Pappano’s Aida

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Recorded Sala Santa Cecilia Auditorium, Rome February 2015

Producer: Stephen Johns, Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen

This recording of Aida was issued five years ago now in a blaze of publicity, so how does it measure up now the dust has settled?

Presentation of this studio recording (a rarity in itself these days) harks back to the old days. A nice hard back book, acts I and II given a CD each, with the last two acts on the final CD. Full text, translations and notes in three languages are included, with copious photos of the sessions, and all at a very reasonable price. Warner have put a lot of faith in the enterprise, and I hope it succeeded, though it doesn’t seem to have precipitated any more studio recordings of opera.

So what of the performance? Well, to my mind, the two stars are Kaufmann and Pappano. Kaufmann fulfils all the requirements for strong heroic tone and lyrical poetry. The ending of Celeste Aida is one of the best I’ve heard, hitting the top Bb mezzoforte, then making a diminuendo to a truly ppp morendo close. He is every inch the noble warrior, the tender lover, and the tormented man torn between the two. Admittedly his tone isn’t what you’d call Italianate, and it doesn’t have that squillo up top that you hear in such tenors as Corelli or Del Monaco, but his musical manners are infinitely better. It is a considerable achievement and one of the best Radames we have had on disc.

Pappano’s shaping of the score is excellent and in the best Italian tradition, less self conscious than Karajan I, less apt to push the orchestra into the foreground than Karajan II and far preferable to the bombastic Solti. His balancing of the score’s public and private elements is just about perfect, and his Santa Cecilia orchestra play brilliantly for him. The sound too is very good, achieving an excellent balance between orchestra and singers, who are never drowned out as they are in Karajan II.

The rest have all I think been bettered elsewhere. Best of them is Ludovic Tézier’s Amonasro, a baritone with a good solid centre to his tone, and an almost Gobbi-like grasp of the role’s dramatic demands. I have heard much firmer basses in the roles of Ramfis and the King than Erwin Schrott and Marco Spotti and neither of them makes much of an impression.

Of the two women, Ekaterina Semenchuk has all the notes and power for Amneris, just missing out on a really individual response to the words. I’m afraid I found her performance all a bit generalised and she doesn’t eclipse memories of Simionato, Baltsa or Barbieri. As for Harteros, I have equivocal feelings. There are times when the role taxes her to the limit, and the ascent to top C in O patria mia is hard won, the final note thin, acrid and not quite in tune. She is easily outclassed by Caballé here. However she does use the words  well, and is thoroughly inside the role. My problem is that, though more responsive to the text than, say, Price or Tebadi, I find the voice itself somewhat anonymous. In some ways she reminds me of Freni, also a singer on the light side, and who also sings well off the words, but Freni makes the pleasanter, more individual sound and her singing is a good deal more secure.

So a worthy addition to the Aida discography, if not the last word in Aida recordings. I won’t be throwing away Muti, Karajan II and certainly not Callas under Serafin (also now on Warner). I also enjoy the thrilling live 1951 Mexico performance with Callas, Dominguez, Del Monaco and Taddei, though the incalcitrant sound makes listening rather a trial, and I note that, since I bought this Pappano set in 2015, it tends to be the last one I think of pulling down from the shelves, when I want to listen to the opera.

Karajan’s Second Studio Recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna  in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many who one might consider more vocally entitled. On the other hand, the personality is small and doesn’t stay in the memory the way that Price, Tebaldi, Caballé and Callas do. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get, if without the clarion heroics of a Corelli or a Del Monaco.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak at the time of this recording, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, his breath control as usual exemplary. Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King and the silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.

Karajan’s second recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many whom one might consider more vocally entitled. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, and Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King. The silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.

Régine Crespin – Opera Arias

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When I think of Régine Crespin I tend to think of suave sophistication, intelligence and cool reserve, qualities that make her the perfect interpreter of the songs of Ravel, Debussy and, especially, Poulenc and Ravel. But of course it was a large, refulgent voice and not one to be confined to the recital platform. The operatic stage would also seem to be its natural home.

Unfortunately too much of this French sang froid creeps into her performances of Verdi here. This Amelia is only slightly perturbed to find herself at the gallows at midnight, this Aida only mildly conflicted between loyalty to her lover and her fatherland. One feels that she wouldn’t want to get too upset in case she mussed her dress and beautifully coiffed hair, so just shrugs and walks away. In this she is the very antithesis of Callas who, famously, listened to this performance of Ritorna vincitor in a break during tense recording sessions of her final Verdi disc. Callas was so insensed at a performance that went against every grain of her dramatic being that she decided to sing it there and then, though the aria hadn’t been planned, and the result was a performance of blazing intensity a million miles from what we get here. Aside from being far too slow, Crespin never really gets to grips with Aida’s torment and anguish.

Of course Crespin’s singing is always musical, intelligent and well considered, the voice firm and well supported, but, for me, there is a lack of passion, a sense of detachment that doesn’t go well with Verdi. The best item is Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene, though it is taken unconscionably slowly. Her tone well captures the feel of a woman  walking and talking in her sleep, and there are some fine details of interpretation. She takes a lower option at the end rather than attempt the top D fil di voce, and we note that the top of the voice can be unwieldy, steely and just under the note, as it is at the climax of Amelia’s Ecco l’orrido campo from Un Ballo in Maschera. In that respect Eboli’s O don fatale suits her better, and she does at last inject a bit more passion here, but the aria should be thrilling and it just isn’t.

Paradoxically Elisabetta’s great Act V aria from Don Carlo is taken rather too fast, and I also wonder why she didn’t sing it in French. In consequence the grand opening statement feels rushed, as does the end, and the aria loses its shape. This might have more to do with Prêtre than Crespin, whose speeds can be a bit hit and miss, and nowhere does he seem the right conductor for Verdi. It is interesting to note that, though he was a great favourite of Callas, she retained the services of Nicola Rescigno for her 1960s Italian recitals, using Prêtre only for the French recitals and her Carmen and second Tosca.

In general the Wagner items suit her better, though here too I would prefer to hear Schwarzkopf or Grümmer in the Lohengrin arias. Crespin convincingly conveys Elsa’s deam-like state, but she is far less personal with the text. There is no quickening of the pulse at the approach of the knight, and, yet again, it feels as if she were on the outside looking in. Her singing is tasteful, intelligent, musical and yet I don’t feel she is truly involved.

We get more propulsive singing for Sieglinde’s Eine Waffe lass’ mich dir weisen, and of course she recorded the role in Solti’s Ring. She also makes a suitably seductive Kundry in the short extract from Parsifal.

That said, none of this is material I would choose to hear her in. For that I would turn to her superb performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade with Ansermet (though not her Nuits d’Eté which also suffers from a lack of passion), to her singing of songs by Poulenc, Debussy and Satie and to some of the operettas of Offenbach that she recorded, music that responds better to her equivalent of the arched eyebrow.

Ljuba Welitsch – Salome closing scene and other arias

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Tchaikovsky; Eugene Onegin – Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Verdi: Aida – Ritorna vincitor
Puccini: Tosca Vissi d’arte
Puccini: La Boheme – Quando m’en vo
Weber: Der Freschütz – Wie nahthe mir der Schlummer – Leise, leise
Strauss: Salome – Closing Scene

Ljuba Welitsch shot through the operatic firmament like a comet in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unfortunately she developed nodules on her chords by 1953 and her international career was over almost before it started. In that brief time her Salome at least became the stuff of legend, and to this day is considered one of the greatest of all times, though a prodjected complete recording with Reiner conducting never materialised. There are two live perforances from the Met, from 1949 and 1952. The latter has the best all round cast, but she is in fresher voice in the former.

These recordings all date from the 1940s when her voice was at its silvery best, and the final scene from Salome, conducted by Lovro von Matacic dates from 1944, when Strauss himself chose her to sing the role at the Vienna Opera in a production, which was to celebrate his eightieth birthday. They worked on the piece for six weeks, with Strauss himself attending the rehearsals, so, from that point of view at least, we should consider her performance here as authentic. Indeed this must be exactly the voice Strauss had had in mind. It remains silvery, youthful and light, and yet cuts through the heavy orchestral textures with no apparent effort. Not only that, but her word painting and identification with the role is so vivid that at the end of the scene one literally feels Herod’s distaste when he commands his soldiers to kill her. This scene alone is indispensable, whether one has one of the complete live recordings or not.

The other arias were all recorded between 1947 and 1949, when the voice was still in fine shape, but they do expose some of her weaknesses. The best of them is Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, here sung in German, which teems with girlish impulsiveness and teen-angst longing. There is no sense of strain and the high notes ring out gloriously. Please also take note of the wonderful horn playing of Dennis Brain. This scene ranks as highly as the Strauss in the Welitsch discography.

Musetta’s Waltz makes its effect well, with loads of personality, but she misses the anguish and contrasts in Aida’s Ritorna vincitor, and her Vissi d’arte is rather penny plain. Neither scene really registers anything at all and she has a tendency to rush the beat, which can be quite annoying. The Weber is better, but she still lacks the poise and control evinced by such singers as Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

When the voice started to let her down, she did not retire, but moved to character roles, most famously singing the Duenna in Karajan’s first recording of Der Rosenkavalier. As late as 1972, she played the role of the Duchess of Crakentorp in a Fille du Régiment at the Met.

Not a recital in the true sense of the word, as all these performances were recorded for 78s, this compilaton is essential none the less for the Strauss and Tchaikovsky at least.

Callas in Aida – Mexico City 1951

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A few months ago, I reviewed this performance HERE as part of a comparative review of five different Aida recordings, so I don’t propose to go into too much detail, as you can read that review by clicking on the above link.

As for the sound, this Warner re-master is a good deal better than the old Virtuoso version I owned before, which was almost unlistenable, but, yet again, in conversation with other Callas fans on the net, I am told that there are better versions than Warner out there, not least Ars Vocalis. The problem with this is that these can be difficult to come by (only available for a short time on ebay) and the Warners are readily and cheaply available from Amazon and the like. As such, this Warner re-master is not at all bad, and easily more listenable than what I had before, the voices coming through much more clearly.

To reiterate what I said back in March, this is a performance in primary colours, which befits its surroundings. The audience is a palpable presence, and when Callas hurls out that magnificent top Eb in the Triumphal Scene, they almost tear the place apart. Subtlety, from any of the singers, is not to be expected, though Callas of course sings with her customary musical intelligence. She is in superb voice throughout, though the top C climax to O patria mia, a firm but not exactly dolce note, is not ideal. She recovers quickly to sing a seethingly dramatic Nile Scene with Giuseppe Taddei’s excellent, implacable and forceful Amonasro. My yardstick for this duet has always been the Callas/Gobbi confrontation on the studio set, but this one is almost its equal. What it lacks is Serafin’s superbly sympathetic conducting (I know of no other conductor who makes the violins weep the way he does in those repeated figures as Aida sings about how much her country costs her). In any case, no other soprano digs as deeply into the words as she does at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi. On this occasion, unusually for her, she adds some extraneous sobs, which she will eschew in both the performance under Barbirolli at Covent Garden in 1953, and for the studio recording of 1955 (the last time she sang the role).

Del Monaco tends to sing everything forte, but the voice itself is in spendid shape. The local girl, Oralia Dominguez, in her role debut, and Giuseppe Taddei both display voices in full bloom and are thoroughly involved in the drama. All in all it isn’t the most subtle of performances you will hear but it is full of thrills and undenyably exciting and I can only imagine what it would have been like in the audience.

Back in March, when I reviewed this alongside the live Barbirolli from Covent Garden, the studio recording, Karajan’s second recording of the opera and the latest one from Pappano, I ultimately came down in favour if the 1955 Callas studio recording, and, though in somewhat leaner voice, there are still moments I prefer the greater subtlety she brings to her performance there. However, by 1955 Aida was no longer in her repertoire. This one gives us a better idea of how thrilling her Aida must have been in the theatre. A character who can sometimes seem no more than a cypher, the archetype of the woman torn between love and duty, becomes a real, passionate flesh and blood woman. Even taking into consideration the distinctly lo-fi sound, this would be my favourite performance of the opera.

 

Verdi’s Aida – a comparative review of 5 different recordings

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up with five different recordings of Verdi’s Aida. It’s not my favourite Verdi opera by a long chalk. Though it has magnificent music, the characters always seem more like human archetypes than flesh and blood people and I admire it rather than love it. Three of my recordings feature Callas, and, though I never think of Aida as a Callas role, she brings more meaning to it than most. Two of the Callas recordings (the ones that find her in the best voice) are live, but the sound on both is, at best tolerable, so the studio one is also a necessity, though the 1955 mono sound on that can’t hope to compare with the fabulous sound accorded the new Pappano set that was recorded in 2015.

Aida is of course the quintessential grand opera, famed throughout the world for extravagant stagings at the Arena di Verona, but actually, aside from the great Triumphal Scene, many of its scenes are played out in private, behind closed doors.

