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.
Three 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.
It's 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 done.
'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.
Ekaterina 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 principal rivals.
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.