Listening now to this album one regrets that Sir John Barbirolli’s appearances in the opera house were so few. After all, though he himself was born in London his family was steeped in the Italian operatic tradition: before leaving Italy both his father and grandfather had been members of the orchestra at La Scala, Milan (along with a young cellist named Arturo Toscanini), and in 1887 they had played in the premiere of Verdi’s Otello. By the age of 25 he was appearing at the head of his own orchestra. His potential was quickly recognised by Frederic Austin of the British National Opera Company, who engaged him on the spot. Over the next seven years, either for BNOC or at Covent Garden (where he first appeared in 1928) Barbirolli conducted Aida, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La bohème, Tosca, Turandot, Madama Butterfly, Gianni Schicchi, The Barber of Seville, Romeo and Juliet, Hansel and Gretel, Don Giovanni, The Bartered Bride, Die Fledermaus, Die Meistersinger, Der Rosenkavalier and The Wreckers.
The Barbirolli years after 1933 were filled by orchestral appointments and it was not until 1951 that he was able to return to Covent Garden. Over the next three seasons he was prominent there conducting old favourites such as Turandot, Aida, La bohème and Madama Butterfly, and adding to them Tristan und Isolde and Orpheus and Eurydice. At the time it was widely thought that Barbirolli might take over at Covent Garden, but his orchestral responsibilities had become all-consuming and in fact after the 1953-4 season he never appeared there again. His love of operatic music remained as strong as ever, though, and found its outlet in concert performances of complete operas and evenings of operatic excerpts. Such events became popular and, on account of Barbirolli’s prestige, would draw huge crowds. Some of these carried into the recording studio: the present album is a fine souvenir of his devoted approach to his beloved Puccini. But he was not now seen in any opera house. Only in his last decade did he find time to conduct Aida in Rome, and to make commercial recordings of Madama Butterfly, Otello and Dido and Aeneas.
“Loving and vibrant accounts by Barbirolli of suites, overtures and other substantial extracts from the operatic repertoire he understood so well.” BBC Music Magazine, January 2013 *****