I started my journey with the famous live 1951 performance from Mexico, with Callas, Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.

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Well let’s get over the caveats. The sound is pretty atrocious; it crumbles and distorts and the balances are all over the place. The voices come through reasonably well, but you do have to listen through the sound, as it were. But what a performance! And a memento of what was undoubtedly a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Callas is in superb voice throughout, and makes more of the somewhat placid character of Aida than any other singer I have come across. The power she was able to summon at this point in her career has to be heard to be believed, a power that goes right up to that unwritten, but absolutely stunning top Eb in alt in the Triumphal Scene, a phenomenal sound, that excites the Mexicans so much you can almost hear them rip the seats apart. Ritorna vincitor is absolutely thrilling, the duet with Dominguez’s Amneris also superb, but, as always with Callas, it is the Nile Scene that provokes her most moving singing.

O patria mia is not her best moment. She seems momentarily preoccupied with the exposed top C at the end, a solid if not exactly dolce as marked note, but once past the aria, she is on more congenial ground, and, with Taddei a worthy partner, alternately stentorian, implacable, insinuating and relentless, runs the gamut of emotions in an exciting Nile Scene. In the ensuing duet with Radames, she finds a wealth of colour as she seduces and cajoles him.

Del Monaco, as usual, is not particularly subtle, but there is the clarion compensation of the voice itself, and, like all the Radames Callas sings with in the three recordings, makes a better hero than lover.

Dominguez is very impressive. This was her debut in the role, and occasionally she overplays her hand, but her singing is very exciting and the Mexicans give her a rousing reception.

De Fabritiis conducts a dramatic, but not particularly subtle, version of the score. Nowhere does he find the delicacy of Karajan or Pappano, or even Serafin, but subtlety is not really what this performance is about.

I next moved onto another live Callas performance; this one from Covent Garden in 1953, with Kurt Baum, Giulietta Simionato and Jess Walters, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

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Unfortunately Barbirolli turned out to be something of a disappointment. More subtle than De Fabritiis in Mexico admittedly, the performance lacks excitement and many of his tempi are unaccountably slow. Maybe his approach was more suited to the reserved Londoners than the excitable Mexicans, but the latter has a thrilling vitality completely missing in London.

There is no thrilling Eb in the Triumphal Scene, but Callas is still in superb voice. However Barbirolli’s slow tempi vitiate against some of her more dramatic moments. The I sacri numi section of Ritorna vincitor lacks the bite Callas usually brings to it, though she is able to spin out the final Numi pieta to even more heavenly lengths at Barbirolli’s slower tempo.

Baum is not quite as bad as his reputation, but he hardly ever phrases with distinction and he sobs and aspirates in what he evidently thought was the Italian manner. He also has a tendency to hold on to every top note as if his life depended on it, so that his duets, both with Callas and Simionato, become somewhat combative. That Callas manages to sing the final duet with the grace and delicacy she does is little short of miraculous, given Baum’s determination to bawl his way to his death.

Simionato, a more experienced Amneris than Dominguez, is magnificent and Barbirolli does finally wake up for her final scene, though you sense Simionato propelling the music forward and they almost become unstuck. Am I being picky, though, when I wonder if a little too much of Azucena creeps into Simionato’s interpretation? Amneris is after all a young princess, but more on that subject later.

Somewhat disappointed with Barbirolli, I moved on to the second Karajan recording, recorded in Vienna with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli.

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Karajan’s speeds in this, his second recording, of the opera are also spacious but much more vital. I’ve always found his first effort, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, a little too self-consciously beautiful. This one is far more alive to the drama. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly and the sound is excellent analogue stereo, though the voices are a little too recessed for my liking, and are often submerged by the orchestra. Given that Karajan uses lighter, more lyrical voices than we have become used to, this does seem a somewhat perverse decision.

If singers of  Radames tend to break down into the heroic and poetic, Carreras is more in the latter camp. His voice is doubtless a notch too small for the part, but it was still a beautiful instrument at that time, and his is the most attractive Celeste Aida we have heard so far, though he doesn’t manage the pianissimo top B at the end. He is at his best in the final duet, his piano singing a welcome relief from the overloud Del Monaco and Baum.

Freni is very attractive, if a little lacking in personality. Her voice might also be considered a little light for the role, but she never forces and sings within her means, phrasing sensitively and singing cleanly off the text. She does nothing wrong, but set next to Callas, she just isn’t that interesting.

The best of the soloists is, without doubt, Agnes Baltsa. Here at last we have a believably young, spoiled princess, a plausible rival for Aida. Seductively sexy and driven to distraction by jealousy, she is convincingly remorseful at the end of the opera, nor does she sound like an Azucena in disguise. She is superbly effective in her duets with Radames and Aida, and gorgeous in the first scene of Act II. She is my favourite of all the Amnerises.

Cappuccilli I find efficient rather than inspired. He doesn’t stamp his authority on the role of Amonasro the way Taddei and Gobbi do, though, as usual, his breath control is exemplary. In a star studded cast, both Ramfis and the King (Ruggero Raimondi and Jose Van Dam) are excellent and we even get the silken voiced Katia Ricciarelli in the role of the Priestess.

From Karajan I turned to the latest addition to the Aida discography. Recorded in the studio, a rarity for opera recordings these days, it is conducted by Antonio Pappano, and stars Anya Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ludovic Tezier with Orchestra and Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy.

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As one might expect, the sound in this new digital recording is superb, much more naturally balanced than the Karajan, with the voices coming through beautifully. Pappano exerts a superb grip on the opera, and his might just be the best conducted version of the lot, in the best lyric Italian tradition of conductors like Serafin, more of whom below.

Best of the soloists is definitely Jonas Kaufmann, who might just be the best Radames ever to be recorded. He has both the heroics and the poetry (a deliciously ppp close to Celeste Aida) and is vocally the equal of all that Verdi throws at him. Throughout he phrases with sensitivity and imagination, and achieves miracles of grace in the final duet, with some genuine dolce singing. This is a great performance.

Harteros is in the Freni mould, vocally not quite as secure, but a little more interesting. She goes for a dolce top C in O patria mia, but it is a little shaky. She does not erase memories of Caballe (on the Muti recording) in the same music, but hers is nevertheless an attractive performance.

Semenchuk I don’t like at all. She has a typically vibrant Eastern European voice, with a tendency to be squally. She reminded me most of Elena Obrasztsova and sounds a good deal older than she looks in the photographs accompanying the recording. All the other Amnerises under consideration bring something more specific to the role, where she is more generalised, and consequently the big Act IV scene lacks tension.

If not quite in the Gobbi or Taddei class, when it comes to verbal acuity, Ludovic Tezier is a fine Amonasro and together he and Harteros, with Pappano’s inestimable help, deliver a fine Nile Duet. The basses are not quite in the same class as those on Karajan and Serafin.

Which brings me to Serafin and Callas’s studio recording of the opera.

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By the time this recording was made in 1955, Callas had given up the role of Aida, singing her last performances in Verona just a few months after the 1953 Covent Garden performances under Barbirolli.

Callas’s voice has thinned out quite a bit, and she sings a much more refined performance of the role, perhaps more in line with conventional interpretations, except of course that Callas can never be conventional. When Tebaldi sings Numi pieta at the end of Ritorna vincitor, she sings a pure lyrical line and it’s very pretty, but Callas reminds us that she is asking the Gods to take pity on her suffering. Time and time again she will illuminate a phrase here, a word there. The duet with Amneris abounds with contrast as the two women play off against each other, but it is the duet with Amonasro in the Nile Scene that holds the heart of this performance, the scene where Aida must choose country before love. Gobbi is at his incisive best as Amonasro, and I doubt I will ever hear this duet done better. Note too how eloquently Serafin makes the strings weep when Aida finally gives in, first with the climbing phrase on the cellos and then in the way he accentuates those stabbing violin figures, when Callas sings O patria, patria quanto mi costi. This is the real stuff of drama.

Tucker isn’t in Callas and Gobbi’s class I’m afraid. He has the right sound for the role, virile and forthright, but for every phrase delivered with just the right degree of slancio, there is another ruined by his tendency to aspirate and sob.

Barbieri is very fine, in the Simionato mould, and, with Serafin letting go a veritable storm in the orchestra, produces a thrillingly dramatic Act IV scena.

Both basses (Giuseppe Modesti as Ramfis, and especially Nicola Zaccaria as the King) are splendid, and Serafin, as you might have gathered, conducts a wonderfully dramatic version of the score, in the best Italian tradition.

So conclusions then. No doubt there will be some wondering why I didn’t include Solti and Muti. Well, Solti I’ve never taken to. I just can’t stand his bombastic, un-Italianate, unlyrical conducting, good though his cast is (though I’ve never quite joined in the general enthusiasm for Gorr’s Amneris). I know the Muti but don’t own it. Until Pappano came along I usually used to recommend it as the safest bet, and Caballe gives one of her finest performances as Aida, and it is still, if memory serves me correctly, worth considering.

From the five under consideration then, I’d say De Fabritiis in Mexico is essential listening, if only as a memento of a historical occasion and a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. It could never be a library version though because of the intransigent sound. From the point of view of a library choice, then the new Pappano would probably be the safest bet, even though it has the weakest Amneris. Forced to choose but one recording, though, I’d go for Serafin, with a rather regretful glance over my shoulder towards Baltsa’s Amneris. The mono sound is sometimes a bit boxy and not a patch on either Karajan or Pappano, but its studio acoustic is a good deal better than either De Fabritiis or Barbirolli, who, in any case, surprisingly trails in last place in this survey, despite the presence of both Callas and Simionato.

Callas’s vocal splendour is best caught in Mexico in 1951, but, the sound is a problem, so it’s Serafin for me, if only for the Amonasro/Aida Nile duet, the most thrilling on all these sets.

 

 

 

Callas’s Studio Aida

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Recorded 10-12, 16-20, 23-24 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

I’m going to make a confession. Aida is not my favourite Verdi opera. I find it hard to identify with any of the characters, and they usually emerge as representatives rather than real people. It is full of great music, but I have to admit I admire it rather than love it. Nor would the role of Aida be considered a natural for Callas, though she sang it, with a great deal of success, quite often between her debut in the role in 1948 and her last stage appearances in it in 1953, this 1955 recording being the last time she would ever sing the complete role, though she returned to the aria Ritorna vincitor and the Nile duet with Radames (with Corelli) late in her career in the mid 1960s. Interestingly enough, though one doesn’t think of Aida as a Callas role, when the now defunct International Opera Collector magazine conducted a poll of its readers to assemble the ideal Aida cast, Callas was one of the favourites, alongside such famous Aidas as Ponselle and Leontyne Price.

The reason for this can only be that she brings the rather placid character of Aida to life like no other. Though she may not have the sweetness of timbre one might ideally want from an Aida, there are plenty of other rewards. She takes a little while to settle down in the first trio, but Ritorna vincitor is alive with meaning and contrast. Just listen to the way she spits out her hatred for del egizii coorti, the power with which she exhorts her compatriots to destroy the legions, with particular emphasis on the word struggete, the complete change of colour at Ah! Sventurata che dissi, the tenderness with which she sings of her love for Radames and the pain and desperation in her voice at Da piu crudeli angosce un core affranto; the last imprecation to the Gods sung with her tone drenched in sorrow, her legato as usual impeccable. Aida’s cruel predicament is set before us in this one aria with a psychological penetration second to none.

There are wondrous little details in the ensuing duet with Amneris too, like the touch of pride that enters her tone at Mia rivale! Ebben sia pure, quickly withdrawn when she realises she could easily give away her true identity.

But it is the Nile Scene that makes the greatest impression in this set. It starts with Aida’s O patria mia, which some commentators have found to be the weak link in her portrayal, but she yearns most wistfully, floating the tone wonderfully at O freschi valli. She always had problems with the ascent to top C, but it is a lot more solid here than she is often given credit for. It may not be dolce as marked by Verdi, but I don’t hear the wobble that so many commentators claim to have problems with. The following duet is magnificent music and magnificently sung by both Callas and Gobbi, and the finest realisation of it on disc. I doubt any singers have come close to them in the way they create drama in sound, and Serafin is at his very best in this scene too. I found it impossible to hold back the tears as Callas launched into that glorious tune at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi, and how brilliantly Serafin makes the violins weep with her.

The duet with Radames is hardly less fine, though Tucker can be a bit graceless at times. Yet again, Callas brings out a wealth of detail, like the insinuating way she sings Pur, se tu m’ami with that slight portamento on the word m’ami. She plays Radames brilliantly here, wonderfully seductive when she sings La tra foreste vergini. This is operatic singing on the highest level. In the last act too, she has something to offer, singing with grace and accuracy the difficult fioriture of Vedi? Di morte l’angelo.

