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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Aida (1871)
Antonio Massaria (bass) – Il Re; Giulietta Simionato (mezzo) – Amneris; Caterina Mancini (soprano) – Aïda; Mario Filippeschi (tenor) – Radamès; Giulio Neri (bass) – Ramphis; Rolando Panerai (baritone) – Amonasro; Salvatore Di Tommaso (tenor) – Un messaggero. Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI/Vittorio Gui
Recorded in Rome 12 June 1951
WARNER FONIT 50467 7918-2 [77:21 + 61:09]

 

 

This early LP recording from the Italian Cetra label had not hitherto crossed my path, although a somewhat later Aïda from the same company, featuring the young Franco Corelli as Radamès is better known. Hi-fi sound was never a priority with these recordings but they were valuable additions to the catalogue even so for making available many lesser known operas and for recording many fine Italian singers of the era that the major companies for various reasons overlooked.

The present Aïda offers several pleasant surprises, one of them being the opportunity to hear the legendary conductor Vittorio Gui in repertoire not normally associated with him. To the record-buying public he is mainly known as a superb Rossini and Mozart conductor, working for many years at Glyndebourne with productions like La Cenerentola, Il barbiere di Siviglia and Le nozze di Figaro, all of them preserved on highly regarded EMI recordings. Maybe one can detect a lightness of touch in his conducting more related to earlier periods than late Verdi but, being a man of the theatre, he never underplays the drama but lets it unfold naturally and without unnecessary lingering over detail. The dated sound is a problem with a work like Aïda, which calls for full frequency range and dynamics and stereo. There is no denying that the more spectacular scenes, in which  Aïda abounds, fail to make the impact of later recordings, but it should be remembered that there are also several scenes of an intimate character with transparent, almost chamber music scoring, and they suffer less. The prelude has thin violin sound but when the cellos take over the proceedings they are full and sonorous. The nocturnal atmosphere of the act 3 prelude, with its impressionistic orientalisms, is also finely delineated. The choral singing is distinguished, e.g. in the Priests’ chorus in the first act (CD1 track 10). The second act finale, the Triumphal Scene, gets off to a lethargic start, Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside (CD1 track 20) being majestic but, through the measured tempo, short on triumph and glory. The march proper has more spring in its step and the dance (track 22) whizzes past like a whirlwind. As so often with these 50+ recordings one gets used to the sound quality and no one needs to hesitate on sonic grounds. Prospective buyers should though be aware that there is some distortion at fortissimo passages; the Cetra microphone(s) being over-powered by the strong voices.

I suppose that most collectors interested in these vintage recordings buy them first and  foremost for the solo singing. Of the many Cetra operas I have come across over the years, quite a few have had blemishes. What about this one? Browsing through the cast-list one finds a couple of well-known names and some not-so-well-known. Possibly still singing (!) is the Amonasro, Rolando Panerai, at least he sang Gianni Schicchi in Oslo a year or two ago. Born in 1924 he was at the beginning of his career when this recording was made. He had his debut in 1947 and first appeared at La Scala in 1951. Amonasro is not one of opera’s biggest parts: he appears briefly in the triumphal scene of act 2 and then in the Nile scene of act 3, but he must possess a big dramatic voice. The Nile scene requires a lot of vehement acting and singing from him. He is also allotted some of the most beautiful pages in the whole Aïda score (CD1 track 25), Quest’assisa ch’io vesto vi dica, where Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente can be a real show-stopper. Here Panerai sings the lines with fine legato and rounded tone. In the Nile scene duet with Aida (CD2 track 5 – 7) he is sometimes over-emphatic and distorts the musical line, the flow of the music. However this is undoubtedly a very involved performance and his denunciation of Aida, Non sei mia figlia, is almost unbearably intense. A few phrases later, he is noble and fatherly in Pensa che un popolo vinto straziato. If this was his debut recording, it was a fine start to a distinguished career.

The Amneris, Giulietta Simionato, was already a well-established singer, having just turned 40 and gradually taking over the role of leading mezzo-soprano from Ebe Stignani. She has the grand manners of her predecessor and is regal in the Amneris–Aïda scene at the beginning act 2. Act 3 finds her slightly fluttery and unusually thin-voiced but she is magnificent in the last act duet with Radamès. After Cossotto’s retirement high-dramatic mezzo singing of this calibre disappeared from the scene. Simionato repeated this role for Karajan in the late 1950s and it was through this recording that I learnt this opera at my local library. She was still singing with great intensity but she must yield to her younger self in this Gui recording.

