Aida – opera in four acts
Aida – Cristina Gallardo-Domas
Amneris – Olga Borodina
Radames – Vincenzo La Scola
Amonasro – Thomas Hampson
Ramfis – Matti Salminen
The King – Laszlo Polgar
The Messenger – Kurt Streit
The Priestess – Dorothea Roschmann
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Reviewed by: Tim Ashley
Reviewed: November 2001
CD No: TELDEC 8573-85402-2 (3 CDs)
Like so many of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recordings, this new version of Aida comes complete with a sleeve note that forms an intellectual statement of intent. “Only three operatic composers, Monteverdi, Mozart and Verdi,” Harnoncourt believes, “have done justice to opera in all its complexity”. Aida, written as Europe slid towards the Franco-Prussian War, he argues, “confronted head-on the political mood of the times … with even the Prelude contrasting Aida’s profoundly human, tenderly blossoming theme with that of the Priests, in which the strict imitative writing succinctly describes the fundamentalist implacability of their power within the state”. There are links, he continues, between the opera and the Requiem: they were written roughly contemporaneously; both works “deal with death”; both contrast moments of intimate quiet with vast, crushing, brass-drenched sonic panoplies. The problem with all of this is that it actually contains little that’s new. Few people nowadays believe that Aida is primarily about massed bands, tramping extras and bevies of dancing girls. That the opera deals with the catastrophic effect of a religious autocracy on individual lives, that it begins and ends quietly, and derives its musico-dramatic tension from a sequence of intimate dialogues thrown into sharp relief by ritual splendour have become critical commonplaces. The links with the Requiem have also been pointed out before.
Harnoncourt, whose insights into Monteverdi and Mozart changed the way a generation thought about both composers, isn’t nearly so radical in stance when it comes to Verdi. His recording of Aida, in consequence, uncovers little in the work that we haven’t heard on previous occasions. The main focus of Harnoncourt’s interest lies, it would appear, in Verdi’s orchestration, which he often illuminates with tremendous clarity. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is consistently luminous and you’re continually aware of the aptness of numerous points of instrumental detail – the mournful higher woodwind that tracks Aida herself, the baleful bassoons that cloud otherwise translucent textures and frequently indicate priestly danger, the fidgety strings that undercut Amneris’s self-control. The atmosphere of furtive unease, of private passions rotting under a rigid political regime is immaculately sustained and there are some telling moments of genuinely shivery eroticism, most notably at the opening of Act II when Amneris is hankering after Radames’s return. The temple rituals are grimly oppressive while what Harnoncourt callsthe “Anti-Triumphal March” reeks of overwhelming banality.All this is impressive, though you can find its like elsewhere, most notably on Karajan’s EMI recording, where the orchestra is also the Vienna Philharmonic.
What Harnoncourt doesn’t seem to have taken on board when it comes to Verdi, however, is that no amount of insight on the part of a conductor is sufficient if the cast can’t deliver, which in this instance they don’t. When the best singing in Aida come from the Amonasro (Thomas Hampson, noble as well as fanatical) and the Priestess (Dorothea Roschmann, hieratic and sensual), then you’ve got a serious problem. The two basses are imposing, it has to be said, though Laszlo Polgar as the King barks a bit and Matti Salminen’s Ramfis is hampered by an intrusive pulse in the upper registers of his voice.
The central triad leave a considerable amount to be desired, however. Cristina Gallardo-Domas has been much admired of late in roles such as Liu. She’s hopelessly overparted as Aida however, and a few beautiful passages – floated high pianissimi, a flawlessly sustained legato in the final scene – can’t compensate for spreading tone and an overwhelming sense of strain elsewhere. Vincenzo La Scola, his voice wobbling somewhere round the notes, is a wretched Radames, and even Olga Borodina disappoints as Amneris. Her voice is suitablysensual and she taunts Aida with chilling, snide irony, but there’s little sense of wilfulness, aristocratic dignity or stroppy hauteur.
The set’s various elements don’t add up to a consistent whole by any means and is certainly no match for many of its competitors. The versions by Karajan, Serafin, Muti and Abbado are all infinitely preferable, though Solti’s 1962 Decca recording, now at budget price, is still a clear first choice, in my opinion, both for its vocal brilliance and its consistent dramatic intensity.