Verdi Aida

Gramophone Wed 27th May 2015

Recommended recordings of Verdi's Aida - the final magnificent work of his second period

Aida was the final magnificent work of Verdi's second period, using every element of his art: sublime large-scale choruses and poignant arias, pageantry, dance, spectacle and exoticism are all here, confirming his status as one of the greatest musical dramatists. The theme is doomed love – Radames, a Captain of the Egyptian guard falls for Aida, an Ethiopian slave; he sings her one of the great tenor arias 'Celeste Aida'; other memorable moments are Aida's 'Ritorna vincitor' and 'O patria mia' and their duet before being entombed alive 'O terra, addio'.

Gramophone Choice

Maria Callas (sop) Aida Fedora Barbieri (mez) Amneris Richard Tucker (ten) Radames Tito Gobbi (bar) Amonasro Giuseppe Modesti (bass) Ramfis Nicola Zaccaria (bass) King of Egypt Elvira Galassi (sop) Priestess Franco Ricciardi(ten) Messenger Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Tullio Serafin 

EMI mono 562678-2 or Regis RRC2074 (144' · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1955. Buy from Amazon 

Callas’s Aida is an assumption of total understanding and conviction; the growth from a slave-girl torn between love for her homeland and Radames, to a woman whose feelings transcend life itself, represents one of the greatest operatic undertakings ever committed to disc. Alongside her is Fedora Barbieri, an Amneris palpable in her agonised mixture of love and jealousy – proud yet human. Tucker’s Radames is powerful and Gobbi’s Amonasro quite superb – a portrayal of comparable understanding to set alongside Callas’s Aida. 

Tullio Serafin’s reading is in the central Italian tradition of its time. That’s to say, it’s unobtrusively right in matters of tempo, emphasis and phrasing, while occasionally passing indifferent ensemble in the choral and orchestral contribution. Although the recording can’t compete with modern versions (it was never, in fact, a model of clarity), nowhere can it dim the brilliance of the creations conjured up by this classic cast.

Additional Recommendation

Birgit Nilsson (sop) Aida Grace Bumbry (mez) Amneris Franco Corelli (ten) Radames Mario Sereni (bar) Amonasro Bonaldo Giaiotti (bass) Ramfis Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass) King Mirella Fiorentini (mez) Priestess Piero de Palma (ten) Messenger Chorus and Orchestra of Rome Opera / Zubin Mehta 

EMI 358645-2 (141’ · ADD · S/N) Recorded 1966. Buy from iTunes

In the 1950s and ’60s EMI made a series of what have become classics with Rome Opera forces that have Verdi in their blood. This Aida, greeted with reservations then, now seems like manna from heaven in a world starved of true Verdian voices. Above all there’s Corelli’s truly spinto tenor, a thrilling sound in itself, and used, as Radames (one of the most exciting on disc), with far more sensitivity than is usually allowed for. Nilsson matches Corelli in vocal bite and gets inside the character, even if she’s a touch unwieldy at times. As on stage, Bumbry is an imposing, spirited Amneris, Sereni makes an above-average Amonasro and Giaiotti sounds like Pinza as Ramfis – praise can’t be higher. The young Zubin Mehta conducts with a deal of dramatic verve. The recording is excellent. 

DVD Recommendation

Nina Stemme (sop) Aida Luciana d’Intino (mez) Amneris Salvatore Licitra (ten) Radames Juan Pons (bar) Amonasro Matti Salminen (bass) Ramfis Günther Groissböck (bass) King Christiane Kohl (sop) Priestess Miroslav Christoff(ten) Messenger Zürich Opera House Chorus and Orchestra / Adám Fischer

Stage director Nicolas Joël

Video director Andy Sommer 

Bel Air Classiques DVD BAC022 (3h 37’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo, 5.1 and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 2006. Buy from Amazon

This 2006 production from the Zürich Opera is a traditional one by Nicolas Joël in veteran Ezio Frigerio’s wonderfully evocative, highly coloured sets. Then Adám Fischer in the pit leads a remarkably strong yet subtle account of the score, which – when played and sung like this – is once more revealed as one of Verdi’s greatest masterpieces.

Four of the principals easily surpass their DVD rivals. Stemme offers a deeply considered, expressive and superbly sung Aida, one for whom the work’s vocal perils do not seem to exist. Add to that acting that goes to the heart of the matter, and one is left breathless in admiration after so many sopranos not truly fitted to the part. Licitra has done nothing better than his Radames here. At last fulfilling his potential, he sings the role with an open-hearted sincerity and a heroic voice up to the part’s exigent demands. He and Stemme make their Act 3 duet the highlight it should be.

D’Intino, an experienced Amneris, sings her role with intense feeling allied to a mezzo of generous proportions. The demands of her Act 4 scena are fully met, and she storms off to a well-earned burst of applause. Stemme and Licitra give the final scene with the utmost sensibility. Salminen remains a force to be reckoned with but Pons – as Amonasro – no longer is the baritone he once was, although dramatically he is up to the part.

The showpiece close to Act 2 is the one ­comparative disappointment, not offering the frisson it ought to. And here Andy Sommer’s video direction is uncertain, too often dividing the screen into three for no discernible purpose, although he directs the principals with a deal of senstivity. So this is the DVD Aida we have long awaited.

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