As already mentioned Gobbi is superb as the implacable Amonasro, masculine and forthright of tone,  though still able to inject some tenderness into his duet with Aida. Tucker has the right heroic timbre for the role of Radames, but he can be a bit lachrymose, and tends to aspirate and sob, as if mimicking the mannerisms of a true Italian tenor. Barbieri is more subtle than I remember her, and provides a barnstorming Amneris, though I have come to prefer Baltsa on Karajan’s second recording, who reminds us that Amneris is a young princess and a valid rival for Aida.

Serafin is on top form, conducting in the best Italian tradition, lyrical and dramatic in equal measure. There may not be any great surprises or revelations, but his deep understanding of the music and its style is its own reward.

All in all, it was a great surprise to re-discover this set, to enjoy the opera more than I thought I would, and to find myself appreciating Callas’s very individual take on the role

Callas sings Verdi Arias III

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There never actually was a Verdi Arias Vol III, though one had been planned. Warner here use the cover of an album issued in 1972, of material which had been sitting around in the vaults, and which Callas eventually agreed to have issued. The original album coupled  the Act I Scena from Il Pirata (now on Rarities) with Amelia’s Act Il Scena from Un Ballo in Maschera, O madre dal cielo from I Lombardi, Arrigo, ah parli a un core from I Vespri Siciliani, Liberamente or piangi from Attila and Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. The Il Corsaro arias, Amelia’s Morro, ma prima in grazia and Leonora’s Tacea la notte placida appeared on a later album called The Legend, coupled to some unissued 1955 arias from La Sonnambula, none of which were cleared for release by Callas.

That 1972 album was actually one of the first Callas LPs I owned. It seems unbelievable now, but in the early 1970s, most of Callas’s back catalogue had been deleted by EMI, who presumably thought that the advent of stereo rendered it obsolete. At that time I had only heard a few of her recordings and I remember sampling a couple of arias from this disc in Windows, the local classical music store in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Initially alienated by the harsh sounds I heard coming from the listening booth, I left the shop without buying the disc. However somehow those tones carried on resonating in my mind’s ear, and eventually I went back and bought the LP. It was a decision I never regretted, as I learned to listen not just to the voice itself, but what she was doing with it. It also introduced me to some Verdi I’d never heard before, namely the arias from I Lombardi, Attila and I Vespri Siciliani. I knew absolutely then that Verdi was to become one of my favourite composers.

Taking first the arias not on that original LP, we find the arias from Il Corasaro recorded in 1969, really remarkably good. Her legato line is better than both Caballe and Norman on the Philips studio recording of the opera, and she unerringly captures the mood of each aria. The Trovatore has some magical moments, but at no place challenges her superb recording with Karajan. Amelia’s Morro, ma prima in grazia is very good indeed, with a superb, firm top B leading into a perfectly shaped final cadenza.

Swings and roundabouts on the rest. The tone at the beginning of the I Lombardi aria (the first track I listened to in the record shop) is indeed somewhat uningratiating, but once past the opening statement, she is in securer form, and moulds the line beautifully. Both the Attila and I Vespri Siciilani arias go well, the legato line beautifully held, and with Rescigno conjuring up some gorgeous sounds from the orchestra for the Sospendi o rive section of the Attila aria. I’d certainly sooner hear this version than Deutekom’s pallidly voiced one on the Philips complete recording. Amelia’s grand Act II Scena is full of passion, drama and fantasy. Though the ascent to top C is hard won, she grandly phrases on and through the note, so that it does not become the focal point of the aria. Still this does not challenge her performance on the complete set of 1956, nor the superb live performance from 1957.

The one incontrovertibly great performance on the disc is Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. This was not originally planned, but sessions had been getting a bit tense and Callas and the orchestra took a break. During the break Michel Glotz, the recording producer played a performance of Crespin singing the aria, which had been recorded the previous day. Callas was incensed, finding the performance completely antithetical to her sensibilities, lugubrious and slow. “I could hardly get the words out, when I did this with Maestro Serafin.” On learning that the parts were still there, she said, “Come on, Nicola, let’s do it!” and this is what they did – in one take! As always Callas loved a challenge, and this was as if someone had laid down the gauntlet. Somehow she recovers much of her old security, and the aria is brim full of drama and passion. Just listen to the anguish she pours out in Ah! non fu in terra mai da più crudeli angosce un core affranto, the desperation of Ah, sventurata che dissi?, with the final plea to the Gods heart wrenchingly poignant. This is Callas at her best.