double play

Verdi: Aida Soloists, Choruses, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland / Rico Saccani (Naxos 8.660033-4; two CDs); 'A super-bargain, it's true, but a false economy, also. It's the kind of performance you might be pleased to hear on a wet evening in... I'd better not say where' 'A lot depends on what you're looking for... If you go to Aida to be stirred, then there's really only one question: did the earth move for you? For me, the answer is no'
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Ten choruses are listed: the Irish Army No 1 Band, and the rest. The budget's through the roof before you can say "triumphal". Aida does not come cheap. Except - in this case - for the purchaser. Naxos are masters of the super-bargain market, no doubt about that. And cut-price need not mean cut corners - though I still think it a mistake to offer the Italian libretto only, particularly as these prices are most likely to attract first-time buyers. Still, Naxos would doubtless argue that the money is better spent in pursuit of musical excellence.

So where stands this Aida in those terms? Well, you can't win them all. I was anxious to hear Maria Dragoni - winner of the 1983 Maria Callas Competition and, subsequently, the favour of Riccardo Muti - but I wonder if I've already missed the best of her. The wear and tear is self-evident: the top is troubled, insecure, the overall colour and quality of the voice uneven. There's an audible break now into her much-vaunted chest register. She's plainly a feeling singer (all or nothing), but one inclined to snatch recklessly at the emotional hot-spots; and an Aida whose big phrases, whose quiet, beseeching pianissimi never quite come off is not an Aida to live with.

Her Radames, the Icelandic tenor Kristjan Johannsson, might have been custom-built for the Verona arena (ie loud). Not a single grateful or affecting or vulnerable phrase, no finesse, no mezza voce. A hefty high B at the close of "Celeste Aida" (is it my imagination, or does he make a last-ditch attempt at the notorious diminuendo?) sums him up. Barbara Dever's Amneris packs plenty of voice, albeit of one colour (nobody messes with this princess), and I suspect that Mark Rucker (Amonasro) is a lot younger than he sounds.

Beyond the obvious deficiencies in vocal or Verdian style, a little excitement can go a long way. Yet this Aida is so un-exciting. The conductor, Rico Saccani, pulls most of his punches, the tension comes and goes (hit the start button anywhere in Solti's RCA / Decca recording with Price and Vickers and you'll hear what I mean). And is it me, or do the brass get a hopelessly raw deal throughout? Why, even the Irish Army trumpeters sound jaded when their big moment comes. Likewise the Egyptian populace.

To say that the choral singing is provincial is to give only some indication of just how flat and un-Italianate it is. Whatever happened to the atmosphere, the theatre of the score? Aida is a gift for the imaginative recording engineer, but no attempt has been made here, for instance, to realise Verdi's magical use of perspective: the chants of priests and priestesses wafting over still waters from the temple of Isis, the judgement of Radames echoing from the subterranean court of justice.

Disappointing, then: a super-bargain, it's true, but a false economy, also. It's the kind of performance you might be pleased to hear on a wet evening in... I'd better not say where.

A lot depends on what you're looking for. If you go to Aida to sample voices, then there's plenty to talk about. On many levels Dragoni is an imposing heroine, vocally strong with a musical approach to phrasing and expressive inflection. Some of her colours and turns of phrase recall Callas, and she can rise securely to a high C in her anguished Act 3 solo while still honouring Verdi's crucial marking dolce ("sweetly"). She's matched by a robust and often characterful Amneris, and an authoritative Radames.

But if you go to Aida to be stirred, then there's really only one question: did the earth move for you? For me, the answer is no. Take that Act 3 solo, a classic love-versus-duty scene: there may be touches of Callas here and there, but none of her elemental pathos. It's all oddly uninvolving. As for the tomb scene - I can imagine approving applause, but not a moist eye in the house. The orchestral playing under Saccani is all of a piece: a good, if not dramatically compelling pace, and expression that often simmers but never boils. But at least they manage that much; the choral singing (10 choirs are listed) is lustreless at best - the Italian barely recognisable as such in places - and there's a disastrous drop in pitch in Act 4.

The 1955 Callas version is mono, and on three full-price discs (shame!), but if you're looking for a singable replayable Aida, with a splendid set of soloists and conducting that radiates insight and passion, it's worth the extra outlay.

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