Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt – Luigi Roni (bass)
Amneris, his daughter - Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo)
Radames, captain of the guards - Placido Domingo (tenor)
Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Piero Cappuccilli (baritone)
Aida, his daughter - Montserrat Caballé (soprano)
Ramfis, High priest – Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
Royal Opera Chorus
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, July 1974.
EMI CLASSICS 5406302 [3 CDs: 39.42 + 41.14 + 65.25 + bonus disc]

Riccardo Muti was very much the new kid on the block when he took over as the chief conductor of London’s New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1972. Already recognised as an outstanding trainer of orchestras and opera conductor much was expected of him. The major record label EMI, never, at that time, one to miss out, signed him and launched a series of Verdi opera recordings with this Aida. It came complete with a cast that could scarcely have been bettered at the time. The company had recorded the work a number of times in the post Second World War period starting with Maria Caniglia and Beniamino Gigli as Aida and Radames in 1946 (see review). They followed with Callas and Richard Tucker in 1955 (see review) and Nilsson and Corelli in a less than successful venture twelve years later. They followed this present 1974 recording with yet another under Karajan in May 1979. Based on a Salzburg production and with the casting of Mirella Freni and José Carreras, rather smaller voices than usual, in the lead roles (see review). Those were indeed days of plenty.

The early 1970s celebrated the first performance of Aida in Cairo in 1871. The opera had been commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. However, negotiations with Verdi, and then the siege of Paris stopping the scenery getting to Egypt, delayed the premiere until 1871. In preparation for the centenary celebrations, RCA recorded a magnificent cast including the young Placido Domingo alongside Leontyne Price in London in July 1970; it was eagerly awaited. In the event the recording itself was very variable in quality with dropouts among other problems. This present recording was equally eagerly awaited in turn, particularly following the disappointments of the RCA. As my memory serves me, there were experiments going on with surround-sound possibilities and there were some who thought this Aida recording when issued on LP was influenced, and not for better, by those experiments. Be that as it may, the original CD issue showed no sonic limitations. It did, however, and does so here, highlight some vocal shortcomings, particularly Piero Cappuccilli’s rather bland interpretation of Amonasro. This is best illustrated during Amonasro’s meeting with his daughter by the Nile in act three (CD 3 Trs 5-7 and 12) where his reaction to Aida is pallid compared to that of Gobbi with Callas in 1955. Elsewhere Muti’s rigid tempi often rush his singers; it is as if he was trying to outdo Toscanini.

Cappuccilli’s lack of interest can be off-set by Montserrat Caballé’s wonderfully elegiac singing of the name part. Recorded at the height of her bel canto success, her singing of Ritorna vincitor! (CD 1 Tr 9) and O patra mia (CD 3 Tr.4) are noteworthy. Fiorenza Cossotto is a dramatic and idiomatic Amneris and Nicolai Ghiaurov a rock-solid Ramfis. With Domingo contributing one of the most lyric of his several recordings of Radames, this quartet cut the mustard. Muti’s rigidity on the rostrum affects much of the balance in the opera between the grandiose and the more intimate personal relationships and with it the real soul of the work as Verdi conceived it.

This performance was re-mastered for its reissue in 2001 as an EMI Great Recording of the Century (see review) when it came complete with libretto. In this latest manifestation the libretto in English, French and German, and an essay by Richard Osborne for the 2001 re-issue, is contained on the bonus CD-ROM.

Verdi stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of Aida. This was four times what he was paid for Don Carlos, premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1867 to celebrate the International Exhibition staged in the city that year, making him the highest paid composer ever. The music he created matched the grand concept of the Canal with which it has become associated, whilst the opera has become one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.

Robert J Farr

Despite limitations this is still a vivid recording with some excellent Verdi singing of a quality hard to match today.