Over the past 20 years, studio recordings of large-scale operas have become something of a rarity. Verdi’s Aida has a reputation as one of the grandest operas in the repertoire, so this new Warner Classics recording, authentically Italian in provenance and scheduled for release in October 2015, constitutes a major event.
Aida, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, was recorded in February 2015 under studio conditions in the Auditorium of Rome’s Parco della Musica – Sala Santa Cecilia. The superb 2,800-seat concert hall, designed by Renzo Piano, was able to accommodate all the spatial effects – such as off-stage chorus and woodwind/brass banda – that Verdi built into his score, and the producer, Stephen Johns evoked towering temples and echoing tombs without recourse to electronic trickery. On February 27ththe Auditorium will be also the setting for a concert performance of Aida, with exactly the same line-up of artists, which sold out months in advance.
Pappano has been music director of the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia since 2005. This is his second studio recording of a Verdi opera (after Il trovatore), and his Warner Classics catalogue features an award-winning Santa Cecilia album of the composer’s Requiem. There, as in the new Aida, the soprano is Anja Harteros, one of the rare singers who can offer both the amplitude and delicacy that Verdi demands of his captive Ethiopian princess. This is her first assumption of the role, but she has firmly established her Verdi credentials in La traviata, Il trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, La forza del destino, Don Carlo and Otello.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann has already partnered Harteros in Il trovatore, La forza del destino and Don Carlo, and here he makes his debut in the role of the Egyptian general Radamès, a conquering hero who shows his sensitive side in his love for Aida. With his phenomenal ability to produce both ringing high notes and a tender pianissimo, Kaufmann is a natural for this role, and he and Pappano have already collaborated in Italian opera for Warner Classics in two recordings of Puccini: Madama Butterly (also with the forces of Santa Cecilia) and Tosca (a live DVD from London’s Royal Opera House).
Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk – who has sung Amneris at La Scala, Milan, the San Carlo in Naples, the Verona Arena and the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg – rises to all Verdi’s vocal and dramatic challenges. This Egyptian princess is suitably sumptuous and sensuous of tone throughout her wide range, and as convincing in her subtle scheming as in her huge outbursts of anger and desperation.
The velvet-toned French baritone Ludovic Tézier – who, along with Harteros and Kaufmann, enjoyed a huge success in La forza del destino in Munich in the 2013-14 season – sings Aida’s cunning warrior father, Amonasro, while the role of the implacable high priest Ramfis is taken by the Uruguyan bass Erwin Schrott, who also appears on the Warner Classics DVD of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes, recorded live under Pappano’s baton at the Royal Opera House in 2013.
Sir Antonio Pappano’s vivid sense of theatre is shared by the players and singers of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Imaginatively and atmospherically scored, Aida is as much about intimacy as epic spectacle, and the close relationship between the Roman orchestra and Pappano became abundantly apparent as the musicians responded to his direction with the utmost immediacy.
The members of the chorus – such an important element in this opera, not least in the climactic Triumphal Scene – complemented the richness and accuracy of their vocalism with an unmistakeably authentic sense for the sound and meaning of the text. They sang “Gloria all’Egitto!”, but it was also a matter of “Gloria a Roma!”