21 November 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — AIDA (A. Harteros, J. Kaufmann, E. Semenchuk, L. Tézier, E. Schrott, M. Spotti, P. Fanale, E. Buratto; Warner Classics 0825646106639)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - AIDA (Warner Classics 0825646106629)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): AidaAnja Harteros (Aida), Jonas Kaufmann (Radamès), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Amneris), Ludovic Tézier (Amonasro), Erwin Schrott (Ramfis), Marco Spotti (Il re d’Egitto), Paolo Fanale (Messaggero), Eleonora Buratto (Sacerdotessa); Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Sir Antonio Pappano [Recorded in Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy, during February 2015; Warner Classics 0825646106639; 3 CDs, 145:36; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Those who love the music of Giuseppe Verdi or opera on a grand scale cannot fail to greet the release of a new recording of Aida with excitement. Many performances of the opera in the past three decades have done anything but excite true operaphiles, however, the dearth of singers and conductors with the requisite technical and interpretive capacities to perform Aida at the level that the music demands and deserves having steadily grown more widespread. Truly, when hearing many recent efforts at performing the score it seems that eons have passed since the evening of 3 January 1985, when Leontyne Price gave her final performance of a complete rôle at the Metropolitan Opera as Aida. She was not as formidably secure in the music as she had often been throughout her quarter-century tenure at the MET, but she was still Leontyne Price—and, pivotally, she was still Aida in a way that almost no sopranos have been in the thirty years since her retirement from the stage. What so many singers, conductors, and directors now seem to fail to grasp is that an Aida's success depends upon far more than a solid top C in 'O patria mia.' Whether sung on stage or in studio, the rôle requires not only technical and dramatic concentration of the highest order but also a setting in which success is fostered, not compromised. Warner's new recording featuring the musical forces of Rome's Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the institution that contributed so meaningfully to Renata Tebaldi's first studio recording of Aida more than six decades ago, creates an environment not of cardboard pyramids and a spray-painted Nile but one of unfailing musicality and appreciation of the atmosphere that emanates from the pages of Verdi's score. This is not a perfect Aida, but, following Leontyne Price's example, it is unmistakably a sincere, legitimately devout one—in short, an Aida that honors rather than hiding Verdi.

For many listeners, the principal attraction of this Aida will understandably be its preservation of Jonas Kaufmann's inaugural interpretation of Radamès, one of Verdi's most demanding tenor rôles. This is a wholly valid reason for hearing this Aida, of course, and one that is rewarded with some fine singing, but Kaufmann's performance is thankfully not the recording's only virtue. The prevailing asset of this performance is the conducting of Sir Antonio Pappano. Not surprisingly, his approach to the score is strongly rooted in the grand Italian tradition but is also quite original. In some passages, particularly in Act One, Pappano's tempi seem laborious on first hearing, but the results that the conductor achieves ultimately reward listeners for having faith in his approach. Even in the controllable environment of the recording studio, ensembles have rarely been as ideally balanced and cleanly articulated as they are under Pappano's direction. The Preludio that introduces the opera is paced very expansively, but taut rhythmic control worthy of a Bach fugue ensures that momentum is not sacrificed to beauty. ​​The Santa Cecilia musicians play with passion that never jeopardizes the reliable fidelity of their executions of Verdi’s instructions. The high string writing in the Preludio is delivered with a rapt beauty that fully discloses the music’s kinship with similar passages in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. In the public scenes, not least the Triumphal Scene, the sheer grandeur of the music is stirringly conveyed without obscuring the intensely private emotions that flow beneath the surface. In the introduction to Aida’s celebrated aria ‘O patria mia,’ the crickets among the reeds and the lapping of the inky Nile at its banks are audible, viscerally placing Aida in the scene that Verdi intended and touchingly evincing her isolation and increasing anxiety. Both the ‘Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse’ in Act One and the ‘Danza di piccolo schiavi mori’ in Act Two are also played with brio and bustling rhythmic vitality.The orchestra’s idiomatic command of the difficulties of Verdi’s score is matched by the choral singing. Apt to be taken for granted, choristers' jobs in a performance or recording of Aida are of great importance: perhaps a well-sung Aida is not ruined by a poor showing by the chorus, but even the poorest Aida is improved by a strong performance by the chorus. As the Egyptian populace, Amneris’s Moorish slaves, and the priests who stand in judgment of Radamès, the Santa Cecilia choristers sing powerfully and characterfully.

