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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera (1871)
Maria Caniglia (Aida), Beniamino Gigli (Radames), Italo Tajo (King), Ebe Stignani (Amneris), Tancredi Pasero (Ramfis)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera House, Rome/Tulio Serafin

Rec. July 1946 ADD

NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110156/57 [CD1 78.07 CD2 62.34]

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After Giuseppe Verdi’s three great middle period operas, Rigoletto (1852), Il Trovatore (1853) and La Traviata (1853), his pre-eminence as the foremost opera composer of the day was assured. Now a rich man, his pace of composition slackened; he was happy working and expanding his farm at Sant’Agata, or following the unification of Italy serving in the first Italian Parliament to which he was elected in 1861. However, if the price was right and the conditions of production and his required singers were available, then Verdi answered the call. He went to St Petersburg where La Forza del Destino was premiered in November 1862. He later wrote that the subsequent honours from the state were no compensation for the cold! His preferred foreign clime was Paris and 1867 saw his longest opera, Don Carlos for that city.

In the summer of 1870 Verdi wrote to his publisher Ricordi –

"Towards the end of last year I was invited to write an opera for a distant country. I refused"

His friend Du Locle raised the matter again and Verdi continued–

"I was offered a large sum of money. Again I refused.

A month later he sent me a sketch.. I found it first rate and agreed to write the music"

The distant country was Egypt, where Khedive was anxious to have an opera on an Egyptian subject for the new Opera House built in Cairo to celebrate the opening in the Suez Canal in November 1869. Aida was ready for premiere in January 1871, but the designs and costumes were held up in Paris by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war; it didn’t reach the stage until 24th December. A production at La Scala soon followed on 8th February 1872. The first UK performance was at Covent Garden on June 22nd 1876.

Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular operas and with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression it marked a distinctive development in his personal achievement and the convention of operatic style that were to be fully realised in Otello and Falstaff.

This Naxos recording is one of a series of remasterings from 78 rpm commercial issues of historically important recordings. This was carried out by Ward Marston, recipient of the UK Gramophone magazine’s ‘Historical Vocal Recordings of the Year’ award in 1996 for his production and engineering work. Recorded in Rome in 1946 and issued on 40 shellac sides, this Aida is the eighth of a series featuring the great Italian tenor, Gigli. Marston found much variation in balance between orchestra, choir and soloists as well as volume disparities between sides of the records. Despite careful application of his sorcery these variations are evident to the keen ear. The balance favours the voices, with the orchestra set well back. Despite that limitation, the overall sound quality is well realised with little evidence of surface noise or congestion, but it inevitably lacks the immediacy available from recordings a few years younger as evidenced by Decca’s first recording of Aida with Tebaldi in the name part (1953).

It is the cast of singers here, all Italian, that will tempt the purchaser. Was it a golden age now past?

Certainly the name of Gigli (born in 1870, professional debut in 1914 and first Scala appearance in 1918) will be the first to catch the eye. He moved to the Met, New York (1920-32) returning to Italy as acclaimed natural successor to Caruso. His time at the Met. was marked by many memorable recordings, often partnered by the likes of De Luca, Galli-Curci, Pinza et al. By the time of this recording his lyric tenor had become more robust and easily encompasses the spinto demands. The characteristic clear diction, even vocal production and elegant phrasing are all in evidence, even if the light plangent tone of his lyric years has gone. He takes the unwritten high note, rather than the written diminuendo, at the end of Celeste Aida (CD1 tk3) as was traditional.

As Radames’ lover, Aida, Maria Caniglia is less successful. Born in 1905 she made her debut in 1930 and swiftly became the leading lyrico-dramatic soprano of that decade. (She was particularly admired as Tosca.) The heavier spinto role of Aida, recorded when she was 41, taxes her in parts such as in O Patria Mio (CD2 tk.2) where Renata Tebaldi (recording twice for Decca) or Leontyne Price (once each for RCA and Decca) are so secure. However, it is only a weakness in comparison: elsewhere her interpretation would be welcome in any opera house, today. In the final duet with Gigli she is particularly affecting (CD2 tks.11-13).

Aida’s rival, the Princes Amneris, is sung by Ebe Stignani (b 1904), one of a great line of Italian dramatic mezzos that continued with Giulieta Simionato (b 1910), Fedora Barbieri (b 1920) and Fiorenza Cossotto (b 1935) who formed the mezzo backbone of many recordings of Italian opera into the 1980s. The Italian mezzo well seems to have dried up with the voice type now best exemplified by the American Dolores Zajick and few (any?) others. Even and rich-toned, with a bite to her declamation and an wide range, Stignani was a great vocal actress and all her virtues are found here. Perhaps the highlight of this performance is Act 4, Scene 1 (CD2 tks.7-10) when Amneris first pleads for Radames to love her, and then with the priests not to condemn her to death. It is an interpretation not bettered on record despite the quality of rivals which, as well as these mentioned, includes Rita Gorr, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry.

Aida’s father, Amonasro, is sung by Gino Bechi (b 1913) who enjoyed a considerable reputation in the Verdi baritone roles. His lean voice was not well covered and his Iago and Falstaff were not appreciated in London (1950). However, his vocal strengths are appropriate here as the domineering, demanding, father and it would be a formidable Aida indeed who would stand up to him (CD2 tks.3-6)

The primo basso role of Ramfis (High priest) is taken by the veteran Tancredi Pasero (b 1893), while the younger Italo Tajo, shortly to be Ramfis at the Met. is King. Both are characterful, firm-toned and suitably sonorous.

The conductor, Serafin (b 1878, d 1968), worked as assistant to Toscanini at La Scala from 1902. He was mentor to Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas and coached Joan Sutherland for her memorable Lucia at Covent Garden (1958). Not as frenetic as Toscanini, Serafin is no laggard: he shapes the Verdian phrases and allows his singers to do likewise.

For those interested in singing, given the low price, this is an issue to hear. Those wanting a more modern recording at reasonable price should consider the Double Decca with the non-pareil Leontyne Price as Aida, conducted by Solti (460 7652). Costing 50% more than this set, it provides a track listing and track related synopsis, but no libretto. Those wanting the latter, EMI have just re-issued their 1974 recording, with Caballé and Domingo under Muti on 3 mid-price discs on their Great Recordings of the Century label.

To think, when issued originally on forty 78 rpm sides, this set cost more than the average UK working man earned in a week; more in fact than it costs now. What price inflation?

Robert J Farr

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