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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Josť Van Dam (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Agnes Baltsa (mezzo); Radames, Egyptian captain of the guard - Josť Carreras (ten); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Pierro Cappuccilli (bar); Aida, his daughter - Mirella Freni (sop); Ramfis, High priest - Ruggero Raimondi (bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, May 1979
EMI CLASSICS 3818772 [3 CDs: 41.52 + 42.52 + 69.52]

In late 1869 du Locle, Verdiís representative in Paris who had been travelling in Egypt, told Verdi that the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt wanted the composer to write an opera on an Egyptian theme. This was to be for performance at the new opera house in Cairo opened to celebrate the construction of the Suez Canal. The canal was officially opened on 17 November 1869. The theatre opened with a performance of Rigoletto in the same month. 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. He set out his terms including a fee of 150,000 francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. These terms were accepted, making Verdi the highest paid composer ever.
Throughout the composition Verdi was keen not only to achieve the greatest historical accuracy but was also intent on a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for the Paris Opťra. Aida has become one of Verdiís most popular of operas with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression. It is a work of contrasts between the pageant of the Grand March (Gloria allíEgitto) and 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. Even more complex is the relationship of Aida with her father who arrives as an unrecognised prisoner. The variety of complex possibilities within the father-daughter relationship occurs throughout Verdiís operas, but nowhere more starkly than in Aida where the father puts tremendous emotional pressure on his daughter to tempt her lover into betraying a vital state secret. This betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers and brings the opera to a particularly poignant end that is in total contrast with the preceding pageant.
Karajan made his first recording of Aida for Decca in 1959 when the company reprised, in stereo, Renata Tebaldiís earlier mono version alongside Mario del Monaco as Radames (see review). In the stereo version under Karajan Carlo Bergonzi sings Radames. In this production by John Culshaw, Decca set out to give the work as a sonic spectacular and the recording held pride of place in the catalogue for many years. Despite its warm welcome Decca embarked on another recording in 1962. Originally intended for joint issue with RCA the lovers were sung by Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers whilst EMIís first stereo effort partnered Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson. What all these recordings, and others, have in common is spinto-sized voices in the lead roles of the lovers, Aida and Radames. When Karajan came to cast Aida for production at the Salzburg Festival in 1979 he wanted to cast singers who had lighter, more lyric voices, and were not experienced in the roles on stage. His choice fell on two singers who shared many of his productions, Mirella Freni and Josť Carreras.
To accommodate these lighter voices, Karajan tries to keep the orchestra on a tight rein when either is singing. Verdiís writing often precludes such an approach. The consequence can be heard as early as Carrerasís singing of Radamesís Celeste Aida (CD 1 tr. 3) when at the climactic top he is seriously stretched with the voice becoming unsteady. In the more lyrical sections he is far better, but again in act 3, when Radames realises he has revealed the state secret of the route the army will take, his lack of heft is evident (CD 3 tr.10). Freni copes somewhat better at the start of Ritorna vincitor (CD 1 tr. 9) colouring her tone and using chest voice to declaim the phrase. However, as the aria progresses, and challenged by Karajanís slow tempi, her tone lightens to the point of thinness and loss of body in a manner that does not afflict Tebaldi or Price in their recordings. A similar problem occurs for Freni with the pressured high note in the middle of O patria mia (CD 3 tr. 4) and where again Karajanís slow tempi doesnít help his soprano. Of the other soloists Baltsa scores highest with good-toned and characterised singing as Amneris who ably invests the Trial scene with the inherent drama Verdi envisaged (CD 3 trs 11-15). As Amonasro, Aidaís scheming father, Pierro Cappuccilli gives a full-toned and dramatic account. Raimondi as Ramfis is sonorous in his middle voice but has to stretch for his lower notes. Van Dam is a light-toned King. The acoustic has lots of presence and with Karajan giving the pageantry the full dynamic range there are viscerally exciting moments. Whether the conductorís variations of tempi and dynamic are what Verdi intended is another matter.
Although this recording post-dated EMIís 1974 recording of Aida, with Montserrat Caballť alongside Placido Domingo as the lovers (see review), it preceded it onto a mid-price re-issue by more than a decade. When it did so it was in the usual jewel-case complete with libretto and translation. The present, and latest, lower-priced format has the CDs in cardboard slipcases within a neat folding box and with a modernist representation of an Egyptian scene on the front. As well as a full track-listing the enclosed leaflet has an introductory essay and track-related synopsis in French, German and English. A full libretto and translations are available at EMI's Classic Opera website.
Robert J Farr


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