudent and flirtatious, and, of course, she sings splendidly. The booklet note says that she preceded this performance with a disastrous stage rendering in which she overacted drastically. No such impression here; she seems born to the part.

However, Callas's Rosina does not overwhelm the production. The rest of the cast, especially Tito Gobbi as Figaro, are splendid, too, as is maestro Galliera, who leads the production with sparkle. If there is any minor drawback, it's that the discs do not present the opera absolutely complete. But the presentation is close enough, and I doubt that anyone but the most-fastidious opera lover would notice the cuts, and even then they might not care.

EMI's sound was never so good as here, either. In comparing the earlier, 1986 CD mastering with this newer remastering, I found the new one both clearer and smoother. The older recording seems warmer, true, but it is also more muffled and rougher around the edges. Indeed, there are parts of this new remastering that sound almost state-of-the-art, a tribute to producer Walter Legge's artistic integrity and balance engineer Robert Gooch's impeccable miking.

I love the Galliera/Callas/Gobbi interpretation of Il Barbiere di Siviglia from beginning to end: for its wit, its charm, and its liveliness. Moreover, with its spruced up sonics coming up fresher than ever, it's even harder to resist than before. In other words, I see no reason to change my opinion of this recording after all these years.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa