James Levine

Rossini: The Barber of Seville (Highlights)

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On paper, this recording of excerpts (including about half of the music from the opera) looks like a dream version of The Barber of Seville: Beverly Sills, Nicolai Gedda, Sherrill Milnes, Renato Capecchi, and Ruggero Raimondi all conducted by James Levine. It's never less than fully professional, but only occasionally catches fire and lifts off with the lightness that characterizes the truly transcendent performances of Rossini comedies. There are portents of things to come in the overture; James Levine leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly respectable reading -- which is just the problem -- the piece needs a sense of transgressive fun, not respectability. In general, the orchestra seems heavy; the recording was made before conductors were routinely researching the principles of authentic performance practice for works as late as bel canto operas, and a standard modern orchestra sounds too full. This is especially noticeable when it's contrasted with the delicacy of the harpsichord accompanying the recitatives; smaller orchestras can add to the dramatic and musical continuity of numbers of operas by minimizing the discrepancy between the accompaniment of the set pieces and the recitatives. In fact, this recording is frequently at its strongest in the nimble recitatives, which allow natural comedians like Sills and Milnes and Raimondi to really shine. Vocally the cast is mostly in excellent shape. Of the principals, only Gedda sounds a little mature for his role, and lacks the unforced freshness of his prime. Milnes, Sills, Capecchi, and Raimondi are fully convincing, both vocally and musically. If the entire opera had the energy they bring to their parts, and if Levine's conducting was more lilting, this would be a remarkable performance. As is, it is a fine presentation of Rossini's score, but it lacks the consistent sparkle to make it extraordinary. D Classics' selection of excerpts contains about 15 fewer minutes of music than EMI's excerpts disc of the same performance.

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