Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
Antonio Zerbini (bass) - Il re; Miriam Pirazzini (mezzo) - Amneris; Maria Curtis Verna (soprano) - Aïda; Franco Corelli (tenor) - Radamès; Giulio Neri (bass) - Ramfis; Gian Giacomo Guelfi (baritone) - Amonasro; Athos Cesarini (tenor) - Un messaggero
Orchestra Sinfonica e coro di Torino della RAI/Angelo Questa
rec. 18 December 1956, Torino
WARNER MUSIC 2564 66211-8 [74:28 + 62:06]
In anticipation of the Verdi anniversary next year (2013) Warner are reissuing all the legendary Cetra recordings from the 1950s - La forza del destino and Falstaff even older - in toto eighteen sets encompassing seventeen operas (see review of Rigoletto).
There was an Aida recording under Vittorio Gui made in 1951 (see review) which in many ways was outstanding, and the main reason for a new version was no doubt the comet-like rise to stardom of Franco Corelli. I suppose most readers will buy this set for the opportunity to hear the fairly young tenor (he was 35) in his signature role, which he recorded a decade later for EMI under Zubin Mehta and with Birgit Nilsson, Grace Bumbry, Mario Sereni and Bonaldo Giaiotti in the other central roles. I bought it when it was new and it was for many years my only Aida recording, even though I first got to know the opera through Karajan’s Decca recording with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil - a set that I used to listen to at my local library. The Mehta recording never captured me the way Karajan’s did. Nilsson in superb vocal shape lacked the warmth of Tebaldi and Corelli. Though impressive in many ways, she never managed to convince me of a human being behind the armoury as Bergonzi did. Corelli by that time was more of a showman and even though he finished Celeste Aida with a diminuendo down to a fine-spun pianissimo as Verdi wanted, I always felt that it was more a demonstration of his technical ability than something coming from within. Maybe by this time he was becoming a bit blasé with the role.
On the present recording he was rather new to Radamès. After winning the competition at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in the summer of 1951 he was scheduled to make his debut at Spoleto the following Autumn. However he soon found that the role was too difficult for him at the time and he changed to Don José in Carmen. After an isolated Aida in 1953 it was not until 1955 that he started singing Radamès with some regularity. In December 1956 he was, in other words, still a relative newcomer to the role and this, I believe, accounts for the freshness of his reading. There is very little of the larger-than-life approach that often disfigured his singing further on in his career. It is not a sophisticated reading in the Bergonzi mould, but nor is it stentorian à la Del Monaco. He is powerful, at key moments magnificently so, but there is flexibility and fine nuance in many places as well. The end of Celeste Aida is sung at full throttle, no attempt at scaling down, as he did 11 years later, but just listen to him in the last two acts, where the real drama takes place. The end of the Nile scene (CD 2 tr. 8-11) finds him truly sensitive in the prolonged duet with Aida. One senses that this is a young man deeply in love, but his horror when it dawns on him that he has betrayed his country is expressed with tremendous power and intensity. In the last act scene with Amneris (CD 2 tr. 13-14) he is noble and untouchable and the finale - from La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse (CD 2 tr. 18-20) is as sensitive as one could wish. He is in glorious voice - note that the whole opera was recorded in one day, probably in one long take as in the opera house - and the concluding O terra addio ends on a magical diminuendo. I have somewhat reluctantly admired Corelli for close to fifty years but on most occasions felt that it is a pity he couldn’t be more sensitive in a less artificial way. Well, here is the answer to my expectations. This is for me the definitive Franco Corelli, comparable to his Pollione opposite Maria Callas in Norma.
I can hear sceptical murmurings from some readers: You don’t buy an Aida recording for the tenor alone, and the rest of the cast is just a group of long since forgotten provincial Italian singers. And the conductor - who is he? Vittorio Gui on the older Cetra was one of the greats, still remembered and both Simionato and Panerai are fixed stars on the operatic firmament. I will try to refute this scepticism.
