It's time to pass onto the next group: the four masterpieces, "L'italiana in Algeri" (2nd, I decided to mix things up a bit, so the operas, while given in their correct chronological order, are going to be presented in the order given in these numbers), "Il turco in Italia" (3rd), "Il barbiere di Siviglia" (1st) and "La Cenerentola" (4th).
These pieces, with the possible exception of "Il turco in Italia", are all almost too well-known (and justly so) to the public and so writing about them is especially difficult, in contrast to, for example, "Torvaldo" or, in fact, "La gazza ladra". But skipping them because of the familiarity would be a sin on the part of any serious admirer of opera who I aim to be. So I will gladly present my personal highlights from these pieces, again with my own short thoughts on the music itself, as usual :).
We start with a work as much known for its' spectacular fiasco premiere as for its' undying popularity after that memorable first performance, a piece that is considered by many the epitome of opera buffa, "Il barbiere di Siviglia". Even when operas of the belcanto period were rarely performed, its frequent presence on operatic stages of the world was unabated, and we are talking seriously about a period when belcanto literally died out under the pressure of verismo. The fact is that the work is excellent, from the first page to the last, from the quiet introduction to the happy finaletto. Even repeated hearings (I would have to say too many repeated hearings, considering how often the work is staged and recorded (125 times from 1918 to 2006)) don't really hurt the piece, so good it actually is, though one does wish that opera companies would just stage it a bit less in favor of other works from the belcanto period.
Choosing from several recordings of the work that I own (Callas-Alva-Gobbi, a recording in Russian with Firsova-Kozlovsky, Berganza-Alva-Prey, Battle-Lopardo-Domingo, Larmore-Gimenez-Hagegard as well as endless excepts) is difficult. The problem lies in several places: firstly, one wishes to choose a version that would be perfectly representative of the work itself (no soprano heroine, no casting a tenor as Figaro or a lightish tenor as Almaviva (Garcia who originated the role was more of a baritenor), no cuts (with the possible exception of the rather pointless, in my opinion, "Cessa di piu resistere" which seriously holds up the denouement and brings an imbalance to the cast)), secondly, one wishes to choose a well-sung, well-played and (that's really important) well-acted performance; and, thirdly, one wants to provide an unfamiliar, unusual version to provide the interest. Decisions, decisions...
I will skip all of the above mentioned recordings because they are either too familiar (or not as good as others on the market. The recording that I'm going for is, in my opinion, a triumph on all accounts: it's an honest reading, with a capable conductor, a "dream" cast, an irresistible sense of humor and sensibility (out goes "Cessa")... There is but one problem, if you wish to consider it as a problem (I do not, as the performances are just too good)... The work is performed in a full (and very good) English translation. Some of you may already know the recording I am talking about: made by "Chandos" in 1994 under the baton of Gabriele Bellini. And that is the recording that I'm going to use to represent Rossini's masterpiece.
Before we pass on to the opera itself, there is still the question of the overture. If the music of Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville seems to have a peculiar amount of "swashbuckling" surge and vigor for a comic opera prelude, it may be because the self-same overture had originally been composed for an earlier opera, "Aureliano in Palmira" (and in "Elisabetta"), a historical work whose subject was the Crusades, before settling into the waiting room of the good barber Figaro.
Owing to its transposed origins, the overture contains no material from the opera, as it is sometimes suggested. "It is, however, most successful in its function, that of providing a feeling of deliciously nervous anticipation for the action to follow. Two brash chords herald the beginning, followed by a scampering yet hesitating figure which figures through most of the introduction; a contrasting central section is a sunny lyrical tune which could easily have been an aria. The intro seemingly drifts to somnolence until the opening chords jolt the music back to reality. A Neapolitan dance takes center stage and is followed by a more jovial theme tossed between woodwinds and horns. Then begins one of Rossini's best crescendi, its headlong propulsion almost breakneck" (taken from allmusic.com). Though one already knows most of this, so often one hears the piece.
I've chosen the rendition by Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, as it is a particularly lively (and well-played) rendition. Enjoy :)!