A clutch of Decca Toscas

For this comparison, I have chosen five different recordings of Tosca, all available from Decca Classics.

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First off I revisited the 1984 Solti Tosca but have to say I got bored before the end of Act I and then just tried various bits in the other two acts. The sound is great. Apart from that the best thing in it is Aragall, though I wouldn’t prefer him to Di Stefano, Domingo, Carreras or Bergonzi, all of whom appear on other more recommendable recordings. Nucci is a dead loss and Te Kanawa out of her depth as Tosca. Solti’s conducting has little to commend it either, too slow in places and too fast in others. It just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole, and considering it was all recorded piecemeal, that’s hardly a surprise. I remember this set was originally issued in a blaze of publicity, but it didn’t sell well and was quickly remaindered. A totally forgettable performance. 

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Where I found the Solti a bit of a bore, this 1966 set is quite interesting, but often for all the wrong reasons. First of all Maazel’s conducting is fussy beyond belief. He can hardly let a phrase go by without pulling around the tempo or trying to bring out some detail in the score. There is no lyrical flow or sweep and ultimately Puccini gets lost on the altar of Maazel’s ego.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Scarpia is, as you would expect, intelligently thought out, but it never sounds idiomatic. He is an artist I admire in the right repertoire but Puccini was not for him. Corelli is, well, Corelli. He is definitely the best of the three principals, but he emphasises the heroic at the expense of the seductive. Nonetheless, as always, there is much to enjoy in the sound of the voice itself.

Then there is Nilsson. Well the top notes are fabulous of course, but this isn’t really a good role for her. She often overdoes the histrionics, as in her first scene with Scarpia where she adds a surfeit of sobs. She can also be a little clumsy in the ligher sections and Non la sospiri la nostra casetta is clumsy and unpolished. Ultimately, like Fischer-Dieskau, she sounds as if she had strayed into the wrong opera.

For all that I found this more enjoyable than the Solti, which is just plain dull. At least all the singers here have a personality.

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So I’ve moved on to the 1978 Rescigno in this mini challenge and there’s little here to detain us. In fact I’d be tempted to place this below the Maazel, which at least has interest value. Rescigno was a favourite of Callas’s, recording many of her recital albums and delivering at least one great performance in the live 1958 Covent Garden Traviata but his conducting here is just plain dull. Like Te Kanawa, Freni is completely out of her depth, the voice just too light even at this stage of her career. I expected Milnes to be more interesting, especially when you think of his Jack Rance, but for some reason his Scarpia just isn’t nasty enough. Which leaves Pavarotti, who sounds out of sorts vocally. The velvet has gone from his voice and he often sounds plain whiney. Not surprisingly his Vittoria! is very small scale when set beside Corelli’s. And small scale is what personifies the whole performance, but that’s not what Tosca needs.

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At last a real Tosca voice! Aside from at the very top of the voice when she can be a bit shrieky, Tebaldi fulfils almost all the demands the role asks of her. I say almost, because she doesn’t quite have Callas’s flexibility and lightness of touch in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, but then few do. The beauty of the voice is well caught and she is a convincing Tosca. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, from any of the singers, but they do all have splendid voices of the requisite size and weight. Del Monaco is much better than I remembered, though he still bawls from time to time and his arias lack poetry. George London is the best of the Scarpias so far, his voice dark and threatening.

What lets this set down is the routine conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. He is a good accompanist, nothing more. Still, worth hearing for the three lead singers. The 1959 recording sounds good for its age.

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So I’ve come to the end of my mini Decca Tosca challenge and what a difference the conductor makes. This 1962 recording is in an altogether different class from the others and the chief reason for that is Karajan’s elastic conducting, which is incredibly controlled without being rigid. Where Maazel’s conducting draws attention to itself because of the way he fusses with the rhythms, Karajan’s rubato is entirely natural. He has at his disposal a cast as well nigh perfect as any other assembled on disc. Taddei’s Scarpia is the best I’ve heard since Gobbi, sounding equally dangerous but in a completely different way. You feel this man could lash out viciously at any second. Gobbi’s Scarpia would be unlikely to get his own hands dirty, but you feel Taddei’s not ony would but would enjoy doing so. Di Stefano is in slightly fresher voice for De Sabata but he is still an excellent Cavaradossi, and I actually prefer him to both Corelli and Del Monaco. He fulfils all aspects of the character, artist, lover and revolutionary, finding the poetry in his arias and an almost crazed fervour in his cries of Vittoria. He brings more “face” to his character than anyone. Truly this was one of his very best roles.

