To say that Verdi was precocious is an understatement. The son of a family of innkeepers and modest farmers, he had his first music lessons when he was only three. He was given a spinet on which to learn the keyboard which remained with him to the end of his life. Verdi’s music lessons continued while he was at grammar school. At the same time he was assisting the local organist and choirmaster, and beginning to write music for the church choir. Verdi’s earliest professional activity came in his home town of Bussetto, where he buckled down to the tasks of teaching music and conducting the local orchestra. Eventually, he was able to move to Milan, where his first opera, Oberto was produced at La Scala in November 1839.
Verdi was on his way, with La Scala commissioning three more operas. In 1842, Nabucco brought him his first triumph. Repeated the following season fifty-seven times, within five years it had spread his fame to Vienna, Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen and London.
Verdi’s popularity spread beyond the opera house. A pan-Italian nationalist and supporter of the risorgimento, he included in his early operas prominently featured patriotic elements, beginning with the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves in Nabucco. A wide public found in his choruses and arias barely concealed calls for Italian unification. His very name became synonymous with support for Victor Emmanuel as King of a united Italy – Victor Emmanuele, Rè d’Italia! – he was finally elected Senator in the Roman Parliament.
Verdi’s operas took Italian opera way beyond its parochial traditions, drawing upon French and German influences to forge a new operatic style. Or, rather, styles. His choices of subject matter and librettist meant that he encompassed patriotic-political themes often based on ancient history (Nabucco, Ernani); dramas in which his music increasingly demonstrates subtle understanding of human psychology (Rigoletto, La Traviata);, and what came to be known as Italian ‘grand opera’ (Simone Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlo, Aïda. Here, grand themes, grand passions and grand spectacle combine. Verdi had made himself a master of theatre. However epic the story, however magnificent the spectacle, at the core of the work is always the essence of drama: fully human characters at the mercy of fate, buffeted by love, fear, jealousy and greed, facing the most extreme of moral dilemmas. Then, in old age, when the public might have thought he had retired, came his two Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.
Aïda is the culmination of Italian grand opera. It was first performed on 24th December 1871 at the Khedivial Opera House, Cairo. With just four main characters, the drama remains tightly focused, for all the grandeur of the spectacle. And the music! This is Verdi the melodist at his most lyrical, revealing his profound understanding of how to write for the human voice. Verdi’s mastery of the orchestra, too, is utterly complete. The choruses are among the most thrilling he ever composed. Time and again, his masterly orchestral writing gives us added insight into the state of mind of the character or illuminates the dramatic situation. Aïda has inspired successive generations of singers, producers and conductors to give of their best.
Because of the logistics, the best time to assemble cast, chorus, orchestra, conductor and recording team for the complex task of recording a major opera was ‘off-season’, during the summer. To record Aïda, EMI assembled their team in Milan over three batches of sessions, each separated by a break of three days: 10-12, 16-20 and 23-24 August, 1955.
Maria Callas gave her last stage performance as Aïda in 1953, so it was fortunate that EMI was able to persuade her to record the role in 1955. No other soprano could compare with her as a singing actress, and her intelligence and insight into the character is unique. Callas never forgets that Aïda is a princess, and her steely courage shines through.
Callas’ scenes with Fedora Barbieri count among the jewels of this recording. Barbieri, at the height of her powers, was arguably the greatest of the Italian dramatic mezzo-sopranos of the day. She is arguably the greatest Amneris on record.
Richard Tucker was the leading American operatic tenor of the post-war years and had a thirty-year career at the Metropolitan Opera. He was first invited to sing Radames by Toscanini.
Tito Gobbi was perhaps the greatest male singing actor in opera in the twentieth century. His portrayal of Scarpia opposite the Tosca of Maria Callas, both on stage and on record, is legendary, and their partnership in this recording of Aïda is part of a rich legacy.
Tullio Serafin, for ten years head of La Scala, went on to lead the Rome Opera. His reputation as one of the greatest opera maestri is indelible, thanks in part to his many fine recordings. Both in the theatre and in the recording studio he was a major influence on Maria Callas, who relied on his wisdom and deep understanding of singers and singing.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe