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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Aida - Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Radamčs - Franco Corelli (tenor)
Amneris - Grace Bumbry (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro - Mario Sereni (baritone)
Ramphis - Bonaldo Giaiotti (bass)
Il Re di Egitto - Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass)
Una Sacerdotessa - Mirella Fiorentini (soprano)
Un Messaggero - Piero De Palma (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma/Zubin Mehta
rec. 1966-67, Opera House, Rome, stereo ADD
WARNER CLASSICS 7777632295 [78:32 + 62:10]

First issued in 1968 on LP, this recording has never specifically been reviewed on this site, so I am filling that gap. In his admirable Verdi conspectus, my friend and MWI colleague Bob Farr, whose taste often concurs with mine, briefly refers to this recording as “an ill-fated attempt”; I’m not sure why as he does not elaborate. However, in his review of the 4 CD EMI box set Franco Corelli - The Tenor as Hero, another MWI colleague Göran Forsling, calls it “superb”; I quote him in full here:

“Corelli’s Celeste Aida is a reading to treasure, not least for final B flat, starting fortissimo and then being gradually and seamlessly fined down to a beautiful pianissimo. The end of the Nile scene finds him in heroic form and Birgit Nilsson seems almost like a soubrette by his side to begin with. The confrontations between Nilsson and Corelli in the opera houses are legendary and it seems they have brought this rivalry into the Rome studio as well. Sparks are really flying when Ms Nilsson lets loose and the trio is completed with Mario Sereni’s strong-voiced and sonorous Amonasro” (review).

On the other hand, there are is a broad consensus that Nilsson’s steely, Wagnerian dramatic soprano was never quite right for Aida and it is always possible to find fault with Corelli’s grandstanding, hence maybe there’s room for an opinion which reflects a compromise between those extremes.

Aida was Corelli’s first commercial recording for Cetra in 1956; to quote Göran again, “A dozen years later when he recorded the opera complete again, with Birgit Nilsson as his Aida, he had matured stylistically and makes a superb diminuendo. Corelli was an exhibitionist, whether showing off his volume or his diminuendo, but in that particular case his artistic sense had deepened – and the voice is just as glorious.”

I agree; Corelli was in his absolute prime when this recording was made. His lisp can be mildly distracting but the vocal quality is astounding. He has a fine legato, impressive command of dynamics and top notes which ring like no other tenor; furthermore, he employs a considerable degree of subtlety and sings quietly on occasion. All of those qualities are immediately apparent in his opening aria, “Celeste Aida”, which he concludes with a remarkable – and very musical - diminuendo on the final B flat, just as Verdi stipulated but almost never gets. Grace Bumbry was still in her first mezzo-soprano phase and in best, velvety voice, and even if in the earlier scenes I find her temperamentally a little cool compared with Fiorenza Cossotto, she is really vibrant and impassioned in her final, pleading confrontation with Radamčs. The under-rated baritone Mario Sereni is instantly recognisable from his husky timbre; he provides a firm, but febrile Amonasro, even if he is not quite the equal of the many star baritones such as Gobbi, Warren, MacNeil, Bastianini, Guelfi, Bechi London, Merrill and Milnes - the list seems endless – who performed that role with distinction in the 50’s and 60’s. Bass and Verdi specialist Bonaldo Giaiotti is, in my view, another singer whose real worth was never properly acknowledged; he is excellent in everything I have heard him in and is a fine Ramphis here. Ferruccio Mazzoli makes a sturdy King. Even the Messenger is voiced by the world’s best comprimario tenor, Piero De Palma. Reactions to Nilsson’s Aida are diverse. I love the way she hits top notes powerfully dead centre and if her slender vibrato can sometimes make her sound a little plaintive in the middle of her voice she still invests the text with sincere emotion. Her confrontation with Bumbry is electric, the latter digging into her lower register and Nilsson emitting laser-like top notes in her distress but also singing softly with great control, as at its conclusion on “del mio soffrir”. She soars above the ensemble at the climax of the Triumphal Scene and her poise in “O patria mia” is phenomenal. The scene with her father is highly dramatic; Sereni is certainly more involved than Cappuccilli in my favourite studio recording of Aida under Muti and with the arrival of Corelli we are in operatic bliss; the pair blaze through the extended love duet-come-argument until joined by a triumphant, scheming Amonasro in the trio before the whole concludes with Corelli’s outrageously prolonged and thrilling top A on “Io resto a te!” The Tomb Scene shows Nilsson at both her worst and best: her quiet, quasi-parlando singing of the dialogue between the doomed lovers at first sounds whiny and unsupported but as it progresses and their voices open out, the duet becomes a thing of great beauty.

Zubin Mehta has, especially latterly, presided over some workaday operatic recordings and his best recordings were admittedly made earlier in his long career but some of those have deservedly become classics. These include the superb Turandot with Sutherland, Il trovatore and Tosca both with Leontyne Price, La fanciulla del West with Neblett and the quasi-operatic Requiem with Caballé; this Aida can be added to that list. His conducting here is irreproachable and he has a really excellent chorus and orchestra to do his bidding; sometimes they really let rip.

The sound is excellent; the trumpets in the Grand March leap out at the listener and the balances between voices and orchestra are ideal.

Ralph Moore


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