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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Aida (1871)
Yulia Wiener-Chenisheva (soprano) – Aida; Nikola Nikolov (tenor) – Radamés; Alexandrina Milcheva (mezzo-soprano) – Amneris; Nikolay Smochevsky (baritone) – Amonasro; Nikola Ghiuselev (bass) – Ramfis; Stefan Tsiganchev (bass) – Il Re d’Egitto; Maria Dimchevska (soprano) – Sacerdotessa; Verter Vrachovsky (tenor) – Messaggero
Sofia National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ivan Marinov
Recorded in 1971
CAPRICCIO 51 198 [71:43 + 78:38]
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"DDD" I read on the front of the booklet as well as on the disc labels. I wonder. This Aida was recorded in 1971, although Capriccio nowhere give any information about venues and dates. It would be a surprise indeed if Balkanton, who made the original recording, would have been that much in the forefront of technical development so long ago. But never mind, digital or not, what counts is the result, technically and artistically. Against my normal procedure I actually looked up a couple of earlier reviews, this set having been released several times on different labels. This was no uplifting reading. In June 1999 John Steane wrote a thumbnail review in Gramophone, beginning: "Twenty-four reasons for not buying this are given on the Gramophone Database in the shape of 24 other recordings of the opera, all of them preferable." In March 1989 another guru in the same magazine, Alan Blyth, was marginally less negative, but his final verdict was still a discouraging "All in all this is the kind of performance you would be quite pleased to hear on a visit to Sofia but not one, even at bargain price, that stands up to the competition on CD ..."

Harsh words indeed from two of the most respected and experienced vocal and opera experts in the world – so what is there to add? Well, catching at the proverbial straw that Alan Blyth offers, I started listening from the basis that I actually was in Sofia, having seen the above reviews and wanted to set them to the test. The costs for these super-budget CDs are probably roughly the same as for a good seat in the National Opera and I save the costs for the journey. Whether the performance actually was recorded in the National Opera I don’t know but my first reaction was that the acoustics were generous but not particularly atmospheric. The sound picture is crude and the recording balance puts the soloists right in your lap while chorus and orchestra are at a fair distance, but the lack of depth remains a problem. Blyth refers to the recording "as if it was made in a swimming bath" while Steane talks of "a nasty reverberant acoustic and bad balance". Well, I have heard better things – but also worse. Listening then to the orchestra I don’t have any complaints as to the quality of the actual sound. It may not be the Vienna Phil or the LSO but it is definitely not provincial and knowing the orchestra from a number of other recordings, this was what I had expected. The chorus, too, is highly professional and you can hear rougher performances in even the most prestigious houses. They have enough heft to make the big choral scenes in the first two acts pompous and the beginning of act one scene two offers some finely nuanced soft singing, marred by a squally Sacerdotessa. Ivan Marinov’s conducting is, on the other hand, more workaday. Having undoubtedly led many an Aida before, he contents himself with beating time and following the basic instructions in the score – but better that than tampering too much with the composer’s intentions in order to be personal. Blyth mentions in passing that he "contributes to the rather vulgar feeling conveyed by the whole affair". Hmmmm. I have heard worse.

Nothing of what I have had to say so far, even if I may have tempered some of my colleagues’ negativisms, will probably tempt readers to run to the nearest record store, but I can anticipate the next question: What about the soloists? After all, good solo singing is the determining factor to most opera lovers, I suspect. A look at the cast-list reveals that there are at least three singers here with important international careers – the Radamès, Amneris and Ramfis, the latter being the first voice we hear after the prelude: imposing and sonorous it is, a true bass that radiates a certain fatherly warmth. He doesn’t seem very interested in delineating a three-dimensional character. On the other hand Ramfis is more an archetype than a human being and Nikola Ghiuselev portrays his high priesthood with convincing authority. Vocally he is not far behind colleagues like Ghiaurov or Giaiotti. Alan Blyth thought him "worthwhile". Next we hear Radamès. The singer is Nikola Nikolov, born in Sofia in 1925, making his debut as Pinkerton in 1947. During his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s he appeared at all the great houses: Bolshoi, Vienna, Covent Garden, Berlin, San Carlo in Naples, Barcelona, Geneva, Frankfurt. He made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Don José in 1960. He celebrated his 70th birthday singing Don José and his 75th singing Manrico, both at the Sofia National Opera. Longevity indeed! What I hear is a strong, mostly steady, fearless and untiring voice, much in the mould of Mario Del Monaco, whom he also resembles in his unwillingness to sing anything softer than a fortissimo. Celeste Aida comes out as a battle-cry instead of a declaration of love, but elsewhere his clarion tones don’t come amiss – Radamès is after all a warrior. And listening to his entrance in the Nile scene, his Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida … (CD2 track 11) sends a chill down the spine; this is really thrilling in a primitive way. Moreover he is hardly ever lachrymose – some more celebrated names certainly are – he doesn’t go over the top and he has presence. And – lo and behold – in the Tomb-scene, at La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse CD2 track 19), for the first time he shades down his voice – and to fine effect. When he discovers Aida in the dark he even makes a good diminuendo on Tu … in questa tomba! Alan Blyth finds him "pretty coarse and unsteady" and "fairly rough on the ears".

