ROSSINI Il barbiere di Siviglia. • Will Humburg conducting; Roberto Servile, baritone (Figaro); Sonia Ganassi, alto (Rosina); Ramon Vargas, tenor (Almaviva); Angelo Romero, bass (Dr. Bartolo); Franco de Grandis, bass (Don Basilio); Ingrid Kertesi, mezzo-soprano (Berta); Hungarian Radio Chorus; Failoni Chamber Orchestra of Budapest. • NAXOS 8.660027-29 [DDD]; three discs: 43:04, 51:26, 63:13. Produced by Tamás Benedek.
Naxos's spirited new recording of II barbiere di Siviglia seems for all the world to have the crackling spontaneity of a live performance, replete with clever sound effects: creaking doors, rattling keys, tuning of instruments. But this is, in fact, an expertly mastered studio recording without the drawbacks of a noisy live audience. In other words, the best of both worlds.
The cast is bursting with future stars. It would not surprise me if the Almaviva, Ramon Vargas, were eventually to emerge as the superstar lyric tenor to follow the fading Luciano Pavarotti. Vargas can already do many things that Pavarotti never fully mastered, such as singing a true mezza voce tone, executing a messa di voce, and spinning out a genuine pianissimo. In fact, I think Vargas is the most thrilling lyric tenor to appear since the recordings of one Nino Florio were issued in 1944. (The world discovered Florio as Giuseppe di Stefano just a few years later!)
Ramon Vargas's recorded recital debut was reviewed in Fanfare 16:1 by Ralph V. Lucano, who admired his “bright, steady, ringing voice, seamlessly produced from bottom to top“ but found him “a bit monotonous in timbre“ and “a rather dour fellow.“ That isn't the case in this Naxos II barbiere di Siviglia, and Vargas emerges as the most seductively charming Almaviva on records, as well as one of the most vocally accomplished, vividly articulate in Rossini's divisions. It must be admitted that Vargas does not quite bring off the trill he attempts in “Ecco ridente“ and he is occasionally guilty of indulging in an aspirate, but as is expected of an Almaviva in the 1990s, he sings the difficult “Cessa di più resistere“ with aplomb.
Roberto Servile displays a fine cantante baritone as Figaro, exploding with energy and vigor in “Largo al factotum,“ agile and amusing in “Numero quindici.“ His bright idiomatic Figaro recalls those of Tito Gobbi and Gino Bechi. Another star in the making.
Of the three lead singers, Sonia Ganassi, an authentic contralto Rosina, is a true rarity in II barbiere recordings. The original Rosina, Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi (her name is misspelled in the Naxos booklet) was a contralto, and now for the first time in a complete II barbiere recording, modern audiences can hear the duets and ensembles weighted as Rossini conceived them. Though several mezzo Rosinas have produced good low notes in these ensembles (the brilliant Jennifer Larmore being the most recent), it is a revelation to hear Ganassi's rich contralto. There is a hint of unsteadiness in Ganassi's voice in “Una voce poco fa,“ but she hits her stride in “Dunque io son“ and “Contro un cor.“ In addition to possessing a fine florid technique, Ganassi appears to be a marvelous comedienne and though the opera field is suddenly crowded with accomplished mezzo-sopranos, I would think room will be made on today's major opera stages for so talented a contralto.
The excellence of the cast continues with the veteran Angelo Romero's delightful buffo Dr. Bartolo, and Franco de Grandis's booming Don Basilio. The conductor, Will Humburg, expertly and judiciously paces the fine Failoni Chamber Orchestra and is billed as the ' 'Recitative Director. ' ' Just what that means, I'm not sure, but the recitatives are unusually lively and well done, aided and abetted by the sparkling fortepiano playing of András Déri.
In keeping with the spirit of the project, the notes in the accompanying booklet are informative, if the spelling inaccurate as noted above. There is an Italian libretto, but no translation.
Naxos's splendid new recording adds to an unusually bountiful II barbiere di Siviglia recording legacy. There have been incomparable Rosinas: Jennifer Larmore, Maria Callas, Cecilia Bartoli, Teresa Berganza; commanding Figaros: Riccardo Stracciari, Tito Gobbi and Thomas Hampson; patrician Almavivas: Cesare Valletti and Raoul Giménez. Any serious opera collector will want to have all of these recordings for what each artist offers in this nonpareil buffa opera. In Fanfare 17:3, I recommended Jesus López-Cobos's superb Teldec recording with both Larmore and Giménez as my first choice II barbiere. Now comes the new Naxos. Choosing between them is well-nigh impossible, but I would venture that, for now, in an ever-changing and increasingly more accomplished Rossinian landscape, the II barbiere di Siviglia to start with is on Naxos.
FANFARE: James Camner