Rather than mimicking many productions’ casting by employing second-rate singers as the Messaggero and Sacerdotessa, this performance benefits from the work of a pair of excellent artists for whom Aida is atypical vocal territory. The days in which one might hear voices of the quality of those of Charles Anthony, Robert Nagy, and the young James McCracken as the Messaggero are perhaps gone forever, but this recording gives a delightful nod to this tradition. Tenor Paolo Fanale voices the Messaggero’s ‘Il sacro suolo dell’Egitto è invaso dei barbari Etiopi’ in Act One with a Lieder singer’s acute pointing of words and a youthful, rousingly handsome timbre that retains its pliancy from the bottom of the range to the part’s top G. Soprano Eleanora Buratto is equally effective as the ethereal Sacerdotessa, singing ‘Possente, possente Fthà, del mondo spirito animator’ in Act One with sensuality that lends the ritual blessing of the Egyptian warriors a suggestion of eroticism. She returns in Act Three with an emerald-hued ‘Soccori, soccori a noi’ and phrases ‘Immenso, immeno Fthà del mondo spirito animator’ in Act Four enchantingly. The beauty of Buratto’s voice is itself a worthy offering to the gods.

Italian bass Marco Spotti sings Verdi’s declamatory music for il Re with suitable pomposity and authority. Spotti’s voice is not a plush, opulent instrument, but its core of iron serves him—and Verdi—well in this rôle. In Act One, he manfully braves the depths of ‘Alta cagion v’aduna, o fidi Egizii’ and hurls out ‘Su! del Nilo al sacro lido accorrete, Egizii eroi’ with unanswerable bravado. He addresses the victorious Radamès in Act Two with an imposingly stentorian ‘Salvator della patria, io ti saluto.’ Spotti does not command the tonal amplitude that some singers have unleashed in il Re’s music, but it is a great pleasure to hear his music sung so securely. Some listeners may be surprised to learn by hearing Spotti’s spot-on performance that wobbling in il Re’s music is not, in fact, demanded by Verdi’s score.

Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott is a tremendously versatile singer, with intelligent portrayals of rôles ranging from Mozart’s Figaro and Don Giovanni to Colline in Puccini’s La bohème to his credit. Except in the context of a project such as this recording, Ramfis is now a rôle unlikely to appeal to a singer of Schrott’s caliber, but he here sings the part with stony allure. He opens the opera with a resonant statement of ‘Sì: corre voce che l’Etiope ardisca sfidarci ancora,’ and he articulates ‘Gloria ai Numi! ognun rammenti ch’essi reggono gli eventi’ with greater imagination than the passage typically inspires. Throughout the performance, Schrott creates a complex character who is implacable but not wholly unsympathetic. His firm, propulsive singing of ‘Spirto del Nume sovra noi discendi!’ drives the Judgment Scene in Act Four to its chilling conclusion. Schrott’s incisive portrayal of Ramfis is a crucial spoke of the wheel of fate that ultimately crushes Aida and Radamès but also considerably more engaging than the usual, relentlessly ramrod personification of the part.

French baritone Ludovic Tézier had not sung Amonasro before taking the rôle in this recording, but he offers a rounded, fully-formed interpretation of one of Verdi’s most grueling baritone rôles. It is not only Amonasro’s music that is daunting: it is easy to depict him as an embittered bully and thus to ignore the nobility that his daughter’s virtue suggests that he exemplified at some point in his life. Tézier’s Amonasro appears in Act Two with the force of a herd of beasts stampeding across the Serengeti. Paraded among the vanquished Ethiopians, he sings ‘Suo padre. Anch’io pugnai, vinti noi fummo’ with biting irony. This contrasts markedly with his august shading of tone in the Andante sostenuto ‘Quest’assisa ch’io vesto vi dica che il mio Re,’ the repeated rises to top F costing him little effort. In the Act Three scene with Aida, Tézier intones ‘A te grave cagion m’adduce, Aida’ menacingly, the father’s wounded pride suddenly turned against his daughter, but there is tenderness in the baritone’s thorny reading of ‘Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate, le fresche valli.’ There is little doubt that this is an Amonasro willing to resort to brute physicality should his verbal persuasion prove ineffective, but he maintains an inherent aristocracy even when confronting Radamès. A studio recording is not always an indication of how a portrayal will work on stage, but on disc Tézier is a vividly-enacted Amonasro who sings Verdi’s music exceptionally well.

