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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - Opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Paolo Pecchialli (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Kate Aldrich (mezzo); Radamès, captain of the guards - Scott Piper (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Giuseppe Garra (baritone); Aida, his daughter - Adina Aaron (soprano); Ramfis, High priest - Enrico Giuseppe Iori (bass);
Chorus and Orchestra of the Fondazione Arturo Toscanini/Massimiliano Stefanelli
rec. live, Teatro Verdi, Busseto, 27 January 2001
Stage Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Television Director: Fausto Dall’Olio
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Picture Format: 4:3
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107 088 [146:00 + 45:00 (bonus)]

After the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1867, where Verdi had a great success with his Don Carlos at the Paris Opéra, his friend Camille Du Locle, Director of the Opéra Comique, wrote to him from Thebes extolling the wonders of Egypt where he was travelling. At that stage Egypt was in the throes of massive change and development under Khedive Ismail who had seen Verdi’s opera during a visit to the Exhibition. Meanwhile, after ten years construction under the direction of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Suez Canal opened on 17 November 1869. In advance, and to celebrate the opening, the Khedive had an opera house built in Cairo. It opened on 1 November of that year with performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Shortly after the events in Cairo, Du Locle visited Verdi and told the composer that the Khedive wanted him to write an opera on an Egyptian theme for performance at the new opera house. Verdi turned the request down, repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a twenty four-page synopsis by Auguste Mariette, a French Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. The synopsis was full of scenic detail. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, be 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 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 the work. This was four times the fee Verdi had received for Don Carlos. The terms were accepted by Mariette to Du Locle on 10 June. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever.
The Khedive did not merely want the theme to reflect Egyptian history, but to be accurate in all details of scenery. Mariette provided these to Verdi, along with detailed sketches of the costumes, finishing them in brilliant watercolour. The composer commissioned the construction of the sets in Paris, with the premiere set for December 1870. So keen was he to achieve the greatest historical accuracy Verdi asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. He was intent on an opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing a Grand Opera for the Paris Opéra.
With this background the renowned film and stage director Franco Zeffirelli set out to mark the anniversary of Verdi’s death with a staging of Aida in the Teatro Verdi, Busseto, the small town where the composer had lodged during his schooling and had his large estate. The tiny theatre, seating only three hundred and fifty, opened in August 1868. Verdi himself opposed its construction, believing the town could better use the money. Whilst he contributed 10,000 lire towards the construction, Verdi underlined his disapproval by never entering it.
Franco Zeffirelli, having staged many theatrical extravaganzas in some of the great opera houses of the world (see Otello review and Carmen review), believed that in this small theatre he could create a staging of Aida that would have satisfied the composer’s requirements and those of the Khedive. I cannot vouch for the historical authenticity of the paintings, but they and the sets on the small stage are full of evocative images of ancient Egypt and create an ideal setting for Aida. Zeffirelli’s second objective was to stage the opera with young singers whose voices would be strained in the roles in a larger opera house with a full-sized orchestra. To this end he also obtained as vocal coach to his chosen cast the services of Carlo Bergonzi, renowned vocal stylist and the non-pareil Verdi tenor of the second half of the twentieth century. 

