THE BARBER OF SEVILLE / IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA is one of the greatest comic operas ever written. When it opened in Rome nearly 200 years ago (February 20, 1816), it was loudly booed by an audience packed by Rossini's rival composers. Fortunately, its brilliance was recognized when it was performed in other cities, and Beethoven himself declared it a masterpiece of its kind.
This CD set was made from recordings of a "live" stage performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Dec. 16, 1950. It has a rather good cast of 60 years ago, led by tenor Giuseppe di Stefano in the role of Il conte d'Almaviva, with fine support from bass Jerome Hines as Basilio, baritone Giuseppe Valdengo as Figaro, and bass Salvatore Baccaloni as Bartolo. Coloratura soprano Lily Pons rounds out the main cast as Rosina, a role written for a contralto and normally sung by a mezzo.
Some good news is that, technically speaking, this CD set is a great improvement over the flawed, amateurish transfer of the same performance that was released several years ago by a company calling itself Cantus Classics: Die Klassische Alternative.
Since Giuseppe di Stefano and Lily Pons are the only cast members who are still widely known and whose work has been largely preserved on other CDs, most listeners will be pleased to learn that their tracks are in good condition.
For this review, I made side-by-side ratings of this set's di Stefano tracks with those of an Istituto Discografico Italiano CD set's tracks of him in the same opera, recorded in Mexico City nearly two and a half years earlier (July 1948). Considering sound quality and this wonderful tenor's expressiveness as the factors, on a scale of 1-to-5, after four listenings I rated "Piano pianissimo" 3 (Mexico City) and 2 (Met); "Ecco ridente in cielo" 4 (Mexico City) and 4 (Met); "Ehi, Fiorello" 2 (Mexico City) and 2 (Met); and "Se il mio nome" 5 (Mexico City) and 4 (Met)--thus concluding that the 1948 Mexico City version is slightly better for Giuseppe di Stefano fans.
For fans of Lily Pons, I have disappointing news. Although her tracks for "Una voce poco fa" and "Dunque io son" are technically in far better condition than those of the fine mezzo Giulietta Simionato on the 1948 Mexico City set, they are definitely not prime examples of Pons's singing. At this 1950 Met performance, Pons was almost 53 years old and was largely a sentimental favorite of New York audiences. On these CDs, to my ears she sounds too much like quivery-voiced Billie Burke playing Glinda the Good Witch in the movie THE WIZARD OF OZ. While Lily Pons does do her signature stunts of holding notes two, three, or four times longer than the composer had written them and finishing on a stratospherically high note, her voice seems weak and under less than full control, and her closing note for "Una voce poco fa" is a half-tone flat. (If anyone wishes to hear her performing this and "Dunque io son" with far more feeling and much better skill, her 1935 studio recordings of both are available on CD--very well remastered--on Vocal Archive's LILY PONS.) It may be of interest to Pons fans that the showpiece she sings in the Lesson Scene of Act 2 (in place of Rossini's "Contro un cor che accende amore") is Mozart's "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" (12 variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"); it has the same characteristic features and flaws as her other singing here, including a final note that is half a tone flat--and yet the Met audience on this CD wildly applauds her for it.
The conductor of this performance was Alberto Erede, whose tempos are generally faster than those of Renato Cellini in the 1948 Mexico City set. As most people know, the wonderful and justly famous Overture (or Sinfonia) was not composed for this opera but was recycled by Rossini from an earlier one that he had written.
I cannot recommend this set very highly. Other inexpensive sets of this opera are available to beginning listeners. The best I can do is advise di Stefano and Pons fans who are "completists" to buy this one without high hopes.