Acts 3 and 4 of Aida are possibly the apex of nineteenth-century Italian opera, in terms of structure, characterization and dramatic truth—or so it seems when they are performed so ideally as on the older of the RCA sets under consideration. The performances also come close to perfection as regards Verdian interpretation. The brief phrases at the start of the Third Act show Christoff and Barbieri enunciating the text in a prominent and meaningful way on a firm bed of tone. They are followed by Milanov's ''O patria mia'', a classic account in phrasing and vocalization of this difficult solo, the control of voice and nuance unsurpassed even by Rethberg, Callas or Caballe. Then Warren, though not always quite steady, joins her in a compellingly vivid version of their duet, accompanied with total conviction by Perlea. But even that is surpassed by Milanov and Bjorling in their duet. Bjorling earlier in the opera sometimes sounds a little past his amazing best, but here he is nothing short of superb, both vocally and from the point of view of interpretation, matching Milanov in exquisite legato, piano singing, and sheer
There is little to complain of in the earlier acts, but there, in the more public scenes, one occasionally misses the advantages of modern recording found on the Muti/EMI set, still my favourite among stereo versions, and certainly preferable to the Leinsdorf which finds Price in variable voice as compared with her Aida for Solti on Decca. Bumbry is a vital Amneris but not Barbieri's equal. Domingo sings strongly but anonymously he is a more interesting Radames on the Muti version. What really rules out this set is Leinsdorf's unstable conducting and the unfortunate faults in editing (change of level in the Messenger's music, false entry from Price in the Triumphal scene, etc). All this at full price where the historic Perlea version is at medium price—and, incidentally, his conducting throughout is forceful or yielding as the score demands, and he has the benefit of an authentically Italian chorus.
As my desert-island Aida I would be hard put to it to choose between the Perlea and the Serafin. In some moods I would feel the RCA has the edge because it has no weak link in its cast (EMl's Tucker is a less than ideal Radames), but then even Milanov doesn't show quite Callas's insights into Aida's predicament and she has Gobbi as an unrivalled Amonasro. As fortunately we aren't on a desert island, why not add both to your collections? You won't regret the purchases and you'll enjoy a vanished style of singing Verdi.'