Let me start with the conductor. Angelo Questa left a large legacy of opera recordings, mostly for Cetra: Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Mefistolele, Il segreto di Susanna, Madama Butterfly, La favorita, and of these Rigoletto (with Pagliughi, Tagliavini, Raddei) is a classic, ranked by a lot of critics alongside the Serafin, Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi as the best available. He was not one of those interventionist conductors who made points for the sake of making points, but he was a man of the theatre and for him the main object of his music-making was to put the drama centre-stage. That was what he so successfully did with Rigoletto and that’s what he does with this Aida. It is a no-nonsense reading that propels the action forward, often swift without being rushed and it is sheer gain to hear the final duet with a speedier pulse. He takes 4:44 from O terra addio to the end of the opera. Compared to most other recordings that I have handy this is not the quickest but faster than the average:
Serafin (with Caniglia & Gigli) 4:34
Serafin (with Callas & Tucker) 4:54
Karajan (with Tebaldi & Bergonzi) 5:13
It isn’t only a matter of timings. Like Gui there is a general lightness of touch in Questa’s reading and this pays off wonderfully. What was always a problem with Cetra’s recordings was the quality of the recorded sound. Here the Warner technicians have worked wonders and even though the sound is thin and the strings are comparatively wiry. It is a clear mono sound, the triumph scene works well though it is far from spectacular, the choral singing first class and no one is likely to be greatly disappointed with the sound - unless one has never heard a recording of this age.
The rest of the cast? Superb! Athos Cesarini is a splendid, clear-voiced Messenger, Il re, a role often allotted in the opera house to some shaky over-aged bass, is sung with steady tone and quite lyrical elegance. Giulio Neri’s Ramfis is monumental. He was magnificent on the Gui set and is even better here: powerful, sonorous, expressive and with a sepulchral lower end of the voice that is amazing. Few basses of his or any generation have been of comparable stature. Just listen to Mortal, diletto ai Numi (CD 1 tr. 12). He died of a heart attack only a year and a half after this recording was made, a month before his 49th birthday. This recording is a worthy memorial of this great artist.
Amonasro is another role requiring a glorious voice to make the right impact. Gian Giacomo Guelfi was the possessor of such a voice. Less subtle than Gobbi and Taddei he was just as thrilling. A pupil of Titta Ruffo he knew how to project his big voice and his solo in the triumph scene is imposing. Other baritones have sported more beautiful voices - Merrill and Bastianini to mention two - but the thrill of hearing his dramatic outbursts is of that kind that sends shivers of delight down the spine. He died in February this year, aged 87.
Miriam Pirazzini (b. 1918) was somewhat over-shadowed by Simionato and Barbieri but she had an important career even so and left a number of fine recordings, singing Azucena opposite Lauri-Volpi on the 1951 Trovatore recording on Cetra. She has a dark, vibrant voice and she characterizes well. Her scene with Aida in act II is one of the highlights in this recording and she is superb, even touching, in the scene with Radamès in act IV.
She is well contrasted with Maria Curtis Verna’s silvery tones as Aida. This soprano (1921 - 2009) was American but started her singing career in Italy. She hasn’t quite the creamy rounded tones of Tebaldi or Leontyne Price but she is a sensitive singer. Her O patria mia (CD 2 tr. 4) is truly beautiful with a lovely final note sung pianissimo. She crowns her performance with a vulnerable Presago il core della tua condanna (CD 2 tr. 19) followed by one of the finest O terra addio.
There is no libretto, just a rather detailed synopsis in the booklet, where there are also role photos of the singers. As usual with these Cetra issues the original LP covers are reproduced on the booklet back cover.
I hope I’ve been able to convince at least some readers that this is an issue that is worth considering. If you already have a good modern recording of Aida this is a worthy complement.
If you already have a good modern recording of Aida this is a worthy complement.
see also review by Calvin Goodwin
Masterwork Index: Aida