About this Recording
8.555922DX - Largo al Factotum

It was in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries that the baritone voice came into its own in the opera house. While leading rôles in baroque opera had been entrusted to voices of higher register, castrati in particular, to be replaced by the tenor, the baritone, at either end of its possible register, tended to sing paternal or priestly rôles.

The present gallery of baritone arias opens with one of the most famous baritone rôles of all, as Figaro, the barber of Seville and intriguer extraordinary, introduces himself in Rossini’s 1816 opera Il barbiere di Siviglia as a man of the most varied abilities with his Largo al factotum [1], soon to be put to the test, as he plots to help Count Almaviva win the hand of the young heiress Rosina, from her avaricious guardian, Dr Bartolo.

Rossini’s opera is based on the first of a trilogy by the French playwright Beaumarchais. Thirty years before, Mozart had collaborated with the writer Lorenzo Da Ponte in an opera based on the second play in the trilogy, which became Le nozze di Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’). Here Figaro, in the service of Count Almaviva and about to marry the Countess’s maid Susanna, sets out to foil his master’s designs on the latter’s virtue. In Se vuol ballare, signor contino [3] he expresses his resolve; if the Count wants to dance, Figaro knows well how to play the tune. In Non più andrai [6] he makes fun of the young page Cherubino, a would-be lover of the Countess and any other young woman available, now despatched by the Count to the army, where there will be an end to his philandering. With Hai già vinta la causa [8] the Count, another baritone in an opera where the only tenors have minor comic rôles, in spite of frustrations, sees a chance of having his way with Susanna, expressing his feelings to himself in a moving and revealing aria.

Mozart’s last opera to be staged was the German Die Zauberflöte, which was running in a suburban Vienna theatre at the time of the composer’s death in 1791. Here the hero is a princely tenor, but the author of the libretto and leader of the company, Emanuel Schikaneder, himself took the part of the comic bird-catcher Papageno, who accompanies the prince Tamino in his quest for an enlightenment of which he himself is not fully capable. Papageno introduces himself in Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja [2].

In 1787 Mozart had written, with Da Ponte, an Italian opera for Prague, Don Giovanni, based on the legendary lover of Spanish drama. In Deh! vieni alla finestra [4] Don Giovanni serenades the maid of his own abandoned mistress Donna Elvira, who has been lured away by Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello, disguised as his master. The serenade, accompanied by the mandolin, is unsuccessful, as the proceedings are interrupted by the young peasant Masetto, whose bride Don Giovanni has attempted to seduce. In the previous act Masetto and his Zerlina have been entertained with their friends by Don Giovanni. With Finch’han dal vino [5] he orders wine and dancing, in pursuance of his amorous designs.

Performances of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte were curtailed by the death of the Emperor in 1790. The plot involves the testing of the faith of two girls, whose lovers leave for the war, only to return in disguise and do their best to tempt their mistresses, all at the prompting of the cynical Don Alfonso, who has proposed the test for a wager. Guglielmo, in his Albanian guise, woos Fiordiligi, who has already expressed her intention of remaining rock-firm in her allegiance to her lover. The girls leave the room before Guglielmo can finish his aria Non siate ritrosi [7], making the men burst out laughing, wrongly thinking that they have won their bet and proved the girls’ fidelity. With Donne miei la fate, a tanti a tanti [9] Guglielmo deals with the misgivings of Ferrando, whose Dorabella has been the first to succumb to Guglielmo’s blandishments; this, after all, is the way women are, as the title of the opera itself suggests.

Verdi created some superb dramatic baritone rôles and never more so than in his 1851 opera Rigoletto, based on a play by Victor Hugo. The hunchback court jester of the title abets the amoral Duke in his acts of seduction, but, losing his own daughter to his master, resolves on revenge that ends only with the death of his daughter Gilda, who has deliberately protected the Duke from the assassin that Rigoletto has hired. Before his own tragedy, Rigoletto has been approached by the assassin Sparafucile, who offers his services, if they should ever be required. Rigoletto, in Pari siamo [11], sees himself as the counterpart of the hired murderer, but killing and destroying with this words, forced by his deformity into the bitter rôle of jester. In Cortigiani, vil razza dannata [13] he curses the vile race of courtiers, who have abducted Gilda and handed her to the Duke.

