A twenty-first Aida to set the stage and the bar very high.

VERDI: Aida (complete opera) – Anja Harteros (Aida)/ Jonas Kaufmann (Radames)/ Ekaterina Semenchuk (Amneris)/ Ludovic Tezier (Amonasro)/ Erwin Schrott (Ramfis)/ Marco Spotti (Il Re)/ Paolo Fanale (Messaggero)/ Eleonora Buratto (Sacerdotessa)/ Orch. and Chorus of the Dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecelia/ Antonio Pappano – Rhino/ Warner Classics 0825646106639 (3 CDs), TT: 145:36 ****:

This Aida rocks! Big, bold statement these days I know, and we all have our favorites from the past—Price 1 (Leinsdorf), Price 2 (Solti), Tebaldi (Karajan), just to name a few of my favorite stereo recordings. But honor is due to Warner for putting out a studio effort in this day and age of concert-only recordings (and we must be grateful for them), and assembling a cast, while not perfect, still only on the south side of sensational. And while audiophiles will no doubt squeak at the lack of surround sound, what we have is broad and impactful, with lots of breathing room around the singers, and believe me, in this opera they need it.

I won’t delve into the history of Aida—that’s easy enough to find, and the story isn’t all that complicated, love and betrayal in the midst of a war, hardly a new theme—but the setting of Egypt in 1230 BC adds a hoard of exotic images which really enliven the plot and the scenic standards. And Verdi is able to emphasize the melodic element of his music in a way that he didn’t always do in other operas, which is why Aida remains a perennial favorite with opera lovers everywhere.

Curiously, when the heroine of an opera is the weakest link it normally sinks a production. But “weak” must be taken in context—Anja Harteros does not possess the fluid, soul-shattering vocalizations that so made Aida a Leontyne Price staple, nor does she have the melting colorization of Renata Tebaldi. What she does have is a sturdy sense of the dramatic element of the role, and while her tonal characteristics are exceptionally beautiful, it is the solid, almost formidable grasp of the complete technical aspects of the role that make her performance as compelling as some of her more famous counterparts.  The rest of the cast is easily on par with the best—Radames’ portrayal by Jonas Kaufmann only reiterates the fact of his preeminence on the vocal stage today, and Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Amneris is one of the finest I have ever heard. Ludovic Tezier (Amonasro) brings out the tricky aspects of his role very well indeed, and the whole cast is, in general, superb.

The real star however remains Pappano, one of the most vigorous and emphatically intelligent conductors on the world stage. His grasp of the scope and overarching line of the piece is immaculate, perfectly paced and played, no little thanks due to the responsive and often underrated Saint Cecilia Academy Orchestra. Aida in the hands of lesser conductors, no matter how good the singing, is often a chore of endurance punctuated by a succession of “favorite hits” (hence the popularity of excerpts albums); no problems on this recording! One anticipates each moment with fervor, and the two and one-half hours blow by like an enjoyable spring rain on a warm day. Simply sensational!

—Steven Ritter