The Guardian, 7 October 2015
Andrew Clements

Pappano brings gorgeous colours and textures to a spectacular studio recording
The first new recording of Aida from a major label since the beginning of the century is also that real rarity nowadays – an opera set that comes from bespoke studio sessions rather than being pieced together from concert or stage performances. Warner Classics assembled a headline-grabbing lineup of soloists for its much-hyped project in Rome last February, but the real theatrical excitement on the discs is generated by the orchestra, chorus and conductor. The playing that Antonio Pappano obtains from the Santa Cecilia Orchestra wonderfully mixes refinement and power – it’s coloured with perfect finesse in the dances towards the end of the first act and in the nocturnal scene-painting that opens the third, while the great triumphal choruses have tremendous presence and energy.

These spectacular set pieces, spaciously recorded, anchor the dramatic trajectory that Pappano gives so convincingly to the whole opera. Nothing seems to be pushed too hard or laboured too much, and he makes sure the soloists get all the support they need. What he cannot do, though, is give his principal singers the depth of character they really need. Of the three at the core of the drama – Anja Harteros as Aida, Jonas Kaufmann as Radames and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris – only Semenchuk had sung her role on stage before the recording was made, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that dramatically she is the pick of the three – more involving and more involved than the others, and tremendously vindictive at the climax of the fourth-act trial.

Neither Harteros nor Kaufmann is a weak link, exactly – they are far too good singers for that – but they do not seem to be engaged on the three-dimensional level that a performance prepared with such obvious care by Pappano really deserves. Harteros sings O Patria Mia, her big third-act number, very beautifully; generally she’s good at the introspection, but she sounds much less assured and focussed in more assertive moments. Kaufmann is in magnificent voice – there’s no one around today who would have sung it better – but there’s little about his performance that seems specific, that is unique to this opera rather than being applicable to any Verdi or even Puccini role that he might sing.

Admirers of the great Aida sets of the past – Karajan’s with Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi, Georg Solti’s with Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers – should not feel that their favourites have been usurped by the newcomer. But it’s now more than half a century since both those versions were made, and if only for the gorgeous colours and textures that Pappano and the state-of-the-art sound reveal in Verdi’s score, this set is well worth hearing.

 back top