Ramphis is sung by Giulio Neri, who had a rather short career; he died at an early age. He was equipped with big, sonorous, evenly produced true bass voice with a natural warmth. His is the very first voice we hear after the prelude and this is impressive singing in the Pinza mould. From a later generation you may be reminded of Bonaldo Giaiotti. He is even more sonorous at the end of the first act (CD1 tracks 12-13) and there is reason to regret that the role isn’t bigger. Fortunately he recorded quite extensively for Cetra: the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, an imposing Alvise in La Gioconda (with Callas), Baldassare in La Favorita, the title part in Boito’s Mefistofeles and Ramphis once more in the Corelli recording.

The other bass role, The King (Il Re) is sung by Antonio Massaria, a singer unknown to me, who is black-voiced and slightly throaty. Su! del Nilo al sacro lido (CD1 track 7) is sung with great authority. The Messenger’s few lines are well delivered by the fresh-voiced Salvatore Di Tommaso, a good comprimario tenor, appearing on several Cetra operas. He is, for example, a fine Beppe on the Pagliacci recording.

Mentioning the soloists in this order may imply that the main protagonists, Aïda herself and Radamès, are not in the same league. Well, that was my first thought when I browsed the cast list. Here was a little recorded soprano I only knew by name. The tenor I knew fairly well as a wooden and mainly unappealing Pollione in Callas’s Norma and a brave but hardly subtle Arnold in Guglielmo Tell, also on Cetra. But here is a first class surprise; Filippeschi turns out to be, on this hearing, a real spinto tenor with a bright, penetrating, Martinelli-like voice, i.e. a true tenor with not a hint of baritonal timbre. He produces strong, heroic singing with a good deal of musical phrasing and toning down of the voice – he can even sing a good pianissimo. Compared to Del Monaco’s worst antics he is a wonder of subtlety. Celeste Aïda ends on a brilliant, powerful, long-held last note. There is no attempt at shading down as Verdi wants it, but there are many more famous names who are just as disobedient. Generally he is a much more sensitive singer than I had expected. This also goes for the act 3 duet with Aïda, again with lots of glow and shining high notes, combined with sensitivity to the text. Radamès’ desperation when realizing that he has been betrayed, Tu, Amonasro! ... tu, il Re? (CD2 track 11) is intensely palpable. Since the whole opera was recorded in one day, possibly as a real performance, although in the studio, it also shows his stamina. Even if this is not the most subtle tenor singing imaginable it is very much alive and thrilling (the duet with Amneris in the last act). He sings with dignity and great feeling in the tomb-scene. In O terra, addio (CD2 track 20) he is obviously so overcome by the tragic situation that for a second he loses control of his voice, but makes amends with a couple of well-judged pianissimos.

And the Aïda? Initially Caterina Mancini sounds shrill, but that might be nervousness, for in Ritorna vincitor (CD1 track 8) she is much steadier and firm and she is good at expressing Aida’s desperation. She sings well in the second half of the aria, which of course is a prayer, especially from Numi, pietà, where she ends on a finely shaded down fammi morir! The Nile aria (CD2 tracks 3-4) is very good indeed and the start of O patria mia (track 4) is beautifully sung with fine legato. In the duet with Amonasro she gradually “drains” her voice and by the time Radamès appears her despair is so great that the voice is almost dried out. The tomb-scene is sung with great sensitivity. She can’t quite compete with Tebaldi or Leontyne Price when it comes to vocal glory, but she has much to offer on her own terms. As a whole I warmed to her performance and I will certainly return to it when off reviewing duties.

As always Warner Fonit provide a booklet, adorned by the original LP box cover and with photos of Verdi and his librettist Ghislanzoni, the conductor Vittorio Gui plus several early interpreters of the main roles. There is a synopsis in English and full texts but no translations. There are a few unimportant cuts in the score. One thing that has to be applauded is the numerous cues: 27 on CD1 and 20 on CD2. Not all companies are as generous as that. As a general recommendation for a first choice recording of Aïda this version has to give way to several others: Karajan and Solti (both on Decca), Muti (EMI) and maybe Abbado (DG) but as an inexpensive complement to any of these, I am sure many opera lovers will find a lot to relish in the Cetra recording.

Göran Forsling

 

 

 



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