Musicweb International
Michael Cookson

Sir Anthony Pappano believes that Verdi’s Aida cannot be defined or labelled “It’s a one-off in every sense. It is not an intimate opera neither is it a grand opera.” Whatever its classification, Aida has an enduring popularity that shows little sign of relenting. It was the Khedive of Egypt who commissioned the score to mark the opening of the Khedivial Opera House, not to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal as according to popular myth. Aida received its première in Cairo in 1871 although the first time Verdi himself saw a production was at La Scala, Milan.

Pappano has assembled a strong international cast with starry names of the opera world who excel in their performances. Warner Classics has dug deep into its pockets for a lavish studio recording of a type that is usually ruled out in these cost-conscious days. It was remarked upon that the rehearsals and recording session, which took over a week, was like going back several decades to the golden years of studio recordings. Striving to create a special yet indefinable atmosphere it seems that Pappano was especially keen to use the Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome.

Anja Harteros is a classy artist who I saw most recently in 2014 together with Camilla Nylund and Christine Goerke performing scenes and arias from Richard Strauss operas with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielmann at the Semperoper, Dresden. I notice that Anja Harteros hadn’t previously sung the title role of Aida but one wouldn’t know from this outstanding performance. A remarkable performer, she shines in the role of the Ethiopian Princess captured as a slave girl, affording a convincingly characterised performance. Aida’s romanzas Ritorna vincitor! and O patria Mia are strikingly sung with the soprano not afraid to eschew beauty of tone for utmost expression. With such excellent diction and smooth projection I love the way Harteros can easily darken her tone. Remaining poised and focused in approach she has that rare ability to draw the listener in. In my view no soprano has yet equalled the quite glorious performances of Ritorna vincitor! and O patria Mia by Leontyne Price which she recorded on the so called ‘Blue Album’ in 1959 in Rome for RCA Victor.

Imprinted strongly in the memory is the experience of Jonas Kaufmann performing superbly at a Gala concert to celebrate the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth at Semperoper, Dresden in 2013 (review). Kaufmann has the part of army captain Radamès, infatuated by his love for Aida, who is embroiled in an impossible situation. Singing the role for the first time Kaufmann is in inspired voice engaging the listener as if living the role. As Radamès, he is gifted with one of the most famous of all opera arias Celeste Aida, a romanza he knows well as part of his solo concert repertoire. His voice is full of reflection and sadness at leaving Aida behind and he reveals a creamer timbre than usual. Especially remarkable is the tenor’s strikingly dramatic high register at the conclusion.

No stranger to the role of Princess Amneris, Ekaterina Semenchuk gives an impressive performance as the cunning daughter of the Egyptian King. In Amneris’s challenging aria L'abborrita rivale a me sfuggia one can almost touch the emotional turmoil. She delivers a first-rate and highly expressive performance that reveals her dark, burnished tone. Not too familiar with Semenchuk’s voice, I was slightly surprised how she rather jolts up to her high register. Deeply passionate, the duet with Radamès Già i sacerdoti adunansi, sees Semenchuk and Kaufmann convincingly escalating the emotional tension.

As Ramfis the High priest bass-baritone Erwin Schrott is unshakable. Steady, deep and experienced, in Mortal, diletto ai Numi he displays his smooth voice to splendid effect. Both bass Marco Spotti as Il Re and baritone Ludovic Tézier as Amonasro acquit themselves commendably. Splendidly drilled by Ciro Visco, Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia is in remarkably powerful yet eloquent voice. Under the baton of music director Pappano Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia shows its complete mastery of a score which it knows so well. It is played with conviction and draws remarkable dramatic tension. The excellence of the solo instruments is conspicuous and rarely heard detail has been caught so well.

This is a well presented set, consisting of a sturdy, hard-back case with a booklet that contains most of the essential information. An interesting essay ‘An Aida for our Age’ from George Loomis focuses on the recording session saying virtually nothing about the work's conception. There is a short note from the conductor, a good synopsis and most importantly full texts with an English translation in the booklet.

Pappano demonstrates his prowess in Verdi’s repertoire with this highly assured Aida. His starry cast certainly live up to their reputations. This is an Aida to live with and to treasure.

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