I have acquired a number of performances of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. Some of them I have picked up recently. I have spent some time on the Web looking for reviews of various performances and I think that I have some useful opinions myself. Thus, I thought I'd add a page to join the small collection of reviews out there on the WWW. Here is my take on what I have. I hope this helps.
In the table below, I will feature a comparison of features I have come to look for in a performance. I will focus on performances of the three main characters of the opera. I will have some final thoughts after the comparisons.
David Parry, Chandos, 2002 (performed in English)Dennis O'Neill performs Radames on this set. In my ears Radames' first aria, "Celeste Aida," impacts the rest of the performance. The final phrase of the aria is supposed to feel like it floats away into the stars. Verdi wrote these notes to be sung very quietly. In fairness, that note is really difficult for a tenor to sing quietly. O'Neill actually does an excellent job in his performance. Here is how he interprets Verdi's music.
|Aida's early aria "Ritorna Vincitor" gets a bang out of a good "Ah!" where Verdi evidently wrote a pretty short note. Most sopranos milk it, to the listener's delight. Jane Eaglen nails it. If tenors have difficulty with Celeste Aida, soprano's are challenged with the high soft notes in "O patria mia." In the big finale of Act 2, some people like to hear the soprano sing a preparatory high note to bring in the final melody. Verdi didn't write it; but I like to hear it. In all of these recordings, several singers sing that note if it is sung at all. In this performance, it is not sung.||
Amneris, princess of Egypt, is played by Rosalind Plowright. Amneris is my favorite character in the opera. She is the character that really changes in the course of the story. She also has some of the coolest music to sing. In this clip, Amneris has just told Aida that her secret love-interest Radames has died in battle. Aida is upset and betrayes her interest in Radames. Then Amneris reveales that she was lying about Radames' death. In Italian, the line is "Radames vive" which means "Radames lives." It seems to me that the English translation is acceptable but it would not hurt to drop the second note. The music expects two syllables, the second syllable unaccented. Also, in English, we don't roll our Rs. Several singers on this performance roll their Rs. It must be difficult to not roll Rs if Italian is your primary language.
I have become spoiled by Agnes Baltsa's Amneris (Karajan 1980, below). Baltsa sounds really mean in this section. Not very many Amnerises pull off the meanness. Plowright sounds snide but maybe not mean enough. In this opera, whoever sings Amneris gets to (is asked to) rare back and belt out some parts. In this clip, Radames has been arrested for espionage. Amneris knows that it was an accident and she is desperate for him to defend himself. Radames believes himself guilty and is willing to accept the consequences (death) for his crime. Good job!
In this last clip Radames is convicted to death. Amneris is upset by the verdict. Amneris is expected to sing her heart out; but the orchestra is playing along with some pretty strong volume. It is the duty of the director to prevent the orchestra from overpowering the singer. This one succeeds.
Herbert von Karajan, EMI, 1980Jose Carreras really tried. His high note is getting there; but there are better examples.
|Mirella Freni is an excellent Aida. She handles everything well but she does not sing the lead-in note in the finality.||Agnes Baltsa's Amneris might be the best ever; but there are some really good ones and opinions may vary. Notice how mean she sounds in the clip below. And, wow: Baltsa does well in this clip but the orchestra almost overpowers her. Karajan's fault.|
James Levine, Gala, 1976 (live)Placido Domingo demonstrates one solution to the near-impossibility for most tenors to properly sing that final high note. The solution is to go ahead and belt out the high note and then repeat the last phrase a whole octave lower and at the proper dynamic. Verdi's director friend Arturo Toscanini used this method, reputedly with the blessing of Verdi. I don't like it; but I know there are tenors who can do it right—including Placido Domingo. He appears on a Deutsche Grammophon performance where he nails this song. Unfortunately, the rest of the performance is terrible. I once owned the Deutsche Grammophon performance and I got rid of it. For Domingo's performance, see this link at YouTube.
|Leontyne Price is an excellent Aida. She was able to let her ego show on some of these clips. I love it! She is a bit strong on O patria mia; but it is a live performance. And she does not sing the popular introductory note in the Act 2 finale.||Marilyn Horne has such a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice! I could listen to her just sing scales for hours. Her performance here is excellent while not necessarily the best. I really enjoy her in this performance.|
Riccardo Muti, EMI, 1974Here is Placido Domingo again, with his chesty voice.
|Montserrat Caballe might be the best Aida. She could sing powerfully and delicately. She does not sing the exciting note in the Act 2 finale.||Fiorenza Cossotto's Amneris is good. Her performance works. She sounds high-school aged (which is the age I imagine Amneris). She is bold and she is passionate.|
Erich Leinsdorf, Sony, 1970Domingo. Nope
|Leontyne Price. No lead-in note to the finale.||Grace Bumbry. Since this is one of the best performances of this section, I include the whole clip here. She sounds a bit matriarchal... a bit old for her character; but it is still an excellent performance. I will include Bumbry's performance from 1967 (only three years earlier) in which she sounds much younger and more appropriate for the role. I don't know which I prefer.|
Zubin Mehta, Warner, 1967
Franco Corelli performs an interesting compromise on the final note of his aria. He hits the note hard but fades out. It is an acceptable solution if the singer cannot just hit the note softly. The feeling is captured as the note fades away.