Most purchasers, I suspect, will watch the opera performance and then the Bonus. I did, and was immediately struck by the acted involvement of the young soloists. Watching the Bonus later, revealed how and why this was so. A performance of Aida does not just depend on the acted commitment of the singers which happens to be second to none here. It also depends on the singers being able to realise, vocally, Verdi’s musical intentions in all their many facets, be that drama, lyricism, poignancy or whatever. Suffice to summarise and write that the preparation by Zeffirelli and Bergonzi produces a performance of Aida from these young singers that I might beforehand have said was impossible. In the title role, African American soprano Adina Aaron gives an outstanding committed performance; one that is remarkable among those I have encountered on record or in the theatre over many years. She acts with body, arms and eyes and is a totally believable Aida. There are a couple of points where, in a studio recording, she might have wanted to repeat the start of a phrase, but they are few. Another American, twenty three-year-old Kate Aldrich as Amneris matches her vocally and in her acting. In the act two duet the two together offer real moments of involvement and quality singing to savour (CHs. 14 and 15).
Of the men singers, Enrico Giuseppe Iori as Ramphis is suitably sonorous, his voice having the requisite gravitas. I noted his contribution to the 2006 production of Macbeth that features in the C major Tutto Verdi series (see review). The Amonasro of Giuseppe Garra is strong-toned and well acted and I am surprised not to have come across him since. As Radamès, Scott Piper exhibits an unusual tenor voice. It is strong, but not so much as to stop me worrying as to his future in this repertoire - even in this small theatre. He has vocal taste and acts well. This extends to following Verdi’s intended ending to Celeste Aida (CH.4), although I am less sure about the composer’s response to the concluding phrases being from the head voice, above the passaggio, a usage he repeats later. A casual search of the Internet reveals that he was taking judicious care of his instrument and is now in demand in the big lirico spinto roles at some good addresses.
Massimiliano Stefanelli conducts his small orchestra with a feel for Verdian line. He takes cognisance of the composer’s dynamic markings, adding both to the drama and more particularly to the interpersonal and intimate scenes; more than is normally the case.
Both the sound and picture quality are good with the video director finding a satisfactory balance between mid and close shots in this tiny theatre. This, together with Zeffirelli’s staging and direction of the cast, means that the outcome is an involving rendition of an opera that is often seen merely as an excuse for a visual spectacular. Even Zeffirelli cannot achieve miracles on the small stage. Consequently, cuts to the score are made, including the ballet in the triumphal scene. This means that I cannot, in fairness and honesty, and despite my enjoyment, give this issue the imprimatur of Recording of the Month. I can, however, suggest you go out and buy it. You will surely enjoy the intimacy along with the committed acting and the quality of the singing of the young cast alongside Zeffirelli’s staging and direction.
Mentioning his name reminds me to note that, although the great director knows the opera Aida in all its details and Verdi’s intentions, he states during a bonus conversation with the cast that he does not know where the librettist, Ghislanzoni, got the story.
Robert J Farr

Masterwork Index: Aida
Appendix: A delayed premiere 
The sets and costumes for the premiere of Verdi’s Aida were designed and made with the involvement of Auguste Mariette, the eminent French Egyptologist who had been sent to Egypt by the Louvre in 1850 to buy manuscripts. Mariette also made important archaeological discoveries during his visit. He returned to Egypt in 1857 at the instigation of the Khedive (Viceroy), as the conservator of monuments. He was later elevated to the rank of Bey and then Pasha.
The Khedive stipulated that the opera was to be “purely ancient Egypt with the sets to be based on historical accounts and costumes to be designed after the archaeological bas reliefs of upper Egypt” (see account). Mariette knew what the Khedive wanted and said “No effort will be spared in this respect, and the mise-en-scène will be as splendid as one can imagine. You know the viceroy does things in a grand style!” Mariette travelled to Paris from Egypt to supervise the construction of the set and costumes ready for the premiere in Cairo scheduled for January 1871; the La Scala performances were to follow a few weeks later.
On 19 July 1870, with the sets and costumes near completion in Paris, Emperor Napoleon, almost without warning, declared war on Prussia. Most Parisians thought the French would crush the Germans in a week or two. However, on 1 September the Prussians defeated the French at Sedan, captured the bulk of the French army, and took the Emperor himself prisoner. By mid-September the Prussians had reached Versailles, and on 20 September they surrounded and blockaded the capital. The siege of Paris had begun, whilst inside were the sets and costumes intended for the premiere of Aida in Cairo. The Prussians saw this as an irrelevance. The consequences were that Aida was not actually premiered until Christmas Eve 1871. This delay also caused the postponement of the Italian premiere at La Scala as the contract stipulated that the first performances would be given in the Cairo Opera House. Verdi did not travel to Egypt, but was widely acclaimed at the La Scala premiere.