|Reviewed by Tim Ashley
Antonio Pappano conducts Verdi’s Aida – with Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tézier
& Erwin Schrott
Pappano conducts Verdi’s Aida – with Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann,
Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tézier & Erwin Schrott [Accademia Nazionale di
Santa Cecilia; Warner Classics]
Antonio Pappano's new Aida is the
first version of the work to appear since Nikolaus Harnoncourt's
controversial Teldec set in 2001. It was recorded in Rome last February,
ahead of a concert performance of the opera, and much has already been made
of its being, at Pappano's insistence, a studio production at a time when
some recording companies are turning to live performances for their operatic
projects: the booklet-notes, significantly perhaps, tell us a great deal
about the recording sessions, but little about the work itself.
of Pappano's principals – Jonas Kaufmann (Radamès), Anja Harteros (Aida) and
Ludovic Tézier (Amonasro) – had not sung their roles in a production at the
time the set was made: Kaufmann has done so since, though Harteros has said
she would be unwilling to tackle Aida in the theatre.
beautifully conducted, played and engineered. Pappano adopts a measured
approach, allowing the drama to unfold with steady inexorability. Private
tragedy and public spectacle are finely integrated into a seamless whole, in
ways reminiscent of Serafin's 1955 EMI recording, or Solti's highly charged
1961 set (originally for RCA, now on Decca). We're never left with the
nagging doubt that the personal has been emphasised at the expense of the
spectacular – as with Abbado on DG and, to a greater extent, Harnoncourt –
or that the triumphs and marches threaten to subsume the rest of it as with
Muti, also on EMI.
Pappano's speeds are on the slow side, which means
the big scenes incline towards ritual. An almost oppressively steady pulse
gives Radamès's investiture in the Temple of Ptah a sense of constriction as
well as grandeur. The ‘Triumph Scene’ is formal as well as jubilant.
Pappano's understanding of Verdi's psychology is also often marvellously
acute. The way the chromatic themes associated with priests and priestesses
gradually erode the dreams and certainties of the protagonists is chillingly
'Celeste Aida' sounds like a slow pastoral rather than the
usual grand declaration of passion, which underscores Radamès's naivety as
well as his tenderness. Later, at 'Là ... tra foreste vergini,' when Aida,
at her father's instigation, is trying to persuade him to betray his
country, we hear the same sonorities and swaying rhythms and realise just
how much – and how dangerously – she is manipulating his idealism.
The orchestral sound is at once sumptuous and clear, with plenty of detail
and some beautifully judged instrumental solos. Sensuous strings and
woodwind in the ‘Nile Scene’ are particularly beguiling. Augmented by the
Italian State Police Band, the brass really raises the roof when they need
to. As with Pappano's recording of Verdi's Requiem, the choral singing is
exemplary, though the positioning is at times a drawback in an otherwise
scrupulously balanced recording. The subterranean priests in the Judgement
Scene sound too distant, the offstage chorus in Aida's Act Two confrontation
with Amneris far too close.
The cast, however, arouses mixed
feelings. Kaufmann and Harteros are widely regarded as a ‘dream pairing’ on
the European mainland, particularly in Verdi, though some may have doubts
about them here. Harteros is often superbly insightful, sounding at once
distraught and resentful in her confrontation with Amneris, and registering
Aida's conflicted emotions in Act Four with remarkable subtlety. But even on
a recording carefully engineered to allow her to cut through Verdi's weighty
orchestral textures, we're aware that the role is putting her voice under
strain: a pulse creeps in under pressure and pianissimo high notes are
sometimes not floated with ideal security.
Kaufmann is often
extraordinarily beautiful, but I rather wish he'd recorded Radamès after
tackling the role on the stage rather than before. His soft singing is a
constant pleasure. 'Celeste Aida' is exquisite, the final top B-flat as
close to the infamous ppp morendo marking in the score as we are ever likely
to hear, while the resigned quiet that he and Harteros bring to the final
scene is moving in the extreme.
Elsewhere that famous dark tone is
gloriously produced and admirably thrilling. Yet, we miss the sheer animal
magnetism of Corelli on Zubin Mehta's uneven 1967 EMI set, the greater fire
of Domingo (conducted by either Leinsdorf, Muti or Abbado), and the
psychological detail of Jon Vickers for Solti, all of which, one suspects,
will be Kaufmann's as his interpretation deepens with time.
Semenchuk, in contrast, has sung Amneris in the theatre, though here she
takes a while to get into her stride. Her opening exchange with Kaufmann
lacks both hauteur on her part and a sense of sexual confusion on both
sides: Rita Gorr, with Vickers, and Grace Bumbry, with Corelli, both sound
more regal and more predatory here.
Occasionally Semenchuk's voice
takes on an uncomfortable edge above the stave and ‘Ah! vieni, amor
m'inebbria’ at the start of Act Two isn't quite as smooth as it might be.
The ‘Judgement Scene’, however, is remarkable as her voice soars with
wonderful amplitude and the drama really bites home.
The rest of the
cast is also variable. Ludovic Tézier is a fine, if small-voiced Amonasro,
nobly braving the Egyptians in the ‘Triumph Scene’ but bullying his daughter
with the concentrated fury of a fanatic when they are alone. Marco Spotti
makes a suitably dictatorial King, though Erwin Schrott isn't nearly
menacing enough as Ramfis.
Fine though much of it is, the set doesn't
form an ideal whole. Anyone who cares about the work itself will not want to
be without Pappano's conducting, and others will love it for the sheer
beauty of Kaufmann's singing. But it doesn't, by any means, eclipse its
Recommending a single recording of Aida is
difficult, though I would probably opt for Solti, with Leontyne Price
unsurpassed in the title role: it remains the most exciting performance of
the work I know.