When, immediately after Celeste Aida, Amneris appears, we meet a real King’s daughter. We sit up in our imaginary stalls’ seat and prick up our ears: here is a great singer – and a great actress. I have earlier this year praised Alexandrina Milcheva in a couple of Rimsky-Korsakov operas (see review) and here, at the height of her powers, she is nothing less than glorious. Even my jaded Gramophone colleagues reach for superlatives. John Steane says in his sole positive remark: "In favour is the magnificent voice of Alexandrina Milcheva, whose ‘Anatema su voi’ would, ‘in the flesh’ bring the house down." It definitely brought mine down. Alan Blyth puts it: "As Amneris, the commanding Milcheva is really out to slay her audience in her jealous outbursts. Though she is a bit unrelenting in the use of her chest voice, she certainly makes her mark in Act 4 – I don’t think you’ll hear her music delivered with such earthy panache on any rival version – but it’s all a bit unsubtle." I concur with him, but have to say that her use of the chest voice certainly is what makes her interpretation so thrilling – and I wouldn’t call it unsubtle. I had intended not to make any direct comparisons – just relying on my memory – but I couldn’t help dragging out the Mehta version, where Grace Bumbry was one of the glories; she sounded pale by the side of Milcheva.

Amneris’s father, the King of Egypt, is sung by another dark-voiced bass, Stefan Tsiganchev, who of course has fairly little to sing, but what little he has he delivers with stern authority. So much for the Egyptians. Turning now to the Ethiopians, where we have another father-daughter relation, King Amonasro, sung by Nikolay Smochevsky, is a rather pleasant acquaintance. His first appearance, in the Triumph-scene, shows him as a somewhat lightweight baritone with a good legato – I jotted down "not bad" on my pad – but in the third act, the Nile Scene, he appears to advantage, making a real character of Amonasro and acting convincingly with the voice. Listen to him in the duet with Aida (CD2 track 10) at Radamès so che qui attendi … Even Alan Blyth expresses a certain admiration, however reluctantly: "The baritone intones Amonasro’s imprecations with a certain rude authority." Like father, like daughter? I am afraid not. The real weak point in this performance is Yulia Wiener-Chenisheva’s Aida. It is a big voice, like all the others, and she easily rides the orchestra at the big climaxes, helped to a certain extent by the recording balance, but she is shrill and has an unpleasant vibrato. Here Alan Blyth’s remark "fairly rough on the ears" fits like a glove. She doesn’t make many attempts to interpret the part either, although she fines her voice down to something resembling a pianissimo on the very last note of the Nile aria, and here the voice is beautiful and steady. It also has to be said that the voice isn’t wobbly and there is never any doubt about what notes she is aiming at. Sadly the sound in itself is unattractive and an Aida without a good Aida is something like a good footballer with a missing leg.

Hearing this performance as a one-time visit to the Sofia National Opera wasn’t a totally dispiriting experience. There is a certain thrill in hearing big voices in larger-than-life music. At least in the case of Milcheva’s Amneris I have been in for a world-class interpretation – on discs maybe challenged only by Fiorenza Cossotto. I found more to enjoy than John Steane and Alan Blyth did and I will certainly keep the discs as a souvenir of the event – but I don’t think I will reprise the performance tomorrow.

Göran Forsling



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