|I had never taken Birgit Nilsson seriously until I listened to this performance on youtube. (It is nice that I can usually listen to music on youtube before I buy). She is really good. She sounds the part. She sounds young like her character. Yes. She knocks my socks off (even though her performance of Ritorna vincitor is strictly "by the book"). Yes. She (and Corelli) sing the unwritten big note in the finale.||Here is Grace Bumbry again. She is three years younger but sounds like a teenager. I like it. She is totally believable in this performance. What a mean girl! Five stars (*****): Here is the full clip. It deserves to be heard. The only possible complaint might be that Bumbry and Nilsson sound similar enough to confuse the listener in the Aida-Amneris dialogues.|
Jonel Perlea, BMG, 1955
Fedora Barbieri (Amneris) is the star of this set (in my opinion). The clips that I present in her section (to the right) don't really demonstrate the excellent performance she did in this recording. All of the performances are consistently competent which makes for a satisfying listen. I am not a music historian and none of the names on this set ring a bell. It is a historic recording. The sound is pretty good for its age. It is acceptable by contemporary standards too, according to my tinnitus-toned ears.
|Zinka Milanov performs Aida. Her handling of Ritorna vincitor is strictly by the book. She (and Bjoerling) sing the optional lead-in to the finale of Act 2.||Amneris is performed by Fedora Barbieri. Upon multiple listens, I am convinced Barbieri was an outstanding mezzo-soprano. It is a job well done. She shines in the following clips; but she really shines in the overall performance. Early in the opera, with her first duet with Radames (Jussi Bjoerling), it is clear that something special is going on in the ears. I am thinking about looking up more of her stuff, if there are other available re-engineered recordings of her.|
Joseph Keilberth, ArkiveMusic 1938
This is a really old recording. I mean, this is the year before World War 2 began! The sound quality is really good. It has probably been cleaned up using modern computer programming technology. The venue sounds really small in this recording—like it may be a performance at a club for a bunch of Nazi dignitaries. I don't know; and ignorance may be bliss. Artists oftentimes stay out of politics (but not lately, it seems).
This performance is in German. In some sections, the German sounds even more emotional than the original Italian. It almost makes the Verdi opera sound like it was written by Richard Strauss. Almost. It is a fun listen.
Radames is performed by Helge Rosvaenge. He does not strike me as a great singer but he handles Celeste Aida (Holde Aida) quite nicely.
|Margarete Teschemacher is Aida.||Inger Karen's Amneris For Amneris' big final number, I included the whole section. I think it sounds "cool" in German.|
There are several "new" performances of Aida that I have decided to not buy. This motivation comes from hearing the performances on youtube. There are some weird production anomalies in them. For example, in one performance the Aida singer fades into the crowd when she should be prominent in the ensemble. Sometimes some of the voices are just out of balance. Those mistakes would annoy me and I would avoid listening to them if I owned them.
As it is, I get out every one of these listed performances and listen to them. I tend to have moods that make one of these performances just right. Whatever Aida from my collection I am listening to... that one is my favorite at that moment.
So, what one should you buy for your first (and maybe only) Aida? Here is how they rank in my humble opinion as a recommended "only set."
Best Aida performance to own as your only set
Mehta 1967 (Nilsson, Corelli, Bumbry)
Muti 1974 (Caballe, Domingo, Cossotto)
Leinsdorf 1970 (Price, Domingo, Bumbry, Milnes)
Karajan 1980, (Freni, Carreras and Baltsa)
The competition for the best performance is extremely high. In reality, the best choice is probably the Muti 1974 with Caballe, Domingo, Cossotto, etc. Caballe is the best Aida and the rest of the performers do a really good job. This performance is generally considered by opera-files as the best available on CD.
However, the Leinsdorf 1970, with Price, Domingo, Bumbry, Milnes, et. al., is also a good choice for your only copy. It features some of the best performers and you will never get bored listening to it.
On the other hand, the Karajan 1980, with Freni, Carreras and Baltsa is just beautiful; and you have probably the best Amneris (by Baltsa) on record (imho).
I personally listen to the Mehta 1967 (Nilsson, Corelli, Bumbry) the most. I enjoy this porformance the most.
I thought I would express my opinion about who does the best job in each of the three primary roles. Before I do, I wish to share one more Radames. This one is by Jonas Kaufmann. You can get this performance on a recent recording of Aida, directed by Antonio Pappano. I have heard it on youtube, and I am not real impressed with what I heard. The trouble is with the production and not the performers. You can also find this aria on a Jonas Kaufmann CD featuring Verdi tenor roles. It was from that disk that I ripped this clip.
Placido Domingo (Deutsche Grammophon performance directed by Claudia Abbado)
Placido Domingo (RCA performance directed by Leinsdorf)
Montserrat Caballe (hands down!)
Best Amneris (competition is really high here)
Dolora Zajic (not reviewed here. I don't want another Domingo)