Which leaves us with Price and here I have a feeling I might be treading on controversial ground. The voice is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, her characterisation sensuous and feminine, and her singing is deeply felt (Vissi d’arte is really lovely). She is a good deal preferable to Nilsson, Freni or Te Kanawa, but I would still place Callas and Tebaldi ahead of her in the Tosca canon. The Callas/De Sabata I know so well that it tends to play in my mind’s ear whenever I hear the opera, but I had also just listened to Tebaldi in the role and she sounds more like a natural for it to me. It’s hard to put my finger on what is missing, but I’d no doubt be perfectly happy with her Tosca if I hadn’t heard Callas and Tebaldi in the role. Nonethless she is one of the best Toscas on record and in very good company.

So now having heard all five of these Decca recordings, my final ordering would be

1. (by a fair margin) Karajan
2. Molinari-Pradelli (the only other really worth hearing, mostly for Tebaldi’s Tosca and London’s Scarpia)
3. Maazel
4. Rescigno
5. Solti

The De Sabata would still be my ultimate first choice, but the Karajan has also stood the test of time and anyone wanting an audio Tosca would be happy with either. If stereo sound is a must, then Karajan is the obvious first choice.

 

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.

R.I.P. Mirella Freni

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The renowned soprano Mirella Freni has died at the age of 84. She had a long and illustrious career spanning around 50 years.

In her early career her chosen roles were Mimi, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Nanetta, Micaëla, Margeurite in Faust and Juliette, for which her charming stage presence were well suited. However the turning point in her career was perhaps her assumption of the role of Desdemona for Karajan in Salzburg in 1970. This led to her taking on other dramatic Verdi roles, like Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida and Leonora in La Forza del Destino. She also added Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to her repertoire, though both Tosca and Butterfly were only confined to disc. She once said in an interview in Opera News in 1987

I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice. Some singers think they are gods who can do everything. But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities.

No doubt this pragmatic attitude was the reason her career lasted so long. She resisted Karajan’s request for her to sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, and though she recorded Butterfly for him, and appeared in his film of the opera, she resisted all requests to sing the role on stage.

I only once saw her on stage, as Fedora at Covent Garden rather late in her career, but I did see the films of her as a sparkily sexy Susanna and a charmingly diffident Mimi. I also have recordings of her singing Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Aida. Some say the voice lost quality when she took on these heavier roles, but I don’t really agree and she never sounds to me as if she is forcing her naturally lovely sound. The only thing that I miss is that last degree of individuality. Though beautifully sung her performances are not always particularly memorable.

None the less, she was a major artist of the latter half of the twentieth century and she will be missed.

Let us now see Freni as Susanna singing Deh vieni in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Le nozze di Figaro under Karl Böhm. Just click on the following link Freni as Susanna

 

 

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.

Karajan’s Studio Don Carlo

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This is an infuriating set. Infuriating because the performance is so good but let down by the ridiculously wide dynamic of the recording. The balances are all over the place too, with the brass thrust relentlessly into the foreground. One particularly bad example is at the beginning of the garden scene (Act II, scene i in this version). Carreras is placed so far away from the microphone at his entrance that you can hardly hear him. The natural reaction is to turn up the sound, only to be blasted out of your seat at the next orchestral tutti. With the sound at a reasonably comfortable volume for the rest of the scene the brass reiteration of the friendship theme at the end is absolutely deafening. It might be ok if you live in the middle of nowhere, but if, like me, you live in a small flat in the heart of London, it makes listening a very nerve-racking experience, as you have to be prepared to adjust the volume all the time. It’s no better with headphones either, as, with the sound turned up high enough for the quieter sections, you risk severe ear damage every time the full orchestra let fly.

Aside from the problems of the sound, though, the set has much to commend it. I regret the absence of the Fontainebleau act, as Karajan conducts here Verdi’s 1884 revision, which excised the first act and moved Carlo’s Io la vidi to the monastery scene, which now became Act I. This was the version usually adopted until Giulini included the Fontainebleau act in the famous Visconti/Covent Garden production of 1958. Since then the opera has been performed in a bewildering variety of different versions, but the four act version is rarely given these days, though, as far as I’m aware, Karajan always stuck to it.

