Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871) [2:24:40]
Aida - Maria Callas (soprano)
Radamès - Richard Tucker (tenor)
Amneris - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Ramfis - Giuseppe Modesti (bass)
Il Re di Egitto - Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Una Sacerdotessa - Elvira Galassi (soprano)
Un Messaggero - Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. August 1955, Teatro alla Scala
No libretto
Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO178 [79:54 + 64:46]

A number of things militate against this recording being wholly recommendable. First, we have cause yet again to curse Walter Legge who, for all his genius, stubbornly resisted stereo technology and stubbornly persisted in recording in mono long after Decca had seen the light, thereby depriving us of the best sound in a number of classic recordings. Secondly, Callas was going through a relatively precarious vocal patch from which she mostly recovered, but there is no denying that her top notes can sometimes flap alarmingly here. Finally, not everyone warms to Richard Tucker’s stentorian, even effortful, vocal production, some finding him “coarse and throaty” – although personally, I find him admirable.

The best mono edition is Mark Obert-Thorn’s remastering for Naxos reviewed here by Bob Farr, but back in 1978, EMI also released an electronically reprocessed stereo edition which I consider to be a definite improvement over the original mono release, Now, however, Pristine’s Andrew Rose has now made a lot of people happy by giving us the XR remastering into Ambient Stereo, a process which has breathed new life into so many famous recordings without compromising their integrity – so the sound is immeasurably improved even if he cannot do much about Callas’ travails in alt.

I of course had to include this recording in my survey of Aida and I rated it highly as one of two most recommendable studio, mono versions; I reproduce my findings here, as my response has not changed – except, of course, that here it is now available in manufactured stereo:

“Only two or three Aida recordings really pierce the heart of this most venerable of war-horses; chief amongst them are the famous Muti version and this one - now available absurdly cheaply on Regis - a bit hissy and rumbly but in vivid, immediate mono. OK, Callas' top C in "O patria mia" wobbles a bit but otherwise no other soprano begins to inflect the text with the degree of subtlety and pathos she achieves - and when Gobbi joins her, we are listening to a master class on how to enact Ghislanzoni's text. Gobbi makes fellow baritones sound merely bland and workaday - especially Cappuccilli in the otherwise striking Muti set. In addition, both have such recognisable and intense vocal personalities, Gobbi with that inimitable, Italianate "bite" and flickering vibrato, Callas with her melting portamenti and sudden, powerful surges.

Barbieri is a tower of strength in a role made for her and Tucker, while not the subtlest of tenors is rock-steady and heroic of tone; certainly few tenors have his vocal capability in this cruelly taxing role - only Del Monaco and the young Corelli in the 1956 Cetra recording capably conducted by Questa provided more thrills. Ultimately my favourite Aida remains the Muti set in excellent stereo sound but this 1955 recording, which benefits from Serafin's readiness to sacrifice the metronome to dramatic exigency, will always be amongst my favourites.”

Upon relistening for the purposes of this review, I was struck afresh by the sheer power, resonance and virtuosity of the voices here, starting Tucker’s bold, blazing account of “Celeste Aida”. OK; he doesn’t follow Verdi’s markings and make a diminuendo on the concluding B flat but what a thrilling piece of singing it is and I was also reminded how precise and authentic is his Italian diction. To give but one example, the way he softly intones “Immenso Fthà!” then lets rip on its final iteration to close the first Act is riveting. I also tried to cover the third possible objection detailed in my opening paragraph above by paying special attention to the degree to which Callas’ vocal failings perturb me. So captivated am I by her myriad inflections that I barely noticed the odd flap. Are we really going to demur at one of the greatest operatic assumptions because of one slightly laboured top C? The variety and intensity of her singing are simply astounding; nobody, but nobody can do what she does to bring Aida so vividly to life. Gobbi is perfect as Amonasro – a real warrior with a cutting edge to his voice. I should have mentioned in my survey, too, that the quartet of principal singers here are complemented by two superb basses in Modesti and Zaccaria.

The final question is, does Pristine’s remastering enhance our enjoyment of this Aida? I have the stereo reprocessing set as a comparison and had already accounted it to be a great improvement over the mono issue, However, it is immediately apparent from the Prelude that Pristine’s treatment has removed all trace of hiss without truncating higher frequencies and also tamed the glassy sound, especially wiry string tone, while enhancing the bass and giving the instruments greater body. The difference Pristine’s sound makes to our appreciation of the voices is less marked as the stereo EMI issue was still much improved, but there is now more air around the singers, they have greater “presence” and there is a better balance between them and the orchestra, as the latter have been brought forward somewhat – a desirable adjustment. What I can only describe as a certain, faint “fuzziness” has been tamed, too, so, all in all, the answer to my question opening this paragraph is a resounding “yes”. If you love this opera as I do, this Pristine reincarnation must be in your collection.

Ralph Moore