Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Aïda – Zinka Milanov (soprano)
Radamès – Mario Del Monaco (tenor)
Amneris – Blanche Thebom (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro – George London (baritone)
Ramfis – Jerome Hines (bass)
King – Luben Vichey (bass)
Messenger – Thomas Hayward (tenor)
Priestess – Lucine Amara (soprano)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Fausto Cleva
Live broadcast performance from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York on 24 January 1953
PRISTINE PACO147 [2 CDs: 144:33]

One of the first CDs I reviewed for Musicweb-International almost fourteen years ago, was Naxos’s reissue of Cavalleria rusticana in the RCA recording with Jussi Björling and Zinka Milanov. I called attention to then how old she sounded and she was still not fifty. As I put it “the Santuzza–Turiddu duet … sounds more like a mother–son duet than a dialogue between two young lovers.” She was born in 1906 and the recording was made at several sessions between 2 January and 8 March 1953. The present Aïda performance was broadcast on 24 January the same year and is consequently exactly contemporaneous with the Cavalleria. Aïda is also a young woman but sounds here decidedly middle-aged, which spoils the illusion. The same thing happens in her studio recording of the opera from two years later, again opposite Björling, and in fact she also recorded Aïda’s two arias in studio in May 1953. I made the same comments when reviewing a Nimbus disc with these and other Verdi arias a decade ago: “What can be seen as a drawback is the fact that her voice sounds elderly, which must not be interpreted as aged. She was a mature singer at the time, in her late 40s, and she sounds her age, which jars with the characters, who are supposed to be much younger women. I shouldn’t make too much of this and of course in the absurd world of opera we seldom get opportunities to hear singers of the leading roles who really are their age.”

Milanov was a great favourite at the Metropolitan for almost 30 years, and her first entrance is greeted with a round of applause before she has even opened her mouth, and ovations after each aria. And there is a lot that is well done, not least her characteristic floated pianissimos. Truth to tell, however, she doesn’t begin too well, the tone rather fluttery at first and she even sounds a bit uneasy. By Ritorna vincitor she is up to the mark, in particular from 3:59 to the end of the aria, where she sings truly beautifully. As usually at the Met in those days the applause starts before the orchestra postlude is over. That’s a general feature throughout the performance that the audience is very undisciplined. In act II at the end of the first scene, which is followed directly by the triumph scene, the applause drowns the orchestra and again when, I presume, the curtain opening reveals the sets. Milanov’s O patria mia in the Nile scene is regally sung and the pianissimo end is magical. The dramatic scenes with first Amonasro and then with Radamès go well and there is a great deal of sensitive singing in the tomb scene. Though I still have some reservations against the actual sound of Milanov’s voice, there is no doubt that she is deeply involved and is better here than on the studio recording.

What struck me from the beginning was the quality of the recording. Firstly the original tapes must have been extraordinary good and well-preserved, but Andrew Rose’s XL remastering is also very successful and there is a very realistic balance between pit and stage and there is space around both orchestra and singers, giving a clear sense of being there. The string tone is excellently reproduced and orchestral fortes are impressive. The Aïda trumpets ring out mightily and the atmospheric scoring of the ballet music is well caught. Considering the age of the recording this is quite stunning and fully comparable with the best studio recordings of the period, even surpassing many of them. No one needs to hesitate a purchase on sonic grounds, unless one is allergic to the intense audience participation.

Another positive factor is the conducting. Fausto Cleva was a regular at Met for many years, but I have always, from the recordings with him I’ve heard, regarded him more as a reliable also-ran than a thrilling and creative maestro. Here he turns out to be exactly that. There is a vividness about his conducting, not least of the ballet sequences, which seems to suggest that he was uncommonly inspired and this is also carried over to the musicians and the singers. There is indeed a taut atmosphere that is truly infectious.

I have already mentioned Zinka Milanov who, after ten successful years at the Met, married for the third time in 1947 and returned to Yugoslavia with her husband. When Rudolf Bing became general manager in 1950 he pretty soon managed to convince her that the Metropolitan was the right place for her and she returned in early 1951 and remained until 1966. Her comeback was in a new production of the double-bill Cav and Pag and she sang Santuzza opposite Richard Tucker and the critics were boiled over by the vocal splendour and the dramatic intensity. Her next new production was in November the same year and was the Aïda that was recorded a little more than a year later. The critics again were enthusiastic about her and were deeply impressed by Mario Del Monaco who by all means sang mostly forte but also proved that he could scale down his voice. Del Monaco was a relative newcomer, having made his house debut a year earlier in a sole performance of Manon Lescaut. He was positively received and a reviewer found similarities with Giovanni Martinelli for his “dynamic and powerful accentuation”. I can agree that there is a lot of this in his opening recitative Se quell guerriero lo fossi!, where his clarion fortes ring out gloriously, but he softens his voice for the opening of the aria proper. When he approaches the final bars he, naturally, completely ignores Verdi’s dynamic instructions and delivers a final fortissimo, held forever and, naturally, draws ovations from the audience. But later on during the performance he shows a willingness to soften the tone from time to time, for instance at the end of the third act duet with Aïda, even though earlier in the scene he scores dramatic points with his limitless power and brilliance. And when we reach the opera’s final scene, he sings La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse softly and inwardly, really movingly sung, and throughout the scene there is a lot of sensitive singing from both artists.

Blanche Thebom’s Amneris initially seems a little tired – no wonder maybe since she had been singing Dorabella in Così fan tutte the evening before – but she makes amends in the scene with Radamès that opens the fourth act. From L’aborita rivale a me sfuggia and to the end she is at her very best – a formidable reading!

And vocal glories were also delivered by the deeper male voices. The young George London had made his Met debut at the premiere of this Aïda production and was hailed for his convincing acting as well as his singing. He is certainly majestic in his solo in the triumph scene, surpassing most other Amonasros for both beauty of tone and nobility, and again in the Nile scene, where his violence is hair-raising – but he also shows some paternal warmth towards Aïda. This is possibly the best thing he ever did. The even younger Jerome Hines’s Ramfis is also magnificent – as was most things he did at the Met during a career encompassing forty-five roles in thirty-nine operas, totalling 876 performances between 1946 and 1987. The King is sung by Luben Vichey, originally Lubomir Vichegonov. His bass voice isn’t as sonorous as Hines’s – not many are – but he is a worthy exponent of the role and he sang around 200 performances in the house between 1948 and 1965. In the cameo role of a priestess we hear Lucine Amara, another mainstay who appeared in 750 performances between 1950 and 1991.

Readers who don’t appreciate audience participation to such a degree as here should, strictly speaking ,be discouraged from buying this set, but there is so much good singing and such electricity in the conducting that it could be worth a try.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Ralph Moore