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
"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
"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
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
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.