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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Finding Maria Brooklyn

An operatic treasure in Park Slope.
Sweet, innocent, and a viper: Maria Callas as Rosina.
Photo © 1958 EMI Classics
Last Saturday afternoon, following brunch, I found myself at Brooklyn Record and Tape, an old, somewhat beaten-up, but interesting record store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Tony's shop is a living throwback, a record store crammed with vinyl, CDs, cassettes and VHS. He may even have 8-tracks--I've never asked.

And there, on top of a wooden CD crate of hip-hop CDs, it sat. The 1997 EMI reissue (on two CDs) of the 1958 La Scala recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. I looked at the prices for the small classical CD collection. $4 a disc. $8 for two. I bought it immediately.

Taking my new purchase home on the B63 bus, I wanted to yell and shout, to exult that I had scored Maria Callas in Park Slope. But nobody would have understood what that meant, and it was better to just take my new-found treasure home quietly.

Needless to say, I've been listening to the Callas Barbiere steadily for the last two days. It is a brisk, professional affair, graced with the presence of La Divina as the ingenious Rosina. Ms. Callas accents the viperish nature and worldly wisdom of Dr. Bartolo's young ward. Her "Una voce poco fa" is lovely, complete with a hair-raising high note in the final bars.

"Dunque Io Sono", Rosina's duet with Figaro, is the highlight of this first act, matching Maria with her longtime onstage sparring partner Tito Gobbi. Mr. Gobbi is a great comic barber, brash and arrogant during "Largo al factotum." He and Luigi Alva soar together in "All' idea di quell metallo" and "Numero quindice. It feels like the conductor Alcero Galliera, is hurrying to keep up with his singers.

This recording features Luigi Alva, early in the role that became the trademark of his career. The bel canto tenor is in good comic form, displaying the comic chops needed for Almaviva's disguised entries into Dr. Bartolo's household. "Pace gioia" elicits real laughter, as Alva puts on an irritating, nasal voice and an air of piety. Fritz Ollendorf is a harsh-toned Bartolo, but surmounts the tongue-tripping challenges of "Un dottor della mia sorta", an aria so difficult that it was left out of the opera for almost a century.

Although this is a studio recording, the nature of Barbiere allows the listener to hear Callas working in ensembles, particularly the big sextet and chorus that rings down the curtain on Act I. She uses the lower range of her instrument to create a mezzo Rosina, as the composer originally intended. And yes, there is a special thrill when her distinctive voice cuts through the texture of the other singers. How often to you get to hear a goddess do comedy?

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats