the summer of 1869 Verdi was approached to write an opera
for the new theatre to be opened in Cairo to celebrate the
construction of the Suez Canal. It opened in November 1869
with a performance of Rigoletto conducted by Verdi’s
former pupil Emanuele Muzio. The Suez Canal was officially
opened on 17 November. Camille Du Locle, who had worked
on the setting of Don Carlos from Schiller’s play
in 1867 and become a firm friend of Verdi, visited him
the following month. He told the composer that the Khedive
(Viceroy) of Egypt wanted Verdi to write an opera on
an Egyptian theme for performance at the new opera house.
the request down repeating his refusal when back in Paris
the following spring. But Du Locle was not deterred and
sent Verdi a synopsis by Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist
the employ of the Khedive. Stimulated by the synopsis,
and also, perhaps, by the fact that Du Locle had been
to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove
reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting
These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto,
and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances
in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs,
payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of
These terms were accepted by Mariette and Du Locle on
June 10. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer
Locle met Verdi at his estate at Sant’ Agata on 19 June 1870
and the pair thrashed out the outline of the opera in prose
based on Mariette’s earlier synopsis. Verdi asked his publisher,
Ricordi, to approach Antonio Ghislanzoni to put it into Italian
verse. Throughout the process Verdi was keen to achieve the
greatest historical accuracy. For example he asked Du Locle
to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances
of the Egyptian priestesses. Verdi was intent on a Grand
Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for
the Paris Opéra. Aida was first performed on 24 December
1871 at the Cairo Opera House.
Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular operas
with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression.
It is a work of pageant with its
Grand March (Gloria all’Egitto) and ballet interludes.
It is also a work involving various personal relationships.
Of these relationships, the rivalry between Aida, daughter
of the King of Ethiopia working incognito as a captured
slave of Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, is intense. Both
love Radames, victorious leader of the Egyptian army. He
loves Aida but is given the hand of Amneris in reward for
his exploits as army commander. But even more complex is
the relationship of Aida with her father who arrives as an
unrecognised prisoner. Many and various complex possibilities
of the father-daughter relationship occur throughout Verdi’s
operas, but nowhere more starkly than in this opera where
the father puts tremendous emotional pressure on his
daughter to cajole her lover into betraying a state secret.
betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers.
the casting of a recording or performance of Aida,
it is vital that the various relationships are balanced in
terms of the ability of the singers to convey the tensions
and emotions of the principals. This was never more important
than in this recording with Aida sung by the dramatic spinto
Zinka Milanov. Her vibrant soprano and power of expression
could swamp weaker partners and never more so than here.
Her ability to convey the drama and emotions experienced
by Aida can be fully appreciated in the contrast in her vocalism
and expression in the singing of her two great arias, Ritorna
vincitor (CD 1 tr.7) and O patria mia (CD
2 tr.9). Milanov’s most expressive and vibrantly incisive characterisation
comes in Aida’s confrontation with the Egyptian princess
Amneris, as the latter cheats her into thinking that the
man they both love is dead before revealing the truth after
exposing Aida’s emotions (CD 1 tr.11). To counterbalance
such strongly characterised singing by Milanov, an Amneris
of similar vocal and histrionic ability is vital. Fortunately
Fedora Barbieri, the Amneris here is one such singer.
She matches Milanov for dramatic bite and incisiveness
duet referred to and really comes into her own in the
trial scene of act 4 as Ramfis and the priests demand
from Radames who makes no response to their repeated
accusations (CD 2 trs. 17-18).
The quality of the dramatic portrayals are continued by Leonard
Warren as Amonasro and Boris Christoff as Ramfis. Warren was
the Met’s principal baritone from 1939 until his death during
a performance in 1960. His well-covered high baritone was
ideally suited to the Verdi roles. His variation of colour,
expression and dynamics as Amonasro first cajoles, and then
bullies, his daughter into obtaining from Radames the secret
of the route to be taken by the Egyptian army, is an excellent
example of his art (CD 2 tr.10). The Bulgarian bass Boris
Christoff would surely have been ideal in Verdi’s eyes as
the High Priest. The composer wanted a man in mid-forties,
both vocally and visually, so as fully to convey the character.
Ramfis’ pivotal importance in the opera is often overlooked.
The High Priest is the power behind the throne and even the
King’s daughter cannot overcome his decisions. Christoff’s
rock-like tonal solidity complements his steadiness and expressiveness
to convey the implacable nature of the role. He would surely
have appeared in other RCA recordings were it not for the
fact that he was refused a visa to enter the USA in 1950 at
the height of the Joseph McCarthy xenophobic anti-communist
neurosis. With RCA having largely decamped to Rome for their
recordings that barrier was removed.
The final principal role is that of the Radames, sung by the
Swedish-born tenor Jussi Björling. His long experience in
the Italian repertoire enabled him to cover his plangent and
wide-ranging tone with a patina of Italianità as if born in
that country. Add a feel for Verdian line and idiom, clear
diction, smooth legato and elegant phrasing, all allied to
sufficient vocal heft for this demanding role and his Radames
has a flying start. Only Bergonzi matches him in Decca’s stereo
remake with Tebaldi and conducted by Karajan. Björling sings
Celeste Aida (CD 1 tr.3) with consummate commitment
and expressiveness although eschewing the concluding diminuendo.
But it is in the final scene that he and Milanov really tug
at the heartstrings in their characterisation and expressiveness
in some of the finest Verdi singing on record (CD 3 trs.1-3).
On other Naxos historical issues Tebaldi sings beautifully
in this scene too (see review)
but del Monaco lacks the inner serenity of Björling whilst
Gigli is too lachrymose and Maria Caniglia as Aida is no rival
to either Milanov or Tebaldi. (see review)
bonus of highlights from Un Ballo in Maschera allows
further appreciation of Milanov and also of Marion Anderson
the first black singer allowed on the stage of the Met.
A pity that the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos hadn’t
been in charge of the Aida where Jonel Perlea’s conducting,
although dramatic, seems to lack an overall view of tempi
and phrasing. Perhaps an even greater regret is that Björling
isn’t the tenor rather than the plain-faced singing of
would be hard today to find Verdi singing of the quality
heard on this Aida recording. Yes Angela Gheorghiu
sings beautifully in her Verdi Heroines CD (see
review) in the
composer’s more lyrical music whilst Inessa Galante
has many of Milanov’s qualities. (see review).
But an overall singing cast of this quality only comes
round every other generation or two at the most. Add
superb restoration of the mono sound that gives depth
and presence and this recording of Aida should be part
of any Verdi collection
Robert J Farr