This cozy DVD of Il Barbiere di Siviglia was recently re-released and will be of interest to those who are only familiar with Cecilia Bartoli‘s work after she became an international star. The Bartoli who hand-picks somewhat arcane personal projects, restricts her operatic staged appearances, and marches to the beat of her own drum with her vocal idiosyncrasies is not the Cecilia Bartoli of this charming, if rather conventional and unadventurous video.  

This video was filmed in 1988 at the Schwetzinger Festspiele and Bartoli both in looks and voice resembles any host of up-and-coming lyric mezzos who are usually tapped to sing Rosina. Her timbre has its trademark dusky warmth, and her stage persona is spirited and lively. But the ornamentations for “Una voce poco fa” and “Contro un cor” are “classic” and more subdued than what we might expect of Bartoli today were she to revisit Rossini.

The dazzling vocal fireworks that are now a trademark of her sold-out recitals are notably missing here. Her coloratura has some of the relentless aspiration that would drive some opera fans nuts but vocal mannerisms are somehow never as distracting when a singer is younger. Her top is bright and ringing, and her lower register rich and organ-like, and her voice is a smooth column of sound. This is a lovely, straightforward, rendition of a touchstone role. It’s just doest have the pizzazz of a typical CECILIA BARTOLI, VOCAL SUPERSTAR project.

The rest of the cast is solid, if not spectacular. Some of the usual cuts are made, including “Cessa di piu resistere.” David Kuebler has an attractive lyric tenor voice but lacks the kind of oily charm that’s usually associated with this role. “Ecco ridente” has some nice legato singing. Those looking for the high options that Juan Diego Florez or Lawrence Brownlee would take today will be disappointed. More troublesome is Kuebler’s rather dour acting. He does the usual schtick but without much humor or joy.

Gino Quilico is yet another professional but rather forgettable Figaro. I’m starting to think that it’s hard to really make an impact as Figaro—after “Largo al factotum” the character is basically on the sidelines. I’ve seen many, many performances of Barbiere and really can’t recall one performance where I thought the Figaro stole the show.

The poorest performance comes from Carlos Feller as Bartolo. He has some good comic timing but he absolutely cannot handle the vocal challenges of his aria “A un dottor”—he runs out of breath, makes absolutely mush of the patter, and it’s really very undistinguished. Robert Lloyd, on the other hand, is vocally excellent in “La calunnia” and a fun stage presence.

Gabriele Ferro‘s leadership from the pit is a plus—he’s spirited and lively and really captures the rhythmic acceleration of Rossini’s music.

This Seville is visually drab and lacks the intimacy we’d usually associate with a small theater. The small stage is dominated first by a dark, weirdly eery version of a “Seville street in the nighttime” and then by a very grayish unit set of Bartolo’s home. Everything from the sets to the costumes are in rather dark hues, as if they decided to borrow from a Don Giovanni production. Even Bartoli is dressed in a rather frumpy wig and dress.

The director Michael Hampe seems to have gotten a Cliff Notes version of “classic Barber of Seville stage schtick” and directed the cast to follow it without much imagination. On the one hand, this is good if you are tired of the frantic mugging and stage business that directors often cram into contemporary “Barbiere” productions. On the other hand, it’s kind of like … a Bartolo who is OCD about the locks on his house and people sneezing throughout the opera. Haven’t we seen this too many times?