Verdi’s Il trovatore, first staged in Rome in 1853, is a tragedy of love and jealousy in which the troubadour of the title, Manrico, lover of Leonora, stolen by gypsies as a baby, is captured and put to death by his rival in love, eventually revealed as his own brother, the Count di Luna. Leonora plans to enter a convent, while the Count intends to abduct her, singing, in Il balen del suo sorriso [12], of her charms that he proposes to enjoy.

La traviata, staged in Venice in the same year and based on the work of Alexandre Dumas, is a very different work, dealing with the love of the young Alfredo for the courtesan Violetta, their separation and her final death of consumption. Alfredo’s father, Germont, has persuaded Violetta to break with his son, who is ignorant of the reason for her action. In Di Provenza il mar [15] Germont reminds Alfredo of his home, now that Violetta is gone, but the young man impetuously rushes away to find and reproach her for her behaviour.

Of Verdi’s two Shakespeare operas Otello, first given in Milan in 1887, casts the villainous Iago as a baritone. In his dream aria, Era la notte [16], he excites Otello’s jealousy of his lieutenant Cassio, by telling of how he had heard Cassio calling on Desdemona in his sleep and regretting her marriage to the Moor.

Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sitting in The Garter Inn, Sir John has written two love letters, one to Mistress Ford, the other to Mistress Page, and would have his followers Bardolph and Pistol deliver them. These two refuse the task as dishonourable, and Falstaff, in Ehi paggio! …L’onore! Ladri! [20] sends his messages with his page, while abusing verbally and physically, his two henchmen.

The French composer Bizet achieved his greatest success in the theatre with his last opera, Carmen, dying as it was first staged, in 1875. The Spanish gypsy of the title lures the young soldier Don José into her own criminal activities, only to desert him for the toreador Escamillo, introduced in all his vainglory in Votre toast [10].

The short operas Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana, the work of Leoncavallo and Mascagni respectively, are often part of a double bill in the theatre. The first, staged in Milan in 1892, is a story of love and jealousy, in which Canio, the leader of a troupe of itinerant actors, murders his wife on the stage. Si può?…Si può [14] starts the Prologue, given by the clown Tonio, who assures the audience of the truth of what they are to see, based on an actual occurrence, showing that actors too have their own feelings. The second work again deals with love and jealousy. In a Sicilian village Santuzza, deserted by her former lover Turiddu, seeks revenge by telling the village carter Alfio of the attentions Turiddu has been paying to the latter’s young wife, Lola. The revelation leads to a fight between the men and Turiddu’s death. Unaware of Lola’s behaviour in his absence, Alfio blithely sings in Il cavallo scalpita [17] of the joys of his work, as he drives his cart merrily along.

In many ways the heir to Verdi in Italian opera, Puccini had his first great success in 1893 with Manon Lescaut. Tosca, first given in Rome in 1900, centres on the singer of the title, her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, and the villainous intervention of the wicked chief of police Baron Scarpia. Cavaradossi, at work on a painting in a church, helps a political fugitive, Angelotti, to escape, arousing the jealousy of Tosca, who imagines her lover involved with Angelotti’s sister. Scarpia, in pursuit of Angelotti and with designs on Tosca, provokes her jealousy and in Tre sbirri, una carrozza [18] orders her followed. Cavaradossi is taken prisoner by Scarpia and tortured, leading Tosca, who is forced to hear what is happening, to reveal the whereabouts of Angelotti, which she has learnt. For her lover’s release she agrees to accede to Scarpia’s demands on her, and in Quanto?…quanto?…Già mi dicon venal [19] he proposes his bargain, which neither he nor she will keep.

Keith Anderson

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