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.