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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida (1871)
Kurt Rydl (bass) Ramfis
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) Radames
Stefania Toczyska (mezzo-soprano) Amneris
Margaret Price (soprano) Aida
Kevin Langan (bass) the King of Egypt
Colenton Freeman (tenor) a Messenger
Susan Quittmeyer (soprano)a Priestess
Simon Estes (baritone) Amonasro
San Francisco Opera Ballet
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera/Garcia Navarro
Stage Director, Sam Wanamaker
Directed for video by Brian Large
Digitally remastered, 1998
Recorded at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 1981.
WARNER MUSIC VISION/NVC ARTS 3984-22366-2 [163.00]

If you want your Aida in a straight staging with full Hollywoodesque treatment then this is just about it. I say "just about" because it cannot quite compete with the rival New York Met production from the same period under James Levine (available on video/DVD) with live horses on stage and the full Cecil B. DeMille treatment. However, San Francisco Opera pulls out the stops and fills the stage with lavish costumes and massive pillared scenery that can spectacularly move about as required. There may not be horses but there is a dog.

The Met production boasted Placido Domingo, this one has Pavarotti creating the role of Radames for the first time. Twenty two years ago the great tenor was in fine voice and it will be one of the reasons for purchasing this DVD. Radames enters immediately after the prelude and within a couple of minutes we are able hear Pavarotti launch into the famous aria Celeste Aida, expressing his fixation on the Ethiopian slave. So Pavarotti fans will have their spines tingled from the start and are rewarded with an immaculate high note at the end – spot-on with little vibrato. He sings the note loudish which is not what Verdi directed. Singers are not allowed to play loose with scores now days, but I suppose if you are Pavarotti you get away with it, and in this case it is no great sin.

As for his acting, Pavarotti’s style on the whole is to park his massive frame, stand like a house end (as they say in Yorkshire) and deliver. As a result his acting attracts criticism. This is often unfair because his facial expression will usually convey such intensity that you feel he is seriously committed to the drama of the situation. So it is in Celeste Aida and the video camera-work, in concentrating on the face, capitalises on this aspect of the Pavarotti style.

Likewise, Margaret Price is not the greatest of actresses and as Aida she may look more Welsh housewife than young Ethiopian slave, but the voice has a youthful innocence to it that fits the role well and made her one of the great Aidas of the era as well as a wonderful Desdemona. Simon Estes looks absurdly young to be her father (although he was over 40 at the time) but his voice, more Wagner than Verdi, suitably commands.

Stefania Toczyska as Amneris really does look and act the part although her fine mezzo voice can sound a little under-powered when in ensemble with the other principals. To be fair though, there appear to be some microphone positioning problems that may contribute to this. For example, after the Celeste Aida aria, she enters upstage and Pavarotti turns away to face her and in order to hear them both I had to turn the volume right up.

The production builds suitable momentum as time goes on and although there is sometimes a little raggedness in the big set pieces with chorus, it is musically sound under Garcia Navarro and the singers ensure some genuinely moving moments.

Colour and sound (notwithstanding those miking problems) are good and although there are no bonuses on the DVD, the booklet contains a list of splendidly detailed cueings which will greatly aid navigation if you wish to indulge your favourite moments.

John Leeman

see also review by John Phillips

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