Non-classical Barber…

…of Seville, I mean. A Met Opera performance broadcast in December of 1950, and newly released (or soon to be released) on Sony Classical.  

I was interested initially for opera geek reasons. The cast included Lily Pons (the Met’s leading coloratura of those days) as Rosina, and Giuseppe Di Stefano as the Count. Pons has always struck me on commercial recordings as rather feeble, and while I’ve known that Di Stefano began his career singing light, lyric tenor roles, I’d never heard him in anything this light. Instead I’ve known him from the commercial recordings he made later on with Callas, singing heavier repertoire, even Manrico in Il Trovatore (and damaging his voice by doing it). 

Well, Pons indeed was feeble, despite her glamour and her fame. (See the 1940s Time magazine piece I linked in my last post.) Tremulous, watery sound, coloratura so inaccurate it sounded sometimes like a parody, a final high E (in “Una voce poca fa”) that was barely higher than a D sharp. I didn’t listen much beyond that high note, but I did hear some of the  recitative that followed, and there she was clearly putting on a terrific show. 

So that gave me two reasons to forgive her singing, if I wanted to. First, that maybe she was basically a show-biz act, glamorous, utterly charming, irreisistible to Americans because she was oh, so French (and played it to the hilt). And second, that she was nearing the end of her career. Though still she was hard to take. 

Di Stefano appalled me. Occasionally he’d sing with verve or grace, but mostly he threw his voice around with no mercy for it or for the listener, sounding as if the role was far too light for him, and smearing his coloratura (for instance, in his duet with Figaro) in a clumsy way I can’t believe any tenor would get away with today. 

That’s my opera geek report. But beyond vocal geekery, I’m fascinated by classical performances from past generations, and in some ways this one paid off richly. It’s utterly non-classical, by which I mean not elegant, not refined, not artistic, but instead entirely colloquial. (See my earlier “Classical music aura” post for more of what I mean by that.) 

The overture begins with such promise. Everyone sounds like they’re ready to have fun; the principal oboe plays with knowing, smart delight. But then the violins take the melody, and their playing is so clumsy, with such exaggerated, sloppy accents, that I almost turned the damn thing off. It’s a good news/bad news story. Yes, colloquial, yes, almost fun, but no, this isn’t good orchestral playing. I might blame the conductor, Alberto Erede, not known, even back then, as much of a leader.

And so the performance went. Giuseppe Valdengo, the Figaro, wasn’t having a good high G day, which made some of “Largo al factotum” a trial (the high Gs — and there are many of them — that ought to sound exuberant were labored, and a little flat). And often he hurled his voice around, though (unlike Di Stefano) he didn’t have to. He could sing with perfect delicacy when he put his mind to it. And one passage in “Largo al factotum” was so easygoing, so relaxed, and so engaging that I could have believed I was hearing the opera on Broadway. 

If I listen more, I’ll be interested in what Salvatore Baccaloni does as Bartolo. He was the reigning buffo bass in the 1930s and the 1940s, completely non-classical, always putting on a show, and doing it with all the voice you’d want and lots of style. Plus genuine good humor (something I didn’t often think I heard from his buffo bass successor, Fernando Corena). In a few bits of recitative I heard, he did a vintage job, like a star comic you’d encounter in a fine old movie. 

I shouldn’t forget Jerome Hines, absolutely titanic vocally as Basilio. His voice, even in a few lines of recitative, sounded like it might set off an earthquake. 

But the final point might be that what we seem to get in this performance is the Jerome Hines show, the Salvatore Baccaloni show, the Lily Pons show, the Giuseppe Valdengo show, and maybe even the Giuseppe Di Stefano show (since photos from the time show he was gorgeous). Not, in other words, a Rossini show. Not a coherent Barber of Seville. But then could Rossini, in his day, have expected such a thing, or even imagined it? Back then, it was every singer for him- or herself. 

And isn’t it fun to hear everybody cutting loose? Even if these days it’s hard to stomach some of the orchestral playing and the singing. 

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  1. Rafael de Acha says

    Quote Sandow:”Not, in other words, a Rossini show. Not a coherent Barber of Seville. But then could Rossini, in his day, have expected such a thing, or even imagined it? Back then, it was every singer for him- or herself.” Well, not quite, Greg. From one Opera Geek to another, the 1950’s were pretty dreadful in matters operatic. Just look at your cast description: Valdengo – never a major player in the Met’s major leagues, Di Stefano – one of the sloppiest tenors ever with no business doing Barber of Seville, Pons with a voice in shreds. My God! It sounds dreadful, no matter how much fun they were having. How ’bout us having fun? But, besides all the bad singing, the Met – just barely out of the Edward Johnson Dark Ages – could barely throw a world class cast together. Jump cut to today’s average Barber (at the Met or anywhere else) and it makes the “fun” cast of this 50’s disaster sound like hopeless amateurs. As regards a Barbiere of Rossini’s time, I beg to disagree. A line up of Malibran or Viardot or Pasta as Rosina, Garcia as Almaviva, Tamburini as Figaro and Lablache as Bartolo (or Basilio) must have been a pretty good ensemble of decent colleagues, not a bunch of “every man for himself” singing jerks. And, if you jump-cut past the listless 50’s into the great 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when the Rossini performance practice bar was raised and we were regularly hearing Peters, Grist, de los Angeles, Berganza and Horne as Rosina, Merrill as Figaro, Siepi as Basilio and Valletti and Alva as Almaviva…Well…I hope you see what I mean. As for today, I think we have some great Rossinians who look good, act well and sing the hell out of that music. Florez, Damrau, Di Donato…No “classical aura” there, my friend.

  2. Elliott Verner says

    This is a third rate cast. I heard them all and you are dead right. All third raters. Pons and Dstefano were Jokes and I heard them in person as well as all the others. Elliott Verner

    PS the Met was broke in 1950