Antonio Pappano conducts Verdi’s Aida – with Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tézier & Erwin Schrott [Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Warner Classics]

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Verdi
Aida – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni after a scenario by Auguste Mariette and a prose libretto by Camille du Locle [sung in Italian]

Aida – Anja Harteros
Radamès – Jonas Kaufmann
Amneris – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Amonasro – Ludovic Tézier
Ramfis – Erwin Schrott
The King – Marco Spotti
Messenger – Paolo Fanale
Priestess – Eleonora Buratto

Italian State Police Band

Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Sir Antonio Pappano

Recorded February 2015 at the Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome


Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: October 2015
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
085256106639 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes

Antonio Pappano’s new Aida is the first version of the work to appearsince Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s controversial Teldec set in 2001. It wasrecorded in Rome last February, ahead of a concert performance of theopera, and much has already been made of its being, at Pappano’sinsistence, a studio production at a time when some recordingcompanies are turning to live performances for their operaticprojects: the booklet-notes, significantly perhaps, tell us a greatdeal about the recording sessions, but little about the work itself.

Three of Pappano’s principals – Jonas Kaufmann (Radamès), AnjaHarteros (Aida) and Ludovic Tézier (Amonasro) – had not sung theirroles in a production at the time the set was made: Kaufmann has done sosince, though Harteros has said she would be unwilling to tackle Aidain the theatre.

It’s beautifully conducted, played and engineered. Pappano adopts ameasured approach, allowing the drama to unfold with steadyinexorability. Private tragedy and public spectacle are finelyintegrated into a seamless whole, in ways reminiscent of Serafin’s1955 EMI recording, or Solti’s highly charged 1961 set (originally forRCA, now on Decca). We’re never left with the nagging doubt that thepersonal has been emphasised at the expense of the spectacular – aswith Abbado on DG and, to a greater extent, Harnoncourt – or that thetriumphs 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 scenesincline towards ritual. An almost oppressively steady pulse givesRadamès’s investiture in the Temple of Ptah a sense of constriction aswell as grandeur. The ‘Triumph Scene’ is formal as well as jubilant.Pappano’s understanding of Verdi’s psychology is also oftenmarvellously acute. The way the chromatic themes associated withpriests and priestesses gradually erode the dreams and certainties of the protagonists is chillingly done.

‘Celeste Aida’ sounds like a slowpastoral rather than the usual grand declaration of passion, whichunderscores Radamès’s naivety as well as his tenderness. Later, at’Là … tra foreste vergini,’ when Aida, at her father’s instigation, istrying to persuade him to betray his country, we hear the samesonorities and swaying rhythms and realise just how much – and howdangerously – she is manipulating his idealism.

The orchestral sound is at once sumptuous and clear, with plenty ofdetail and some beautifully judged instrumental solos. Sensuousstrings and woodwind in the ‘Nile Scene’ are particularly beguiling. Augmentedby the Italian State Police Band, the brass really raises the roof whenthey need to. As with Pappano’s recording of Verdi’s Requiem, thechoral singing is exemplary, though the positioning is at times adrawback in an otherwise scrupulously balanced recording. The subterranean priests in the Judgement Scene sound too distant, theoffstage chorus in Aida’s Act Two confrontation with Amneris far tooclose.

The cast, however, arouses mixed feelings. Kaufmann and Harteros arewidely 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 andresentful in her confrontation with Amneris, and registering Aida’sconflicted emotions in Act Four with remarkable subtlety. But even on arecording carefully engineered to allow her to cut through Verdi’sweighty orchestral textures, we’re aware that the role is putting hervoice under strain: a pulse creeps in under pressure and pianissimohigh notes are sometimes not floated with ideal security.

Kaufmann is often extraordinarily beautiful, but I rather wish he’drecorded 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 inthe score as we are ever likely to hear, while the resigned quiet thathe and Harteros bring to the final scene is moving in the extreme.

Elsewhere that famous dark tone is gloriously produced and admirablythrilling. Yet, we miss the sheer animal magnetism of Corelli on ZubinMehta’s uneven 1967 EMI set, the greater fire of Domingo (conducted by either Leinsdorf, Muti or Abbado), and the psychological detail of JonVickers for Solti, all of which, one suspects, will be Kaufmann’s ashis 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 openingexchange with Kaufmann lacks both hauteur on her part and a sense ofsexual confusion on both sides: Rita Gorr, with Vickers, and GraceBumbry, with Corelli, both sound more regal and more predatory here.

Occasionally Semenchuk’s voice takes on an uncomfortable edge abovethe stave and ‘Ah! vieni, amor m’inebbria’ at the start of Act Twoisn’t quite as smooth as it might be. The ‘Judgement Scene’, however, isremarkable as her voice soars with wonderful amplitude and the dramareally 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 whenthey are alone. Marco Spotti makes a suitably dictatorial King, thoughErwin Schrott isn’t nearly menacing enough as Ramfis.

Fine though much of itis, the set doesn’t form an ideal whole. Anyone who cares about thework itself will not want to be without Pappano’s conducting, andothers will love it for the sheer beauty of Kaufmann’s singing. But itdoesn’t, by any means, eclipse its principal rivals.

Recommending asingle recording of Aida is difficult, though I would probably opt forSolti, with Leontyne Price unsurpassed in the title role: it remainsthe most exciting performance of the work I know.

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