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on 5 September 2010
SOURCE:
Studio production made on August 10-12, 16-20 and 23-24, 1955 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan and originally issued on the Columbia label.

SOUND:
Pretty good mid-1950s studio recording, although probably not of leading edge quality even on the day it was laid down. Nevertheless, this "Aida" sounds better than many of Callas' complete opera recordings, some of which sound just plain awful. By digital standards, the recorded range is relatively narrow and a bit boxy, but the voices are nicely captured and given prominence over the orchestra, as was the fashion of the time. Overall, I think the sound should be satisfactory to all but narrow-minded audiophiles.

CAST:
Aida, an Ethiopian slave to Amneris - Maria Callas (soprano)
Radames, a captain of the royal guard destined for higher things - Richard Tucker (tenor)
Amneris, the daughter of Pharaoh - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro, the warrior King of Ethiopia - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Ramfis, the High Priest - Giuseppe Modesti (bass)
King of Egypt - Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
A messenger - Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
A priestess - Elvira Galassi (soprano)

CONDUCTOR:
Tullio Serafin with the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala in Milan.

COMMENTARY:
Verdi's "Aida" can be approached as an intimate drama with elements of spectacle or as a spectacle with intimate moments. While Serafin gives nice play to the circus to be found in the middle of the opera, his real attention is directed toward the words, thoughts and interactions of the slave, the young general, the princess and the warrior-king. In spectacle-oriented performances, such as those led by Solti and Mehta, Ramphis, the High Priest, is a leading figure in the drama, for he embodies the official position of the Egyptian state so spectacularly on display. Here, he is a secondary character, not so much because Giuseppe Modesti was a lesser singer than Callas, Tucker, Barbieri or Gobbi, but because Ramphis is exterior to the dramatic core of the opera as Serafin--and indeed the old Italian tradition, saw it.

Tullio Serafin embodied the mainline of Italian tradition in performing operas. For those accustomed to the current international style, Serafin can be a shock. His manner may even seem deplorable. He did not care a fig about the present day fetish of textual completeness. His concern was with dramatic effectiveness. He was not a living metronome. His tempi are amazingly flexible (his critics would say downright loose) by current standards, but always with a dramatic purpose. He was not a drill master. He accepted a little raggedness in the chorus or less than perfect intonation from the orchestra in pursuit of phrasings and emphases that prove to be profoundly right, time after time.

Maria Callas was not a naturally-born Aida. For the sheer, glorious, creamy tone many fans expect from an Aida, you must go to Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi or even Leontyne Price. Callas sang Aida in the early part of her career. A pirate recording from Mexico City captures her in full whoop-ti-doo mode with all the long-held notes and flights to stratospheric heights that her fans adored, but at which Verdi would have snarled. She made her debut at La Scala as Aida (with no great success), filling in for an ailing Tebaldi. She stopped singing the role on stage in 1953. When this recording was made in 1955, she was no longer so brilliant a songbird, but she was a vastly superior singing actress. In sound, she is good, even very good--but no more than that. In expressing the fleeting thoughts, the bounding emotions, the very soul of Aida the slave girl, she is unsurpassed.

Much to my surprise, I can't find anything to suggest that the apparently natural onstage pairing of Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas in "Aida" ever took place. There were baritones with better voices, but there were no better singing actors in the Twentieth Century. I saw him only a few times, at the tag end of his career, when his tattered voice was sometimes painful to hear. Despite that, he gave the best performances of Nabucco and Gianni Schicchi I ever saw or expect to see. His Amonasro sets the mark against which all his successors must be measured.

Fedora Barbieri was one of a handful of phenomenal Italian mezzo-sopranos who set the standards for the last century. Her Amneris is a textbook on the Italian style.

Richard Tucker can be criticized for his technique, especially intonation, his unique (to say the least) pronunciation of Italian, for his straight-ahead persona, but all that is irrelevant. When the man sings, he gets the job done. I am an absolute Tucker fan. For all his faults, it's a pleasure to listen to a truly heroic-sounding tenor who also manages to fit in quite comfortably with Serafin's concept of the opera.

This is a fine, historic performance that showcases a fading tradition. The four principal singers were larger than life even then, more than fifty years ago, and they remain so today.

Five stars.
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on 8 December 2011
As ever, Callas injects so much drama and pathos into her singing - yes I know it's a statement of the b****y obvious but I think it is the best thing to say about this set. Tucker had a great voice for Radames but why didn't someone nail his poor Italian pronunciation? Callas and Gobbi are terrific in the Act III duet, but if you're looking for great sound - just a few years later DECCA broke through with the benchmark Culshaw/Karajan recording of this opera with Tebaldi and Bergonzi.

Having said all that I'd still recommend the Leontyne Price/Solti Aida with the Rome Opera as the best one to own (see my review). If you love Callas, you should already have this one.
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