"Figaro here, Figaro there, Figaro up, Figaro down," sings the ever-resourceful barber of Seville. And at times the opera seems as ubiquitous as its title character.
How else to account for the simultaneous arrival of the first two laser-video editions of Rossini's masterpiece? Within weeks, moreover, of a Metropolitan Opera telecast that itself may be headed for the home-video market.In that event the choice for me would still lie between the above two sets, and that despite the presence in the Met cast of Kathleen Battle and Rockwell Blake. Although beautifully employed, Battle's soprano is not the mezzo Rossini prescribed for Rosina. Nor does she communicate much sense of character - i.e., the notes are there, sometimes ravishingly so, but she does not seem to know who Rosina is. Blake's artful tenor, by contrast, is the right voice; I'm just not sure this comparatively stiff performance always catches him at his best. Likewise the nondescript Figaro of baritone Leo Nucci.
There are no such problems with either of the above two issues. The first, among PolyGram's initial CD Video releases, derives from the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle film of the opera first shown in this country over PBS in 1972. At the time I found it marred by too many quick cuts and claustrophobic camera angles but of undeniable cinematic brilliance. Witness the depiction of the Calumny aria, with its virtuoso use of light and shadow, set among the steaming beakers and retorts of Dr. Bartolo's laboratory. Or the notion of having Basilio's final line in "Buona sera" uttered as he sneaks back to retrieve a dropped coin from Almaviva's bribe.
Viewed today it is the brilliance that impresses. Indeed at times one forgets he is watching a staged production, especially as the rain beats down in sheets during the planned elopement of Act 2. In addition to which it also boasts the more mercurial performance, Abbado and his singers sweeping the listener along with real Italianate verve and precision.
For some the latter may be overdone, nor do Berganza and Alva do much to suggest the flowering of young love. But what a pleasure to hear the feather-light runs in the strings during the shaving scene and the honeyed tones of Berganza'z mezzo, the low notes like darkened amber. For all their too-obvious maturity both she and Alva have this music, and the requisite Rossini style, in their bones.
Hermann Prey's Figaro, by contrast, partakes as much of Mozart as Rossini, a virile barber who comes across as more ardent than his Almaviva. Against his manipulations Enzo Dara's buffo Bartolo (even more flavorful than the one he contributes to the Met production) and Paolo Montarsolo's Basilio - here something of a dotty Dr. Miracle - never stand a chance.
And what of the Glyndebourne "Barber," taped in that house in 1982? Not only does it lack the vocal riches of the PolyGram set, but would you believe the London Philharmonic under Sylvain Cambreling is actually outplayed by the Scala Orchestra under Abbado?
On the other hand, there is an intimacy and sparkle about this performance the other doesn't quite match, and that despite Abbado's generally speedier tempos. Moreover in Maria Ewing - like Berganza, a true mezzo - this production has one of the most memorable Rosinas in my experience.
"I am obedient, sweet and loving," she sings in "Una voce poco fa" (one of the opera's many great set-pieces), "but if crossed in love I can be a viper," and here one believes her. Her improvised answers to Bartolo's cross-examinations have about them the air of the born intriguer yet her comedic flair never deserts her, whether coping with the coloratura high jinks of the arias or casting a sidelong glance over her shoulder to the camera in response to something another character has just said.
Against this Max-Rene Cosotti's Count cuts a more conventional figure, nor is he as successful as Alva in coping with the rapid-fire 16th notes that pepper the score. But the look is right and more than most Almavivas he enters wholeheartedly into the wild impersonations of the later episodes, down to the humorous lisp he adopts as the obsequious singing teacher of Act 2.
On the lower end honors are divided about evenly among John Rawnsley's wily, well-fed Figaro (even if he does force a bit in "Largo al factotum"), Claudio Desderi's officious Bartolo (here more of a threat than Dara's slightly fuddled doctor) and Curt Appelgren's sallow, seedy-looking Basilio.
As suggested, Cambreling conducts with sensitivity if not always a great deal of life, although the allegros go well enough (e.g., the Act 1 finale), with some nicely built crescendos. Production-wise I prefer Pioneer's layout, Side 2 beginning with "Una voce," even if we do lose Fiorello's scene-bridging recitative. (Both sets omit the Count's final aria - actually a double aria - a customary enough excision that was nevertheless included in the Met telecast.) PolyGram's box, however, makes for a more handsome presentation, even without a full libretto.
Once again you pays your money (in each case a good deal of it) and you takes your choice.