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Customer Review

on 30 August 2010
SOURCE:
Studio recording produced by John Culshaw and made at the Sofiensall, Vienna, during September 1959.

SOUND:
Leading edge late 1950s analogue stereo. This recording was intended to be a showpiece of the new stereo revolution. Subsequent digital remasterings have been sympathetic and successful.

This is a John Culshaw production, a contemporary of the famous Culshaw-Solti "Ring" production and this "Aida" shares in both the extraordinary sonic virtues of "The Ring" and its nuisances. Culshaw, more than any other producer, saw the great new possibilities in the stereo medium. He particularly realized that stereo allowed for a "three-dimensional" and endlessly variable sonic picture, These recordings not only provide aural depth, they are positively choreographed. It's all very impressive, no doubt about it, but it's not especially like the actual experience of attending an opera in a real opera house.

All that aside, purely as a matter of personal taste, it seems to me that the orchestra is too far forward in relation to the singers and given undue prominence over them. Others, of course, hold quite different opinions.

CAST:
Aida - Renata Tebaldi (soprano)
Radames - Carlo Bergonzi (tenor)
Amneris - Giulietta Simionato (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Cornell MacNeil (baritone)
Ramfis - Arnold van Mill (bass)
King of Egypt - Fernando Corena (bass)
Messenger - Piero de Palma (tenor)
Priestess - Eugenia Ratti (soprano)

CONDUCTOR:
Herbert von Karajan with the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

DOCUMENTATION:
Libretto in Italian and English. Brief hagiography of Saint Herbert von K by Warwick Thompson. Brief summary of the plot keyed to the tracks on the CDs. Track list showing timings and identifying singers. Photos of Karajan, Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and Culshaw.

COMMENTARY:
This recording has long been justly regarded as classic recording of an opera that has been blessed with a number of classic recordings. The presence of von Karajan, the Vienna Philharmonic, and four of the brightest singing luminaries of the post-War Silver Age of opera, all of them in good form, mandates a five-star rating.

That said, I feel obliged to offer a few comments on why this is not my own favorite recording of "Aida."

Let me be absolutely clear on this point: this is as much Herbert von Karajan's version of "Aida" as Verdi's. It is unquestionably impressive, but in a very precise and a near-icy, un-Italianate way. From beginning to end when I listen to it, I am dogged with the feeling that three of the four leading singers are offering performances at least somewhat at variance from their natural instincts. Opera lore has it that Tebaldi and Karajan clashed repeatedly over tempos and treatments. For once, I am willing to accept the common lore as simple truth.

Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil were just one of the several dream casts that could be assembled for "Aida" in those long-gone, vocally expansive days of the late fifties and early sixties. I do not think that an equally stellar cast could be found today.

In 1959, Renata Tebaldi was on the verge of giving up the part of Aida and her voice is clearly not what it had been when she had previously recorded the role in 1952. Nevertheless, even if slightly deteriorated, Tebaldi remained a vocal wonder. I know of no one singing today who could match this performance of the Tebaldi of 1959--if for no other reason than that teachers and academies are no longer training young singers for her kind of full out, Italianate, operatic [with a capital O!] singing.

Carlo Bergonzi was still in the earlier phase of his career as a tenor, and the sound of his voice was as beautiful as his technique. Bergonzi's characterization of Radames is unexpectedly small-scale in this performance--a foolish lover rather than a rash warrior. I strongly suspect that this approach to the character is more due to Karajan than to Bergonzi. It is intelligent, justified by the text, pleasing to the ear and dead wrong. The range of Radames' emotions is flattened. Radames' fall from foolishly self-confident, conquering general to suicidally despairing, self-identified traitor should be a stupendous drop from the cliff-top into a chasm. Here, it is more like a little hop.

Giulietta Simionato has to be included in any list of the great Italian mezzo-sopranos of the Twentieth Century. Her performance here amply demonstrates why that should be. Even so, I think that she would have given a bit more oomph if any less controlling conductor had been at the podium.

Cornell MacNeil had a magnificent baritone sound but he tended to lack dramatic intensity. I find no significant failings in his Amonasro, but there are better Amonasros on other recordings.

This is a classic performance, not my favorite, but well-worthy for purchase by beginners and experienced opera fans alike.

Five stars.
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