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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871) - Highlights
Il Re, King of Egypt – Plinio Clabassi (bass); Amneris, his daughter – Rita Gorr (mezzo); Radames, Egyptian captain of the guard – Jon Vickers (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia – Robert Merrill (baritone); Aida, his daughter – Leontyne Price (soprano); Ramfis, High priest – Giorgio Tozzi (bass);

Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera/Georg Solti

rec. Opera House, Rome, Italy, July 1961. ADD

Experience Classicsonline

After the composition of Don Carlos for performance at the Paris Opera during the Great Exhibition of 1867, and some alterations to La Forza del Destino,  Verdi really thought he had hung up his compositional pen. However, an approach came from the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt to write an opera, on an Egyptian theme, for premiere at the new Cairo opera house opened to celebrate the construction of the Suez Canal. Verdi at first turned down the request repeating his refusal later. Mariette, a French national and renowned Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive, sent Verdi a synopsis. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, by the fact that Gounod or Wagner might be approached if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi set out his terms. These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto, and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. Marriette conveyed his acceptance of these terms to Du Locle on 10 June 1870. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever.

Don Carlos had been a Grand Opera in the French style complete with a ballet sequence. Verdi’s Aida was nearly as grand but in a more Italian style. It has the drama of the father-daughter relationship as well as the complex love rivalry between the two female leads. Alongside these elements Verdi wrote a scene of great grandeur and pageantry as well as ballet interludes. Its mix has made it a constant magnet for opera and recording companies. Tebaldi recorded the eponymous role for Decca in 1952 (see review), Milanov for RCA in 1955 (see review) and Callas for EMI in the same year (see review). The advent of stereo suited the grandeur of the work to perfection and Decca went back into the studios with Tebaldi again in 1958. In this stereo version Karajan also has Carlo Bergonzi as Radames. In this production by John Culshaw, Decca set out to present the work as a sonic spectacular and the recording held prime place in the catalogue for many years. On the recording front Decca were in association with RCA who had split from their relationship with EMI. Artists were being freely exchanged between the two in a period when such sharing was rare. Solti, contracted to Decca, was loaned to RCA for recordings of La Bohème (see review) and Rigoletto (see review). Meanwhile RCA’s new soprano, Leontyne Price, was making big waves in the operatic world as Aida. The upshot was that Solti, with Decca advice on recording, went to Rome Opera House, contracted to RCA, in 1961 for another recording of Aida in spectacular stereo.

Aida is an opera for spinto, big-voiced singers. That is what you get with Jon Vickers’ Radames. He is the opposite of Bergonzi in the Karajan set, tending to throw his virile voice at the role. There is no way his opening Celeste Aida (tr.1) is going to finish with a diminuendo. His is a vocally thrilling, viscerally exciting interpretation and he can, and does show more vocal sensitivity in the final tomb scene (tr.13). Leontyne Price’s voice at this stage of her career was more silvery than smoky. Her Aida is sung with lovely even legato and excellent diction. If on the 1969 recording for RCA she has more interpretive insight, her beautiful singing in Rittorna vincitor (tr.3) with a lovely dying diminuendo and the clear unforced high notes in O patria mia (tr.7) are more than adequate compensation. Neither she nor Merrill as Amonasro, or even Solti on the podium, can bring the frisson between father and daughter of Callas and Gobbi in Ciel mio padre (tr.8) as her father bullies Aida to tempt Radames into betraying the secret departure route of the Egyptian army. That said Merrill’s steady, even, tonal richness and sonority has its own appeal.

In the dramatic trial scene of act four (trs.9 -10) Rita Gorr’s strong Amneris has its virtues without erasing memories of the Italian dramatic mezzo Fedora Barbieri, who graces both the Callas and Milanov recordings, or Simionato for Karajan. Solti drives the pageantry of act two (Trs.4-6) for all it is worth. It’s exciting but Karajan does it better. The recording is clear and vibrant. The leaflet is minimal with a brief essay-cum-synopsis and a track-listing. Given its timing these highlights could gainfully have started with the opening prelude and Ramfis and Radames’s introduction to his big aria. I suspect it is a straight lift of an earlier anthology from this performance when going over seventy five minutes was problematic.


Robert J Farr



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