Editions aside, this one has an excellent cast. Freni is captured at the beginning of her progress into more dramatic music. In 1977 she had been a superb Amelia in the Abbado/Strehler production of Simon Boccanegra, and the role of Elisabetta suits her very well. She doesn’t quite command the beauty of tone of Caballé on the Giulini recording and she occasionally sounds a little cautious, but she makes a most sympathetic heroine, and articulates the text beautifully. Carreras is caught at his absolute best. Some might feel that, as with Freni, a larger, more heroic voice is what is required, but I’m not sure I’d agree. Carlo is one of Verdi’s most complex tenor roles, a weak character stunted by his father’s indifference to him, constantly in the shadow of his noble friend, Posa and Carreras brilliantly captures both his instability and his desperation. He might just be my favourite Carlo on disc. Cappuccilli is not so interesting a Posa as Gobbi or Milnes, nor is he quite as impressive here as he was in the Abbado Simon Boccanegra, but it is still an excellent performance, his breath control and legato very impressive. Ghiaurov is now sounding a little grey of voice, but that is not inapt for Filippo, and he too presents a believably complex character. I prefer a blacker voice than Raimondi’s for the Inquisitor (like Foiani on the Giulini recording) and consequently the great scene between him and Filippo loses a little in tension.

Crowning the cast is Agnes Baltsa as Eboli in one of her best recorded roles. The voice is at its absolute peak, the lower voice rich and powerful, the top notes gleamingly firm. Her O don fatale is absolutely thrilling, as it was when I saw her in the role at Covent Garden, when she pretty much stopped the show. This luxury casting continues into the smaller roles with José Van Dam as the Monk, Edita Gruberova as Tebaldo and Barbara Hendricks as The Voice from Heaven.

Karajan’s tempi are sometimes a little too measured, but he has the virtue of never letting the tempo sag. If only the sound were more maneagable, I might listen to it more often. As it is, Giulini remains my yardstick for the opera.

Verdi’s Don Carlos – a comparison of three different recordings

Don Carlo, or more properly Don Carlos, to use its French title, that great, sprawling, flawed masterpiece, is one of my favourite Verdi operas, maybe even my favourite. Admittedly it doesn’t have the coherence of Aida or Otello, or even Rigoletto, but enshrined in it is some of Verdi’s greatest music, and I believe that Act IV, Scene i is one of the greatest scenes in all Verdi. Starting with that mournful cello introduction to Philip’s despairing Elle ne m’aime pas, through the magnificent duet (more a duel )between the two bass voices of Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, on to the superb quartet for Philip, Rodrigue, Elisabeth and Eboli, to Eboli’s thrilling O don fatal, Verdi doesn’t put a foot wrong. As pure theatre and drama, it can hardly be bettered. It also enjoys some of the most complex characterisation in all Verdi. The tenor Carlos, is really an anti-hero, a rather pathetic character, desperate for the recognition of a cold, distant father, who wishes his son were more like his friend and confidant Rodrigue, the only really noble character in the opera. Philippe is also a weak character. He strives to be a strong leader, but mistakes intransigence for strength, and, ultimately, is putty in the hands of the church. He does not think for one moment about the effect of his decision to marry Elisabeth himself instead of Carlos, an act of pure selfishness. Elisabeth, disappointed in love, treated appallingly by Philippe, is both regal and compassionate, and Eboli is flighty, hot tempered, and ultimately remorseful.

Over the years I’ve seen the opera a few times and acquired three recordings, though what I actually have is recordings of three different operas. Giulini in 1971 goes for the five act version, in Italian translation, which restored the Fontainebleau Act, and puts Carlo’s Io la vidi back where it belongs in the Fontainebleau act; Karajan in 1979 chooses Verdi’s four Act version (also in Italian, in which Verdi deleted the whole of the first act, transferring Carlo’s Io la vidi to the Monastery Scene, which now becomes Act I, Scene i; Abbado in 1983 conducts the original five act version in French, and adds an appendix of music cut from the first performance, excised from the 1882-83 four act version, or recomposed in that revision. Yes, I know. Complicated, isn’t it?

Don Carlo(s) is a long opera, and I listened to my three recordings over a period of several days, starting with the Giulini, going on to Karajan and finishing with Abbado.

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The Giulini has acquired something of a classic status, and though probably not quite on the level as the same conductor’s Don Giovanni, it does a great deal to justify its high regard. First of all, Giulini has just about the best cast that could have been assembled at the time. That said, Domingo is not yet the artist he was to become. His singing is never less than musical, and he sings with commitment, but there is something slightly generalised about his performance, with nothing much to distinguish Carlo from any other Verdi tenor hero. Milnes sings a noble, forthright Rodrigo, my favourite of the three on these recordings. Raimondi is a little light voiced as Fillipo, a role that really cries out for the dark, buttery tones of a Pinza or a Christoff, but he is suitably tortured and his voice contrasts well with the black voiced Inquisitor of Giovanni Foiani.

