" Callas’s EMI studio recording of Barbiere from February 1957 is rightly viewed as a much-needed corrective to the disastrous Scala staging of a year earlier. At the same time, it’s important to realize—especially since Callas’s Rosina on that occasion (her first time singing the role) tends to be much criticized in the writings about her—that problems inherent to the occasion affected everyone involved, as was already made clear decades ago in the recollections from Carlo Maria Giulini, Luigi Alva, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni preserved in John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald’s Callas (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974). Giulini, who says he was ill and went ahead only as a favor to Victor de Sabata, claims to have “conducted everyRead more performance with [his] head down so [he] wouldn’t see what was happening onstage,” and describes it as “the worst memory of [his] life in the theater. . . . It was an artistic mistake, utterly routine, thrown together, with nothing given deep study or preparation.” In fact, he never conducted at La Scala again. According to Alva, all on stage “were left (in the absence of a proper director) to our own devices. For veterans like Gobbi and Rossi-Lemeni, this was nothing. Luckily I had once done the opera in Trieste, so I had something to base my acting on.” And though one reads often of the audience uproar after the Count’s line—“Bella voce! Bravissima!”—that follows Callas’s singing of the lesson scene in act II, one reads hardly anything about the extended applause and bravos following Rossi-Lemeni’s exaggeratedly distended “La calunnia” in act I—a response he himself unhesitatingly called “a polemic, a protest against Maria’s Rosina.” It’s also interesting that, despite the complaints as to Callas’s singing Rosina in mezzo keys with soprano variants, that “issue” becomes more a straightforward observation than reason for grousing when it’s the excellent EMI studio set—recorded under the guiding hands of conductor Alceo Galliera and producer Walter Legge—that’s being discussed.
Despite its age, and despite cuts that were standard for its time, the EMI set (which has fewer cuts than the Scala staging) continues to hold its place as one of Barbiere’s best recordings. As to the other participants, I need note only that it was recorded not with La Scala forces, but with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (the orchestra is quite wonderful) , and that, were it not for his name (Fritz Ollendorff), you probably would never guess that you’re hearing a non-Italian singer as Bartolo. Rossi-Lemeni’s scenery-chewing Bartolo in the Scala staging would particularly have benefited from some reining-in by a good director. You’ll find, in the Callas literature, references to the possibility that Zeffirelli was being considered and that Visconti may have had a hand in keeping him out; but there’s no mention of this whatsoever in Zeffirelli’s autobiography. So, all things considered, the Scala performance will be of interest really only to Callas enthusiasts, who should probably hear it not just for its documentary value, but also for the live interaction between Callas and Gobbi onstage, as well as for the young Luigi Alva’s impressive presence as Almaviva, a role he would go on to record commercially several times (the EMI set with Callas being the first of these).
Some words about the sound of the Barbiere releases under consideration here: EMI’s new “Great Recordings of the Century” remastering is a terrific improvement over the company’s 1997 Callas Edition version of the studio Barbiere—brighter, more brilliant, really more consistently alive than the earlier one, particularly with regard to the presence and clarity of the orchestra. (The stretta that closes act I continued to astonish me even after repeated hearings.)."
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