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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pyramid Scheme: The Aida Buyers Guide

Image © Rafael Olbinski

Aida is an opera that hits the wall whenever a studio recording was made. Verdi's Egyptian opera is at its most thrilling in a live performance. All of these sets offer considerable pleasure for the lover of Verdi's most spectacular opera.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin EMI 1951
Radames: Richard Tucker. Aida: Maria Callas
Mexico City Orquestra del Palacio de Bellas Artas cond. Oliviero de Fabritis EMI 1951
Radames: Mario del Monaco

Maria Callas recorded this opera twice in 1951. One set (black box) was made at La Scala with Tullio Serafin conducting, and Richard Tucker as her Radames. The other (blue box) has an inferior conductor and sketchy sound quality with the Oliviero de Fabritis occasionally audible from the podium. But it's worth it for fans of the hyper-masculine Mario del Monaco who sounds ready to invade Ethiopia, the Sudan and possibly climb Mount Kilamanjaro!

Callas only recorded this opera early in her career, so both sets are in monaural sound. She is in good voice, although she adds some sobs and mannerisms to the performance that seem to belong in another opera entirely. Neither is a first choice, but both are of interest for Callas fans and opera historians

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Jonel Perlea RCA 1955
Radames: Jussi Björling. Aida: Zinka Milanov.

An early studio Aida, featuring the wonderful pairing of Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling as Aida and Radames. The mono sound doesn't have the same "wide-screen" effect as more modern recordings of this opera, and the transfer is marred by audible hiss (especially in the Grand Consecration scene.) However, the singing (especially Björling's stunning "Celeste Aida" and Milanov's "O Patria Mia" with that famous, floated final note) makes this a compelling entry.

But wait--there's more. The set features the late Leonard Warren as Amonasro and Boris Christoff as a wonderfully scary (if not very Italianate) Ramfis. Issued on RCA, this set is also available from Naxos as an import.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan Decca 1959
Radames: Carlo Bergonzi. Aida: Renata Tebaldi.

This was the first stereo recording of Aida. It's still the best. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi are perfectly matched as the lovers. Karajan was at a peak with his Vienna forces, and although he recorded the opera again for EMI, that set was hurt by a cast which could not hold up against the orchestral assault of the Karajan Sound. Tebaldi is a marvelous Aida, singing with passion and intelligence. Bergonzi shows why he was one of the finest tenors of the 20th century.

This recording is a fascinating early example of Decca producer John Culshaw's "SonicStage" technique, with tiny aural enhancements added to create a virtual operatic experience.The tiny echoes when Radames and Aida are trapped in the tomb are chilling in their simplicity.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado Opera d'Oro 1972
Radames: Placido Domingo. Aida: Martina Arroyo.

If you must have Domingo as Radames (and he's pretty good!) the set to have is this this 1972 live recording opposite Martina Arroyo in the title role. Freed of the constraints of the studio, this is electric Verdi. The great tenor's voice was at an early peak, before it darkened. Claudio Abbado (whose 1981 studio set with Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli has its merits) demonstrates his sensitivity and skill as a Verdi conductor. Kick-ass.

Of the four (!) Domingo studio recordings of this opera, the ranking is: Abbado, Muti, Leinsdorf and Levine. The Muti set features Montserrat Caballe in the title role. Levine has a fine orchestra and chorus. The Leinsdorf recording has Leontyne Price.

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Sir Georg Solti Decca 1962
Radames: Jon Vickers. Aida: Leontyne Price.
Leontyne Price recorded the role of the Egyptian princess twice. This was her first version of the opera, recorded prior to her Met debut in the role. She is surrounded by a strong cast, featuring Jon Vickers, Rita Gorr and Robert Merrill as Amonasro. Georg Solti conducts the Triumphal Scene as if it were a Bruckner symphony, with trumpets squarely to the fore. This set is a strong alternate to the Karajan recording from 1959. However, the first issue of it was inflated to 3 CDs and marred by a poor digital mastering job.

Happily, when Decca decided to re-issue the set as a 2CD bargain pressing (with a break in the middle of the Triumphal March) they also remastered the tapes with 20-bit technology, restoring the swell of the orchestra and the bloom to Ms. Price's voice. In other words, don't buy the one with the fancy packaging and the white slip-case.

Image: Rafal Olbinski's poster art for Aida.
© Patinae Inc/Rafal Olbinski.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.