Cast: Figaro, Hermann Prey/ Count Almaviva, Fritz Wunderlich/ Rosina, Erika Koeth/ Bartolo, Max Proebstl/ Basilio, Hans Hotter/ Marzeline, Iba Gerhein/ Fiorillo, Karl Ostertag/ Choir and State Orchestra of Bavaria/ Joseph Keilberth, conductor
Studio: DGG DVD B0005775-09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Duration: 141 minutes
A television broadcast of 25 December 1959 directly from the Bavarian State Opera of Rossini’s charming The Barber of Seville, led by Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968), the master kapellmeister. His cast includes the legendary Fritz Underlet (1930-1966) as Almaviva, a tenor whose acting gifts equaled his superlative vocalization. He and Hermann Prey (1929-1998) had met in a performance of Richard Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau at the Salzburg Festival. After Keilberth takes the podium, the camera oscillates between the orchestra pit, the empty stage, and the wonderful ornamental statuary of the theater. Keilberth accepts the audience’s applause and turns to the opening curtain.
After Fiorillo gathers the street musicians, we are struck immediately how lyrically Italianate is Wunderlich’s unidiomatic German for this opera. The tenore di grazia role is as natural to Wunderlich as are Mozart’s. The musicians’ noise wakes the town and brings forth our Barber Figaro, sung with guttural delight by Hermann Prey. Prey exudes a muscular physicality: this barber can play soccer. To hear Prey attack the quick patter of Figaro’s factotum virtuosity is a real Christmas pleasure, and he bring down the house. His aria exhorting the virtues of gold is no less frothy. The subsequent duet with Wunderlich is a classic of German operatic ensemble. Max Proebstl, noted for his Max in Der Freischuetz, plays Dr. Bartolo in broad caricature, a fat-bottomed Philistine. Erika Koeth, who for years excelled as Mozart’s Queen of the Night, makes a tender, demure Rosina, a supple, light coloratura. Her aria to Count “Lindoro” is all Susan Alexander (in Citizen Kane) strove for so vainly. The magic of Signor Crescendo, as was Rossini’s wonted moniker, is never so transparently wearing the mantle of Mozart. The stately Hans Hotter’s (1909-2003) Basilio is the soul of pompous arrogance, a poker born to his derriere, the German acting equivalent of Jeff Corey. Hotter’s La Calumnia starts softly, and he bends Bartolo to his serpentine level, then he traces its mounting progression through the air like a natural catastrophe. The large ensemble scenes, as when soldiers come to arrest the “drunken, billeted” Almaviva, play like a family reunion of polished veterans, the camera zooming in to each individual singer. The camera draws back enough to allow Keilberth’s direction its presence in relation to the versatile troupe.
Act II features the brilliant duet between Bartolo and Almaviva, politeness pushed to the point of perdition. We can see Wunderlich’s deft comic timing which never detracts from the strong, lyrical projection of his voice. As Don Alonso, the voice teacher, he prompts Erika Koeth’s aria from Don Pasquale. The big moment is the intricate Quintet, culminating in the Count’s bribing Basilio to take to his sickbed. The liquidity of the ensemble seems almost at odds with the staid, antiquated character of the sets by Max Bignens. The trio celebrating the lovers’ decision to elope by ladder, with Figaro’s complicity, is lovely. Hotter’s capacity for humor, taking the ring when proffered by Almaviva as an alternative to two bullets, works well. Like all true comedies, this one ends with a marriage, Rossini splicing his final pages to Mozart’s Seraglio as a tribute to his own unique gifts. A long take of the cast taking repeated curtain calls reminds us of how very transient were the talents before us.
The bonus track is a trailer, in German, celebrating the art and life of Fritz Wunderlich, with many home videos and reminiscences. The sequences of his rehearsing are fascinating.