Though surely not the sole raison d’être for this Aida, Jonas Kaufmann’s freshman Radamès is a primary source of interest in the recording. Acclaimed in recent seasons as Manrico in Il trovatore, Alvaro in La forza del destino, and Don Carlo, he has also enjoyed successes as the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La traviata, and Cassio in Otello. It is strange, then, that the music of Verdi often seems to be regarded by many observers as an addendum to rather than a central component of his repertory. Radamès was one of the best rôles for Franco Corelli, to whom Kaufmann is frequently compared, but the comparison is a misjudgment. Kaufmann's is a more compact, more flexible instrument—he has sung Mozart’s Idomeneo to general praise, after all—with less refulgence but near-equal reliability in the upper register. If Corelli’s voice was a trumpet in a rôle like Radamès, Kaufmann’s is an oboe, darker in timbre, reedier, and more refined but no less thrilling in climaxes. Perhaps only Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio and the Kaiser in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten face entrance music as fearsome as Radamès’s recitative ‘Se quel guerrier io fossi!’ and aria ‘Celeste Aida, forma divina’ in Act One of Aida. Kaufmann phrases both recitative and aria expansively and produces the aria’s first top B♭ with élan. His conscientious effort at honoring Verdi’s request for a morendo on the repetition of the tone is accomplished more with falsetto than true mezza voce, but it is beautifully done. Kaufmann encounters no difficulties in the high tessitura of Act Two with which he is not eminently capable of dealing, and he depicts the returning conqueror on a jubilant scale. In Act Three, he voices ‘Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida’ with seductive intensity. The inner conflict that tears at Radamès as he weighs his duty against his love for Aida is apparent in Kaufmann’s expressive singing. Discovered in the act of unwittingly betraying his countrymen to Amonasro, he surrenders himself with an exclamation of ‘Sacredote, io resto a te’ punctuated by ringing top As. Sparring with Amneris in Act Four before facing Radamès’s trial for treason, Kaufmann voices ‘Di mie discolpe i giudici mai non udran l’accento’ arrestingly, lashing at the top B♭ with determination. Silent in his own defense, he descends into the tomb where his life is condemned to end with an account of ‘La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse’ in which his fingers can almost be felt caressing the offending stone. The sorrow that exudes from Kaufmann’s phrasing of ‘Morir! si pura e bella!’ as Radamès thinks of Aida turns to panic when she appears from the shadows, but the quiet radiance with which he and his Aida trade top B♭s in ‘O terra addio’ gives the final scene the aura of a transcendent Liebestod. There are compromises in Kaufmann’s singing: though not heavy, his voice is a baritonal instrument, not the ideal spinto voice of a Corelli or a Richard Tucker, and Radamès’s high center of vocal gravity is not always completely comfortable for Kaufmann. A benchmark of his artistry is his commitment to wholly meeting the technical requirements of a rôle, however, and he succeeds as Radamès as almost none of his contemporaries have managed to do.

It is significant that, like Azucena in Il trovatore, Verdi considered Amneris the emotional and dramatic nucleus of Aida. Like Eboli in Don Carlo, her own actions alter the destiny of the man she loves, and her tragedy is being unable to alter either herself or the damning juggernaut she sets in motion. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk is the member of this cast with the most extensive experience in her rôle, and she portrays a dangerous Amneris vulnerable only to her own insecurities. In the Act One duet with Radamès, there is an air of playfulness in her singing of ‘Quale insolita gioia nel tuo sguardo,’ an attitude that changes in an instant to one of barely-concealed scorn when, as Aida enters, she purrs ‘Vieni, o diletta, appressati.’ She reveals the perilous extent of Amneris’s jealousy with her venomous ‘Trema! o rea schiava!’ Hailing Radamès as the decreed savior of her people, Semenchuk portrays a haughty but deeply amorous Amneris. She and Giulietta Simionato are unique in making something of the scene for Amneris and her Moorish slaves at the start of Act Two, a rare instance of Verdi including a scene of little dramatic importance in an otherwise tightly-constructed score. As Senenchuk sings it, though, ‘Ah! vieni, vieni, amor mio, m’inebria fammi beato il cor’ assumes a degree of significance by granting the listener a glimpse of Amneris with her guard down. The contempt with which she articulates ‘Io son l’amica tua’ in the subsequent duet with Aida is telling, and it is with a flood of malice that she admits to the despairing Aida that Radamès not only survived the battle with the Ethiopians but rose to glory in the fray—a flood of malice that overflows into her solemnly-voiced contributions to the final pages of Act Three. As Verdi envisioned, it is Amneris who dominates Act Four in this performance. Semenchuk’s stark ‘L’abborrita rivale a me sfuggia’ is defined by artful manipulations of the contrasts between the singer’s vocal registers, and her exasperation with Radamès’s obstinacy in ‘Già i sacerdoti adunansi’ grows to a fury epitomized by her pair of climactic, white-hot top B♭s. Semenchuk commandeers the Judgment Scene not with overwrought histrionics but by portraying with absolute sincerity a powerful woman powerless to halt the course of her own justice. Her searing top A at the conclusion of the scene is the sound of her soul breaking beneath the figurative weight of the stone that will seal Radamès’s tomb. In the opera’s final scene and throughout the performance, Semenchuk’s Amneris is a woman not of insinuations and tears but of action and instigation. Most importantly, hers is a voice of ample dimensions for the rôle, only occasionally slightly unwieldy, and she sings as impressively as she acts with the voice.

