Robert J. Farr
, August 2006
In the summer of 1869 Verdi was approached to write an opera for the new theatre to be opened in Cairo to celebrate the construction of the Suez Canal. It opened in November 1869 with a performance of Rigoletto conducted by Verdi’s former pupil Emanuele Muzio. The Suez Canal was officially opened on 17 November. Camille Du Locle, who had worked on the setting of Don Carlos from Schiller’s play in 1867 and become a firm friend of Verdi, visited him in Genoa the following month. He told the composer that the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt wanted Verdi to write an opera on an Egyptian theme for performance at the new opera house. Verdi turned the request down repeating his refusal when back in Paris the following spring. But Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a synopsis by Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, by the fact that Du Locle had been authorised to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting out his terms. These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto, and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. These terms were accepted by Mariette and Du Locle on June 10. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever.
Du Locle met Verdi at his estate at Sant’ Agata on 19 June 1870 and the pair thrashed out the outline of the opera in prose based on Mariette’s earlier synopsis. Verdi asked his publisher, Ricordi, to approach Antonio Ghislanzoni to put it into Italian verse. Throughout the process Verdi was keen to achieve the greatest historical accuracy. For example he asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. Verdi was intent on a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for the Paris Opéra. Aida was first performed on 24 December 1871 at the Cairo Opera House.
Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular operas with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression. It is a work of pageant with its Grand March (Gloria all’Egitto) and ballet interludes. It is also a work involving various personal relationships. Of these relationships, the rivalry between Aida, daughter of the King of Ethiopia working incognito as a captured slave of Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, is intense. Both love Radames, victorious leader of the Egyptian army. He loves Aida but is given the hand of Amneris in reward for his exploits as army commander. But even more complex is the relationship of Aida with her father who arrives as an unrecognised prisoner. Many and various complex possibilities of the father-daughter relationship occur throughout Verdi’s operas, but nowhere more starkly than in this opera where the father puts tremendous emotional pressure on his daughter to cajole her lover into betraying a state secret. This betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers.
In the casting of a recording or performance of Aida, it is vital that the various relationships are balanced in terms of the ability of the singers to convey the tensions and emotions of the principals. This was never more important than in this recording with Aida sung by the dramatic spinto Zinka Milanov. Her vibrant soprano and power of expression could swamp weaker partners and never more so than here. Her ability to convey the drama and emotions experienced by Aida can be fully appreciated in the contrast in her vocalism and expression in the singing of her two great arias, Ritorna vincitor (CD 1 tr.7) and O patria mia (CD 2 tr.9). Milanov’s most expressive and vibrantly incisive characterisation comes in Aida’s confrontation with the Egyptian princess Amneris, as the latter cheats her into thinking that the man they both love is dead before revealing the truth after exposing Aida’s emotions (CD 1 tr.11). To counterbalance such strongly characterised singing by Milanov, an Amneris of similar vocal and histrionic ability is vital. Fortunately Fedora Barbieri, the Amneris here is one such singer. She matches Milanov for dramatic bite and incisiveness in the duet referred to and really comes into her own in the trial scene of act 4 as Ramfis and the priests demand answers from Radames who makes no response to their repeated accusations (CD 2 trs. 17-18).
The quality of the dramatic portrayals are continued by Leonard Warren as Amonasro and Boris Christoff as Ramfis. Warren was the Met’s principal baritone from 1939 until his death during a performance in 1960. His well-covered high baritone was ideally suited to the Verdi roles. His variation of colour, expression and dynamics as Amonasro first cajoles, and then bullies, his daughter into obtaining from Radames the secret of the route to be taken by the Egyptian army, is an excellent example of his art (CD 2 tr.10). The Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff would surely have been ideal in Verdi’s eyes as the High Priest. The composer wanted a man in mid-forties, both vocally and visually, so as fully to convey the character. Ramfis’ pivotal importance in the opera is often overlooked. The High Priest is the power behind the throne and even the King’s daughter cannot overcome his decisions. Christoff’s rock-like tonal solidity complements his steadiness and expressiveness to convey the implacable nature of the role. He would surely have appeared in other RCA recordings were it not for the fact that he was refused a visa to enter the USA in 1950 at the height of the Eugene McCarthy xenophobic anti-communist neurosis. With RCA having largely decamped to Rome for their recordings that barrier was removed.
The final principal role is that of the Radames, sung by the Swedish-born tenor Jussi Björling. His long experience in the Italian repertoire enabled him to cover his plangent and wide-ranging tone with a patina of Italianata as if born in that country. Add a feel for Verdian line and idiom, clear diction, smooth legato and elegant phrasing, all allied to sufficient vocal heft for this demanding role and his Radames has a flying start. Only Bergonzi matches him in Decca’s stereo remake with Tebaldi and conducted by Karajan. Björling sings Celeste Aida (CD 1 tr.3) with consummate commitment and expressiveness although eschewing the concluding diminuendo. But it is in the final scene that he and Milanov really tug at the heartstrings in their characterisation and expressiveness in some of the finest Verdi singing on record (CD 3 trs.1-3). On other Naxos historical issues Tebaldi sings beautifully in this scene too (see review) but del Monaco lacks the inner serenity of Björling whilst Gigli is too lachrymose and Maria Caniglia as Aida is no rival to either Milanov or Tebaldi. (see review)
The bonus of highlights from Un Ballo in Maschera allows further appreciation of Milanov and also of Marion Anderson the first black singer allowed on the stage of the Met. A pity that the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos hadn’t been in charge of the Aida where Jonel Perlea’s conducting, although dramatic, seems to lack an overall view of tempi and phrasing. Perhaps an even greater regret is that Björling isn’t the tenor rather than the plain-faced singing of Jan Peerce.
It would be hard today to find Verdi singing of the quality heard on this Aida recording. Yes Angela Gheorghiu sings beautifully in her Verdi Heroines CD (see review) in the composer’s more lyrical music whilst Inessa Galante has many of Milanov’s qualities. (see review). But an overall singing cast of this quality only comes round every other generation or two at the most. Add Mark Obert-Thorn’s superb restoration of the mono sound that gives depth and presence and this recording of Aida should be part of any Verdi collection