Like every other writer who appears on these gleaming digital pages, I can’t believe we’ve already reached Copper’s 150th issue. I’ve been here almost since the beginning, having contributed over 200 pieces. Here’s to the next 150 issues, and the next after that!
While searching for an appropriate topic to mark this glorious occasion, I was reminded that Verdi’s opera Aida premiered 150 years ago, in 1871. Although that great work remains part of the standard repertoire of opera companies worldwide, in terms of audio recordings Aida seems to have passed its heyday. But it’s always good to be reminded of the many classic recordings from previous decades.
Before we turn to recordings, let’s consider the anniversary itself. The opera, of course, takes place in ancient Egypt; Verdi wrote it on commission to open the new Khedivial Opera House in Cairo. As it turned out, unrest in Europe and shipping challenges meant that Rigoletto was chosen to inaugurate the theater in 1869. Although Aida did receive its world premiere there, it had to wait until Dec. 24, 1871.
Verdi was not exactly on board with the proceedings. He remained in Italy, grumbling that the audience in Cairo was limited to invited guests, mostly dignitaries. He was also disappointed that soprano Teresa Stolz, for whom he had written title role, was not free to sing in the premiere production. She was replaced by Antonietta Anastasi-Pozzoni. The composer therefore always thought of the Milan premiere in 1872 – Stolz sang, and the general public could buy tickets – as the true start of this great opera’s life.
Once the technology for recording voice and orchestra was in place, it didn’t take long for Aida to show up on the docket. It was first recorded in 1906 or 1907 on a label called Zonophone, with Teresa Chelotti singing Aida (some scenes used Elvira Magliulio instead) and Orazio Cosentino as Radamès. Carlo Sabajno, a pioneer in conducting opera for sound recordings, was at the podium.
Chelotti was also one of multiple Aidas on a 1912 Columbia recording (conductor unknown). Happily, there are still some copies of it floating around. Here she sings with baritone Cesare Formichi as Amonasro.
A few new recordings showed up in the 19-teens and 1920s. There was a live broadcast, now widely available, in 1939 of Maria Caniglia in the title role at the Royal Opera House in London, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
Not surprisingly, European recording studios did not put many resources into churning out opera during World War II, but after the war, Aida really got cooking. Caniglia did her first studio recording of the opera, with Tullio Serafin (who usually conducted at La Scala) leading the chorus and orchestra of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. She is joined here by mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani and tenor Beniamino Gigli:
Thereafter, the recordings came like an avalanche, with 10 new versions between 1949 and 1959. That was Aida’s pinnacle in the studio, yielding historic interpretations by Toscanini, Barbirolli, and von Karajan, and giving the public a chance to hear the Aidas of Callas and Tebaldi, not to mention appearances by tenors Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, and Carlo Bergonzi.
A particularly interesting but perhaps less well remembered Aida from this era was released in 1955 on RCA Victrola. Romanian conductor Ionel Perlea leads the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Aida is sung by Zinka Milanov, with Fedora Barbieri as Amneris and Jussi Björling as Radamès. Björling’s voice had a delicate clarity, and his “Celeste Aida” was legendary:
New Aida recordings continued to roll out every couple of years in the 1960s, starting with two consecutive versions by Leontyne Price, under the batons of Georg Solti (1962) and Lovro von Matačić (1963). Price would go on to make a third recording in 1970, with Erich Leinsdorf.
Among the five complete recordings from the 1970s, two are led by Ricardo Muti. The earlier one casts Gwyneth Jones and Plácido Domingo as the doomed lovers, accompanied by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. The next year, 1974, Muti and Domingo joined forces again, this time for a London-based recording, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Here is Montserrat Caballé in the title role:
It’s at this point that the pickings get slim. There have been only a handful of audio recordings of the complete opera made in the1980s through the present. Both Claudio Abbado (1983) and Lorin Maazel (1986) did versions with La Scala, the former with Katia Ricciarelli and Domingo and the latter with Maria Chiara and Luciano Pavarotti. These last two really knew how to die in a tomb. Their final duet is exquisite:
The 1994 version conducted by Rico Saccani with Maria Dragoni has some nice moments, especially from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, but Kristján Jóhanssens sings Radamès with a voice that sounds pinched and worn. Levine’s Met Opera recording is the better bet for that decade, and Aprile Millo is a wonderful Aida. A highlight is Samuel Ramey as Ramfis. Here he sings “Nume, custode e vindice” with Domingo:
The most recent studio recording of the complete opera is from 2015, on Warner Classics. One of today’s great opera conductors, Antonio Pappano, directs the orchestra of the Academy of St. Cecilia. His leads are soprano Anja Harteros and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, along with the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Aida’s rival, Amneris. Semenchuk’s intensely powerful low register is the perfect foil for Kaufmann’s shimmering tone. Here’s a taste:
It’s safe to say that the dwindling number of studio recordings is not an indicator of how the opera industry feels about Aida. We live in the age of filmed, streaming opera, and video-based media seems to have taken over from audio-only versions. If you want to see the opera as you hear it, check out the 2018 performance from the Metropolitan Opera, part of their Met On Demand series, starring Anna Netrebko. And in early 2021, the production directed by Valentina Carrasco at the Macerata Opera Festival (in central Italy) and starring Maria Teresa Leva was live-streamed; it is now available on Cue.tv.
Whichever recording you choose, whether you listen or watch, imagine yourself as a dignitary at the world premiere in Cairo 150 years ago. Unlike poor Aida and Radamès, this magnificent opera will never die.