Following Kaufmann's and Tézier's examples, this recording and the concert performance that followed the studio sessions were German soprano Anja Harteros's first attempts at assaying the title rôle in Aida. Like Maria Callas and Zinka Milanov before her, Harteros is an Aida for whom the rôle is defined by an emotional journey rather than a single aria and its famous high note. A resourceful singer whose operatic repertory extends from Händel to Richard Strauss, Harteros here connects with Aida’s plight with an immediacy that is especially commendable in the context of a studio recording. At her first entrance in Act One, she introduces the listener to a circumspect Aida who joins in the trio with Amneris and Radamès with an unsettling ‘Ohimè! di guerra fremere l’atroce grido in sento.’ In Radamès’s company, her confidence blossoms until her true spirit bursts forth on the fortissimo top B. The top C in the ensemble in which Radamès is appointed commander of the Egyptian defense taxes her, but she is careful to approach the note without applying undue pressure to the voice. Harteros’s performance of ‘Ritorna vincitor! E dal mio labbro uscì l’empia parola!’ simmers with doubt and self-recrimination, Aida physically pained by the splitting of her loyalties between victory for her people and her lover’s safety. She accentuates the despondence of ‘L’insana parola, o Numi, sperdete!’ and dispatches the fortissimo top B♭ like a blow against her predicament. Then, her frenzy gives way to delicacy with the soprano’s eloquent handling of ‘I sacri nomi di padre, d’amante né profferir poss’io, ne ricordar.’ In the scene with Amneris in Act Two, Harteros enunciates ‘Felice esser poss’io lungi dal suol natio, qui dove ignota m’è la sorte del padre e dei fratelli?’ with emotional honesty, unflinchingly ascending to the top B♭. The expressivity of her ‘Ah! pietà! Quest’amor nella tomba io spegnerò’ is evidence of a profound understanding of Verdi’s meticulously-crafted melodic line, and she treats the top C as an organic extension of the line rather than an isolated note intended to highlight the singer’s vocal prowess. She approaches the galvanizing repeated top B♭s and C♭s in the Triumphal Scene with similar acuity, facing the notes as they come rather than breaking the line—and the character’s demeanor—to prepare for them. As Callas often found with the pair of top Cs in the ensemble that ends Act One of Bellini’s Norma, how much more easily the notes come when they are simply sung, not scrutinized! The great scene in Act Three is generally perceived as the measure of an Aida’s success or failure, and many a moving Aida has been dismissed solely because of a poor top C in ‘O patria mia.’ In this performance, Harteros’s singing of the recitative ‘Qui Radamès verrà!’ is as riveting as her exquisitely-wrought traversal of ‘O patria mia.’ The serene dignity with which she sculpts the line in ‘O cieli azzuri, o dolci aure native’ in the aria is breathtaking, and she soars to a truly dolce if slightly blanched top C. Both fear and relief course through her cry of ‘Ciel! mio padre!’ when Amonasro unexpectedly appears on the bank of the Nile, and she repeats his sentiments with uncertainty in her hesitant but increasingly tranquil ‘Rivedrò le foreste imbalsamate! le fresche valli, i nostri templi d’or!’ Harteros’s ‘Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti di queste lande ignude’ is the heartfelt plea of a woman who senses that happiness is slipping from her grasp. Emerging from the darkness of her subterranean tomb in the opera’s final scene, Harteros’s Aida embraces Kaufmann’s Radamès with a voice drenched not with sadness but with the ecstasy of eternal devotion and self-sacrifice. Their ‘O terra addio’​ is like a pas de deux in sound, their voices intertwining like beams of light blending into a single beacon. Singers’ first assumptions of rôles as demanding as Aida invariably leave room for further refinement, but Harteros’s initial Aida is a study in subtle vocal colorations and beautiful, well-schooled singing. Whether Aida is a rôle that she will choose to add to her stage repertory remains to be seen, but the Aida discography is richer for having welcomed her.

It is no exaggeration to state that this Aida, a rare studio recording in an age in which ‘live’ recordings have become the industry standard, was one of the most eagerly-anticipated releases of 2015. It is also no exaggeration to state that many eagerly-awaited recordings have proved disappointing to those eagerly awaiting them. Any committed Verdian has both a favorite Aida and a favorite Aida that a new recording and a new interpreter of the title rôle are unlikely to supplant except with a strenuous fight. In addition to being an enjoyable performance in its own right, Warner’s new Aida is a true contender. Perhaps its most admirable achievement is its restoration of confidence in the Verdian credentials of this ensemble of singers, musician, and conductor.