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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Nicola Zaccaria (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Radames, Egyptian captain of the guard - Richard Tucker (ten); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Tito Gobbi (bar); Aida, his daughter - Maria Callas (sop); Ramfis, High Priest - Giuseppe Modesti (bass);
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn




Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Nicola Zaccaria (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Radames, Egyptian captain of the guard - Richard Tucker (ten); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Tito Gobbi (bar); Aida, his daughter - Maria Callas (sop); Ramfis, High Priest - Giuseppe Modesti (bass);
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan


In late 1869 du Locle, Verdi’s friend and representative in Paris who had been travelling in Egypt, told Verdi that the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt wanted Verdi to write an opera. This was required to be on an Egyptian theme and was for performance at the new opera house in Cairo built to celebrate the construction of the Suez Canal. The theatre had 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 1869. Verdi at first turned down the request repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. But Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a synopsis by Mariette, a French national and renowned Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, by the fact that Du Locle had been authorised to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting out his terms. These included a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. His terms were accepted making Verdi the highest paid composer ever.

Throughout the process Verdi was keen to achieve the greatest historical accuracy. He asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. He was intent on a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet following the Paris Opéra pattern. Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular of 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. A range and variety of complex possibilities of the father-daughter relationship occur throughout Verdi’s operas, but nowhere more starkly than here where the father puts tremendous emotional pressure on his daughter to cajole her lover into betraying a state secret. This betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers.

Verdi had Aida ready in time for the premiere in Egypt in January 1871, but Bismarck had engineered a Franco-Prussian confrontation in autumn 1870. The French army was defeated at the Battle of Sedan and the Emperor Napoleon III captured. With the siege of Paris by the Prussians the scenery constructed there could not be got out and shipped to Cairo. Aida was not premiered until Christmas Eve 1871. It is an opera requiring big spinto voices with the capacity to convey the drama and emotion through the voice.

In the year of this recording Maria Callas became acknowledged ‘queen’ of Milan’s La Scala, appearing in no fewer than five productions including the justifiably famous Visconti production of La Traviata conducted by Giulini. She had not sung Aida since 1953 in which year she appeared at Covent Garden in the role. She seemed to recognise that the role was a size too big for her voice although her new svelte figure would have made her appealing on stage as it did for her Violetta. Her vocal limitations are all too obvious in this recording as are her strengths in characterisation and particularly in representing Aida’s relationship with Amneris and her father. Compared with Tebaldi’s vocal security on her 1952 recording for Decca in O patria mia (Naxos CD 2 tr. 6; Regis CD 2 tr. 8) Callas’s singing is insecure and at times ugly. But she scores in the visceral excitement and drama of her confrontation with Gobbi’s Amonasro (Naxos CD 2 tr. 7; Regis CD 2 trs. 9-10). The situation is not dissimilar in Aida’s scene with Amneris in act 2 Fu la sorte dell’armi (Naxos CD 1 tr. 11; Regis CD 1 trs. 17-18), which follows her more vocally secure and dramatic rendering of Rittorna Vincitor. Both Gobbi, with his lean but incisive baritone, and Fedora Barbieri with her full-toned voice, sing their roles with full dramatic awareness and consummate characterisation.

The role of Radames, like that of Aida, calls for a big voice. Walter Legge wisely eschewed calling on the lyric-voiced Giuseppe Di Stefano who partnered Callas on many of these La Scala recordings and cast the Met’s standard spinto Richard Tucker in the role. Tucker had missed out when RCA had selected the more elegantly-toned Jussi Björling for the role alongside Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri and Leonard Warren in a recording that also appears on Naxos in another Obert-Thorn remastering. Whilst Tucker has the spinto power for the role, I do not find his coarse and rather throaty vocal emission particularly appealing and his characterisation is pretty penny plain. His opening Se quell guerrier io fossi …Celeste Aida (Naxos CD 1 tr. 3; Regis CD 1 trs. 3-4) is a good example of his singing.

In my review of the parallel contemporary issues of Rigoletto by Naxos and Regis I had much to say about the relative playback qualities of the two recordings. The Regis appeared considerably brighter, a quality I attributed to the fact that its shorter timing raised the overall sound by at least a quarter tone whilst the Naxos was more natural and related to other versions of the contents I had to hand. In this Aida the timings are very similar, but the outcome is not that different from the Rigoletto comparison with the brighter sound of the Regis being compared with the greater aural depth of the Naxos. I have come to know and trust Mark Obert-Thorn’s remasterings for their balance, capacity to bring out the voices and orchestra in a natural ambience and their overall veracity. Whilst the Regis might give better dynamism via a personal CD player or I-Pod, I do most of my listening via my reference speakers. There the Naxos recording comes over as more natural and appealing. The track listing on the Naxos issue is far superior with little to choose between the notes and welcome singer biographies.

If you are a Callas fan a live recording of her performances at Covent Garden in 1953 under Barbirolli is available on the Testament label. She is in far better voice than here and the extra frisson of the live occasion is an added advantage. Although the recording quality of that live performance has its limitations, and Serafin does his best to convey the drama and pageantry in this recording, it is not one of the best of the La Scala series. 

Robert J Farr


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