VERDI Aida (Solti)
It’s interesting to listen to this Aida again after the arrival in 2015 of Warner Classics’ new studio recording under Antonio Pappano. Both hail from the Italian capital and both are conducted by music directors of the Royal Opera: Pappano’s with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia orchestra and chorus some 13 years into his reign; Solti’s, originally issued on RCA, recorded with Rome Opera forces in the summer of 1961, the year he took over the top job at Covent Garden.
Pappano is hardly undramatic, but with him it’s also a story of refinement, of finding the details of the score – closer to Karajan’s 1959 Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. With Solti, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a tale primarily of visceral theatre: his is a brawny, Technicolor, sandals-and-sand epic presented in widescreen Decca engineering. The conducting bristles with energy and is constantly alive. He captures expertly the opera’s grandeur, giving impressive weight to its moments of pomp and splendour. Subtlety is not high among his priorities, and there are hints of brashness and impatience at times, but it’s an irresistibly exciting reading.
Newly remastered for this lavish hardback-booklet reissue, the recorded sound feels a little mellower than on previous reincarnations. It is particularly vivid in Blu-ray audio format but even there retains a certain period brittleness and rawness, as well as edits – tiny shifts in acoustic and colour – that one now hears more clearly. The winds are reedy and the strings have plenty of bite and definition. The brass sound wonderfully raucous – listen to the trumpets at the end of the Judgement scene – but, placed at the extremes of the wide sound stage, are allowed to be all-engulfing rather too often. The balance also positions the singers further back than we’re used to, robbing them of some immediacy.
But Solti does have at his disposal some of the great voices of the early stereo era. Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers and Rita Gorr were already celebrated exponents of their roles and it shows in the dramatic immediacy they bring to them. Price is on gloriously regal form, fresh and exciting, while Vickers is in thrilling voice – once he warms up. Gorr presents a magnificently sung and imperious Amneris, which only gets better as the drama progresses. Robert Merrill is a stalwart Amonasro, Giorgio Tozzi a resonant Ramfis. The only disappointment is perhaps Plinio Clabassi’s small-scale King, but that hardly matters.
If you like your Aida a little rough-and-ready, thrillingly sung and played with plenty of raw energy, then you won’t be disappointed by this luxurious reissue.