Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871) [144:33]
Aida: Zinka Milanov (soprano); Radamès: Mario Del Monaco (tenor); Amneris: Blanche Thebom (mezzo-soprano); Amonasro: George London (baritone); Ramfis: Jerome Hines (bass); Il Re: Luben Vichey (bass); Messenger: Thomas Hayward (tenor); Priestess: Lucine Amara (soprano)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Fausto Cleva
rec. live, 24 January 1953, matinée broadcast, Metropolitan Opera House
XR remastering - Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO147 [74:19 + 70:16]

Aida was a Met staple, and here’s a cast to make many a modern opera buff wish for a time machine - but sixty-five years ago it was the norm. Milanov was in her mature prime; superstar tenor Del Monaco and rising baritone George London had both made their Met debuts two years previously and London was making his Met broadcast debut; Blanche Thebom had the previous year sung Brangäne in the now classic Tristan und Isolde studio recording conducted by Furtwängler and great basso profondo Jerome Hines was already seven years into his astonishing association of forty-one years with the company.

The only name here to give me pause is that of the diva soprano; I have never much warmed to her tone, but ascribed that to hearing her in recordings made rather too late in her career when her tone became harsh and her line bumpy. Even of her Verdi Requiem recorded much earlier in 1940, I remarked in another review elsewhere, “Milanov exhibits her trademark creaminess of tone but also, even as early in her career as this, her other marked and less welcome characteristics of swooping, going flat and squawking on the highest, loudest notes; she is absolutely awful in the central, piano, solo section of the ‘Libera me’ and I don't know what other reviewers are hearing.” Again, of a highlights disc of excerpts from La forza del destino made in the 50’s, I observed, “Zinka Milanov was in her late forties by the time of this recording but already wear and tear had crept in: the top notes had lost their gleam and she takes nearly all of them by the default means of sliding up to execute one of her famous pianissimi; some steadiness in the centre of the voice had gone too, and occasionally the tone is a little acidic.”

I have always had strong reservations about her studio recording of Aida, made two years after this performance. I elaborated on my concerns in a previous review: “ I am going to enter the lions' den by saying that I do not hear in Milanov's Aida the paragon referred to by so many previous reviewers. To me, she frequently sounds elderly (yet she was not yet 50 at the time of the recording), wobbly and screechy; listen to her in the first trio with Bjőrling 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 Bjőrling striking sparks off each other, but it is often a bumpy ride.”

I am almost ashamed to have written such things of an artist whom I know many revere, but it does at least give me a benchmark against which to my measure my response to the recording under review and you will understand that I embarked upon listening to this release with some trepidation.

This recording gets the usual Pristine treatment and an already good source tape is much enhanced, so we get a really clear sound picture to help any assessment: there is plenty of air around the sound, the balance between voices and orchestra is excellent and you really could not ask for a better representation of a live performance from sixty-five years ago. Even the off-stage chorus in the Judgement Scene is very present. Everything is in place for a fine performance: the conducting is totally idiomatic and paced as you would expect from an old hand like Fausto Cleva. As the voices enter in turn, you note their quality: Hines’ resonant bass is hieratic authority personified; Del Monaco trumpets his aria, as usual making strenuous and intermittently successful efforts to tone down the amplitude of his tone and achieve some nuance, ending “Celeste Aida” with a triumphant, absurdly sustained B flat and absolutely no attempt to effect the soft diminuendo Verdi requested, but sending the audience wild. Thebom may sound somewhat more Germanic than Italian but her authority in the role of Amneris cannot be gainsaid; her lower register is very healthy and she uses text expressively. She makes much emotionally of her desperation during the aforementioned Judgement Scene, even at the expense of purity of vocal line. I was not familiar with the bass who sing the King, but he is very sound and satisfactory. George London as Amonasro does not of course appear until virtually half way through the opera, but he deploys his huge, incisive baritone flexibly, sustaining legato in “Ma tu, Re” and generally making a real impact. Lucine Amara was for years the go-to Priestess at the Met and sings beautifully, with poise and penetration. Voices of this calibre ensure that the ensembles really resonate; “Nume, custode e vindice” becomes a highlight.

You notice I have delayed delineating my reaction to Milanov. She is clearly in better voice here than in the subsequent studio recording, but to my ears her essential sound was always rather plaintive and even elderly, without the lustre of Leontyne Price or the steadiness and poise of Caballé, “Ritorna vincitor” is her first big test; there are scoops and slides, the tone in alt is piping and the lower register hollow. As ever, there are lovely things, like the swelling of the vocal line to a passionate climax on “Ah! non fu in terra mai/Da più crudeli angosce un core affranto” but “Numi, pietà” is laboured and other attempted effects, such as the over-emphasis and rolled “rs” in “soffrir” sound hammy.

But wait a minute: isn’t that Milanov “doing a Callas” and hitting a top E flat at the end of the Act 2 ensemble? Not as huge and sustained as the Mexico City phenomenon, but audible and kudos to her. The next big event is “O patria mia” and at first she sounds creamier and steadier than before – almost a different singer. However, sliding, quaveriness and under-the-note faults then creep in; the swoop up to the top C is gusty and unlovely, but followed by a sweet, floated top A. The audience loves her and maybe she came across to them differently from how she sound here in a recording, but the inconsistency irks me. She fairly screams at her father in their explosive duet, where the bass element of London’s voice comes to the fore, pointing towards his development into bass-baritone roles. Her tendency to scream continues in the duet between Aida and Radamès and even for a Del Monaco fan like me, his relentless, full-on singing becomes wearing.

The climactic Tomb Scene begins promisingly with Del Monaco gently intoning his lament on a sustained low B and Milanov joins her voice with his affectingly and the ethereal nature of the music plays to her vocal strengths; she saves the best of her singing to conclude the performance. Del Monaco shows that he could be sensitive and Milanov sounds decidedly superior here to her studio recording with Bjőrling. However, as much as I commend Pristine’s restoration and enjoy the contributions of the other principal singers, the flaws in Milanov’s Aida overall disqualify this for me.

(In the final track, the urbane Milton Cross’ curtain-call commentary refers to “the famous golden curtains” of the old Met. I have on my wall a little square of their predecessors, decommissioned in 1940 and made into souvenirs by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The label on the reverse of the frame commemorates the first time it rose to reveal a performance of La Gioconda on 20th November, 1905, with the cast of Lillian Nordica, Enrico Caruso, Louise Homer, Antonio Scotti and Pol Plançon. Now there’s a performance my time machine is taking me to first…)

Ralph Moore