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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Aida - opera in four acts (1871) [146:44]
Il Re, King of Egypt - Plinio Clabassi (bass); Amneris, his daughter -
Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Radames, captain of the guards - Jussi Björling
(tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Leonard Warren (baritone); Aida,
his daughter: Zinka Milanov (soprano); Ramfis, High priest - Boris
Christoff (bass); Messenger - Mario Carlin (tenor); Priestess: Bruna
Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera House/Jonel Perlea
rec. 2-18 July 1955, Opera House, Rome. Ambient Stereo PRISTINE AUDIO PACO127 [67:24 + 76:02]
There is such a cornucopia of excellent "Aida" recordings
available that to claim absolute superiority for any of them is to give
hostages to fortune. I am going to enter the lions' den by saying that I
have long struggled in my attempts to hear in Milanov's Aida the paragon
referred to by so many previous reviewers. To me, she frequently sounds wobbly, screechy and elderly - yet she was not yet fifty at the time of the recording. Listen to her in the first trio with Björling and Christoff (both superb); her first aria, "Ritorna vincitor” is full of swoops and slides. Listen to the attempt to hit the A at 2:08 or the G at 2:29; they are pretty gruesome. Yes, I know that singing Aida is not just about hitting a few notes correctly but to my ears she is struggling throughout, compared with the vocal sumptuousness and security of Price or Caballé. In fairness, Milanov's "Patria mia" goes better but she still slides and loses tonal quality too often. The concluding Tomb Scene finds her and Björling striking sparks off each other but it is often a bumpy ride.
This is an opera whose exalted crowd scenes demand to be heard in spacious stereo, so when it was previously available only in elderly mono I would certainly not have opted for it over the Muti or the Leinsdorf recordings if you wanted to enjoy the grandeur of this opera at home. Despite the fact that it has now been re-mastered into Ambient Stereo by Pristine to their usual excellent standard, this could still never be my favourite "Aida". If anything, the re-mastering emphasises the inadequacy of Milanov’s singing as opposed to the glory of Björling’s and Christoff’s contributions. Just listen to the climactic conclusion of Act I; it is riveting, with both artists singing like gods, making the newly apparent revelation of Milanov’s limitations all the more regrettable.
My problems with the supposed unrivalled excellence of this set continue with the hoarse, woolly King of Plinio Clabassi and the rather monochromatic account of Amneris from Fedora Barbieri. She is a singer I nonetheless usually admire and she is in opulent voice but she does little with her words and just barrels through the part. There are huge compensations in Björling's gleaming Radames, Warren's incisive Amonasro and Christoff's implacable Ramfis - but "Aida" needs a better, all-round ensemble to take off - which is precisely what Muti, Leinsdorf and Solti provide. Even Warren sounds throatier here than I am used to hearing him - and I am a huge fan.
Perlea takes a very leisurely view of the score and at times comes across as a rather lax, indulgent conductor. He doesn’t generate much tension at key points although the more lyrical passages go more successfully. He gives his singers all the time in the world to grandstand; even Björling, usually a musically disciplined singer, for our guilty pleasure hangs on to top notes way beyond their proper notational value.
I have been listening to opera for over forty years and do not generally find myself standing out against received wisdom - but I am genuinely puzzled by the accolades for this set, the obvious merits of Björling and Christoff apart. If you want an Aida of the type Milanov essays then Caballé does it so much better; meanwhile, in my dream-world I wish I could hear Björling here and Leontyne Price in her pomp singing this opera together, with Merrill as Amonasro, Cossotto as Amneris and either Christoff or Ghiaurov as Ramfis. I will still play this recording just to hear Björling and Christoff and to luxuriate in Pristine’s revitalised sound, but skip over Milanov’s arias.