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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida. Opera in 4 Acts
Aida, Renata Tebaldi (sop); Radames, Mario del Monaco (ten); Amneris, Ebe Stignani (m.sop); Amonasro, Aldo Protti (bar); Il Re, Fernando Corena (bass); Ramfis, Dario Caselli (bass); Messenger, Piero de Palma (ten)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Academia di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Alberto Erede
Rec. Academia di Santa Cecilia, August 1952 ADD
Bargain Price
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110129-30 [2CDs: 67.52+76.41]

 

After the finale of World War 2 was played out, Europe began to drag itself up by its bootstraps. Bombed out opera houses were rebuilt and record companies began to look at the renewal and extension of their catalogues. Parallel with that analysis was the emergence into peacetime use of new technologies such as the tape recorder, initially too big and bulky for domestic use it made life in the recording studio much easier. Meanwhile, domestic record playing was confined to 78 r.p.m. shellac discs playing a maximum of around 5 minutes per side; HMV issued their 1946 recording of Aida on 20 such discs! One UK-based company, with very forward-looking management, was looking ahead at the new technologies, often a bi-product of war. Of the brilliant electronic engineers who had brought about these new technologies some went into academic life but others were snapped up by The Decca Record Company. With Decca these electronic tyros were destined to take sound recording to new levels and put the label at the forefront of recorded excellence for the next thirty years. This recording revolution took place concurrently with the replacement of 78 shellacs by the vinyl LP, first in mono and by the mid-1950s, in stereo. Opera recordings were an obvious outlet for any extended playing time and would require the contracting of outstanding artists. Regrettably, as far as Decca were concerned, many first rate singers were already contracted to other labels intent on their own plans. However, one singer, Renata Tebaldi, spotted by Toscanini and invited by him to sing at the prestigious re-opening of the ‘La Scala’ opera house, was available. Decca snapped her up as their ‘house’ soprano and built the label’s Italian lyric/verismo opera repertoire around her for the next twenty years. This process was complemented with the production of many recital discs alongside the complete operas. The first LP recordings featuring Tebaldi are now out of copyright and the likes of ‘Pearl’ and ‘Naxos’ have been issuing their re-mastered and restored versions, each company with its own view, in terms of philosophy and technology, on the processes involved. I personally have become a fan of Mark Obert-Thorn’s work for the Naxos label and recently found his restoration of Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ outstanding for warmth, clarity and presence (reviewed by me elsewhere on this site). If his results on this issue are not quite of that standard it is because the original, recorded in the Santa Cecilia in Rome, has not the openness in the recorded ambience. This was a limitation that beset several Decca opera recordings made in that venue. One can hear the difference when Decca re-recorded Aida with Tebaldi in 1959 (now a Decca ‘Legend’). It isn’t merely the improvement in recording technology or the stereo effect, but the more natural openness and clarity around the voices obtainable in the Sofiensaal, Vienna.

Decca tried their best to surround Tebaldi with other singers of quality. Regrettably, as here, the results show mixed success. However, it is the singing of Tebaldi herself that makes this recording a must for lovers of great singing. Her voice is distinctly lighter and fresher than in the 1959 remake. It encompasses the many demands of the part with ease, fluency and good depth of characterization. Her attack at the opening of ‘Ritorna vincitor’ (CD 1 tr. 7) shows these skills as well as, later in the aria, her fine legato and phrasing, with notes floated ‘on the breath’ (4"10’). Tebaldi’s concluding phrase of this aria is not bettered on record, although Leontyne Price on her first recording (1962 and now a ‘Double Decca’) and Caballé for Muti (1974 and now an EMI ‘GROC’) come close. By the time of the 1959 stereo recording Tebaldi’s voice had grown, lost some of that earlier freshness, and the effect is not repeated, nor could she hit the high note near the end of ‘O patria mia’ (CD2 tr.6) dead-centre as she does here.

Decca signed up Mario del Monaco as ‘house’ tenor and his Radames on this issue was the first of many collaborations with Tebaldi. Regrettably his singing shares nothing of her musicality, refined legato or elegance of phrasing. As to characterization I am tempted to suggest he didn’t think about it! He simply sang out with his big forceful trumpet voice and what he was singing about was, at best, a secondary consideration to him. His ‘Celeste Aida’ (CD1 tr 2) is coarse, throaty and squeezed, with choppy phrasing, its only virtue, if it is one, being vocal virility. Vickers, with Leontyne Price, has similar trumpet tone, but with more taste, whilst Bergonzi, the Radames on the 1959 recording, shows how it should be done.

After Radames’ opening contribution matters improve (tr. 4) with the entrance of Amneris sung by Ebe Stignani. One of a great line of Italian dramatic mezzos she certainly knows what she is singing about and her characterization throughout is that of a singer long experienced in the part. Her upper voice is not as secure as on her 1946 recording with Gigli as Radames (re-issued by Naxos and reviewed by me elsewhere on this site). It is a little fluttery at the top (CD1 tr.10) but her contribution is a great strength and in the drama of the ‘Trial Scene’ (CD2 trs.12-15) she is outstanding. As Amonasro, Protti, whilst not having the depth of tone of Taddei, or the vocal histrionics of Gobbi (with Callas) is as good as Warren (RCA) and better than his compatriot Nucci on either of his later recordings. Often criticized at the time as ‘a dull dog’ his Italian baritone would be very welcome nowadays when the well seems to have dried up. The Ramfis and King are well up to standard, steady, tuneful, full-toned and well characterized.

The conductor gives a steady rather than inspired reading. Both Karajan, in the 1959 re-make and Solti with Price and Vickers show what is possible with the work. Erede is on a par with the likes of Abbado (DG) and Leinsdorf (RCA on Leontyne Price’s second recording), and more idiomatic than Maazel on his 1980s La Scala recording.

Despite my earlier stated reservations, I have to note that the sound is a lot better than I ever got from my LPs with my Garrard 301 and state of the art stylus and it is now at a fraction of the cost. It is a must for Tebaldi fans.

Robert J Farr

 



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