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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Renata Tebaldi (Aida), Mario Del Monaco (Radames), Ebe Stignani (Amneris), Aldo Protti (Amonasro), Fernando Corena (Il Re), Dario Caselli (Ramfis), Piero de Palma (Messenger)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Alberto Erede
Recorded August 1952, Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome
NAXOS 8.110129-30 [2 CDs, 67:52+76:41]


Decca’s early Italian opera sets, well regarded at the time, were looked on as shrill-sounding stopgaps in their Ace of Clubs incarnations in the 1960s and received the kiss of death at the hands of "electronically enhanced stereo". And that, for the UK-based listener, has been the end of it, although CD transfers have been made of many of them and are available on the London label in the USA and some continental European countries.

But on the rare occasions that I have heard a Decca recording from the early 1950s in its original LXT form, or even some of their later 78s, I have always been impressed by the warm, lifelike quality of the sound. That sound is far superior to the seedy strings and ill-defined lower registers which characterised the same recordings when they reappeared on Ace of Clubs, Eclipse and so on. Recent CD transfers of some of Decca’s Vienna recordings (for example the Kleiber "Rosenkavalier") show that their backroom boys have still not lost the vice of tarting up old recordings by trying to extract a frequency range from them that just isn’t there. It is therefore a pleasure to hear the musicianly results Mark Obert-Thorn has obtained, working from good copies of the original LPs. Distortion is minor and confined to a few odd moments while the general effect is clear, warm and spacious. You won’t get stereo separation in the big choral scenes but the impact is considerable even so and the off-stage effects in the last act are well-handled. The original engineers were helped by the fact that the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome has a warm and sufficiently reverberant but very clear acoustic. This is far more tractable than La Scala in Milan, where EMI usually worked and which is wont to produce a boxy sound with a tubby bass. Furthermore, the orchestra of Santa Cecilia was the finest in Italy at that time, combining Italianate warmth with a clean attack and clarity of textures, which brings us to the conductor.

By and large the names of Tullio Serafin and Antonino Votto, thanks to their association with Maria Callas, most of whose recordings they conducted, are better honoured by posterity than that of Alberto Erede (1908-2001). Erede had the bad luck to leave Italy at about the time Decca were introducing stereophonic recording and preparing to re-record the basic Italian repertoire. Though he was an appreciated presence on the world stage, including the Deutsch Oper am Rhein (1958-1962) and Bayreuth ("Lohengrin", 1968), and continued to conduct (though hardly ever in Italy) until not long before his recent death, he became one of those artists who had the misfortune to work outside the regular recording circuit.

At first he may initially seem unduly gentle for "Aida" – all to often subjected, in the wake of Toscanini, to "bash and grab" conducting techniques – but he shows us just how much of the score is marked "piano" and "pianissimo", with such added markings as "cantabile" and "dolce". He finds mystery and space in the music as well as grandeur, while he is not lacking in power in the Triumph Scene or in dynamism in such moments as the confrontation between Aida and Amneris. In short, model Verdi conducting.

It would be too much to expect that Erede would persuade Mario Del Monaco to sing pianissimo but, while his stentorian bawling was a liability in many later Decca sets, here the voice is wonderfully fresh and secure and he does at least drop to a "mezzoforte" sometimes. A heroic and convincing portrayal.

One of the reasons why the early Decca sets featuring Tebaldi have been much less reissued than Callas sets of the same period is that Tebaldi was a very consistent artist and, unlike Callas, went into no evident decline if not in the very last year or two before her retirement. So, while there may be good reasons for preferring an earlier Callas set to a later remake, in the case of Tebaldi there is no pressing case for sacrificing the advantages of later stereo sound. Except that you do get here the voice in its first flush of radiant beauty, which is no small matter considering that it was one of the most sheerly beautiful voices of the century. I don’t want to suggest that it is only beautiful singing, there is characterisation and feeling as well, but unlike Callas, she never sacrificed her beautiful sound for these other matters. It is an interpretation which contrasts well with the Amneris of Ebe Stignani, who demonstrates that tigerish vocal acting was not just a Callas invention.

Stignani (1904-1974) had been Italy’s leading mezzo for some twenty-five years, though her place was now being taken by Barbieri and Simionato. Her tone was still strong and gleaming, with some magnificent high notes, and her only concession to age is that some phrases are broken which she would no doubt have sung in a single breath ten years earlier.

The remaining roles are well handled, by the little-remembered Dario Caselli as much as by the famed Fernando Corena, and even Aldo Protti, a notoriously wooden Germont, is effective as Amonasro. In short, a cast without weaknesses and with many strengths.

As is normal with these Naxos transfers, we get a good presentation (on which I have drawn above) and a very detailed synopsis which is some compensation for the lack of a libretto. In any case, you can easily pull down a libretto from Internet of a popular opera like this. A definitive best choice for this much recorded opera is probably impossible but, if your greatest ambition in life is not to antagonise your neighbours with the most spectacular digital recording of the Triumph Scene you can find, then the case for choosing this one, especially at the price, is very strong.

Christopher Howell


see also review by Robert Farr and Colin Clarke


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