WORKS: The Barber of Seville
PERFORMER: Plácido Domingo, Kathleen Battle, Frank Lopardo, Lucio Gallo, Ruggero RaimondiMembers of La Fenice Chorus, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 435 763-2 DDD
Q: When is Rossini’s Barber of Seville a tragedy?
A: When a brilliantly conducted version – the finest on modern recordings – is ruined by its cast.
DG’s bi-centenary Barber is only the latest of recordings to sacrifice artistic integrity to commercial success. Nothing else can explain the gimmick of offering Domingo in his first recording of a baritone role, as Figaro. It is a flop, not because it is badly sung – it isn’t – but because it obviously lies so far out of the tenor’s histrionic range and technical ability. This is one of the most humourless characterisations of the Barber on record and Domingo is hard-pressed to keep up the patter, and negotiate the coloratura, of Rossini’s comic style. He sounds like an Otello who took the wrong turning at the heel of the Italian Peninsula.
This is not the only miscasting: Kathleen Battle’s pip-squeaky Rosina revives the discredited canary-fanciers’ tradition in this role and her prima donna status has resulted in the inclusion of a third aria, ‘Ah, se è ver’ – which the Rossini scholar Philip Gossett admits to being only ‘probably’ by the composer – sung by the soprano Joséphine Mainvielle-Fodor in Venice in 1819.
The tragic weight of the music is more than the opera – and Battle’s shallow soprano – can bear. Lucio Gallo is a Bartolo who sounds younger than both his ward and Figaro, and has to put on a funny ‘old’ voice. Lopardo’s darker-than-usual Almaviva offers little contrast with Domingo’s tenor, and he, too, gets round the fioriture rather than throwing it off effortlessly as a true tenore di grazia should. Only the veteran Raimondi’s Don Basilio and Sima’s lively-sounding Berta offer complete vocal pleasure.
That’s not enough for a composer who regarded the three most important ingredients of opera as ‘voice, voice and voice’. For those who would listen to the opera as Bruckner did to Wagner’s music dramas – irritated by the voices – this Barber is a gem. Abbado is a Rossinian transformed and encourages playing of a zest and brio from the COE that was curiously lacking from his earlier DG recording with the LSO. The wind-playing is a rib-tickling joy, and in Basilio’s ‘Calumny’ aria the bass-drummer supplies the most terrifying colpe di canone on record. Hugh Canning