Caballé’s voice was at its most beautiful at this time, and, though she too can be a little generalised, she is never less than involved and involving. Her soft singing, as you might expect, is exquisite.

Verrett is, quite simply, magnificent, and without doubt one of the best Ebolis on disc. Recorded before she started moving up to the soprano repertoire, her voice is in thrillingly exciting shape.

Giulini had of course conducted the opera a few years previously at Covent Garden, in a production by Visconti which went a long way to restoring the opera to its rightful place in the Verdi canon, It starred Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Gré Brouwenstijn and Fedora Barbieri, and it served Covent Garden very well over the years. I even saw Christoff myself in the opera in one of his last operatic appearances. Giulini’s credentials as a Verdian are never in doubt. His tempi can be on the spacious side, but he has a sure sense of the work’s structure. The 1971 analogue recording is wonderfully natural, the voices beautifully caught, and still sounds good on CD.

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The first thing that strikes me, and annoys me, about the Karajan recording is the sound. In an acoustic that is impossibly wide ranging, the voices, lighter and more lyrical than was often the case, are so far recessed that it is often difficult to hear them. One of the worst instances of this is the beginning of the scene in the Queen’s Garden at night. With the sound turned up to a comfortable level for Karajan’s beautiful evocation of a heady summer night, Carreras is all but inaudible at his first entry. I turn up the sound in order to hear him better, only to be blasted out of my seat at the next orchestral tutti. This is but one example, but it happens all the time, and is, in my opinion, a serious blot on what is actually a rather good performance.

Karajan, who also had a great deal of experience in this opera, is also spacious, but the performance still bristles with drama. I just wish he didn’t constantly push the orchestra forward at the expense of the singers, who are often submerged in the orchestral textures.

I liked Carreras’s Carlo very much. His legato isn’t as good as Domingo’s, but he is better at suggesting the character’s unhinged nature. Cappuccilli is good, without being distinctive. He has a good legato, and superb breath control, but he is a little anonymous, and this performance is not generally at the same high standard of his Boccanegra and Macbeth for Abbado. Ghiaurov is Filippo, but his voice was already showing signs of wear by this time, and I find him less interesting than Raimondi in the same role, who is now the Inquisitor, and a mite too light of voice for that role.

This was Freni’s first excursion into heavier repertoire, and she makes a very appealing Elisabeth. As always her singing is unfailingly musical, but lacks the grandeur Caballé brings to Tu che le vanita. Baltsa is just as exciting as Verrett, her voice, at this time in her career, seamless from top to bottom. I saw her in the role at Covent Garden a few years after this recording was made and she brought the house down, generating the kind of excitement that is all too rare in the opera house today. I really couldn’t choose between her and Verrett. Both are fantastic.

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And so on to Abbado, which I find operates on an altogether lower voltage.

Having taken the decision to perform the opera in French, it would seem somewhat perverse to use singers who have little or no (Domingo excepted) proficiency in the language, and it is Domingo who is the standout performance in this set. Paradoxically, ten years after making the Giulini recording, the top of his voice sounds much more free, and he is much more inside the character than he was  before, a highly strung and nervous portrayal.

Nucci is a four-square, dry old stick of a Rodrigue. Raimondi is back to playing Philippe, but his voice has lost some of its bloom, and Ghiaurov is sounding increasingly grey voiced as the Inquisitor.

Ricciarelli I have equivocal feelings about. She is the definitely the most affecting of the three Elisabeths, but also the most fallible vocally. However it’s a performance I’ve come to admire more over the years. Valentini-Terrani is much too light voiced for Eboli, and O don fatal taxes her to, and beyond, her limits. She is definitely no match for either Verrett or Baltsa.

Though it is the newest, and digitally recorded, the sound is unaccountably murky, nowhere near as clear, or as natural, as the Giulini, and Abbado’s conducting lacks energy and authority. He doesn’t have the same structural control he evinces in his recordings of both Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth.

My conclusion is, then, that Giulini retains its place at the top of the field, though I will on occasion want to listen to Karajan and Abbado, for some of the individually excellent performances.

As a codicil to this, I would mention that my introduction to the opera was Callas’s magnificent recording of Tu che le vanita, an aria she obviously had a great deal of affection for, as she regularly programmed it into her concert repertoire. Callas only sang the role of Elisabeth once, at La Scala in 1954, and unfortunately none of the performances were recorded, but she makes more of the scene than anyone. It is grandly voiced, her breath control prodigious, but she effectively binds together its disparate elements. It is, in Lord Harewood’s words, a performance of utmost delicacy and beauty and I would recommend it to anyone who loves this opera.

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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.