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ClassicsOnline Home » VERDI: Aida (Caniglia, Gigli) (1946)
By Peter M. Knapp
The Patriot Ledger
"With Serafin's wise and experienced guidance, this formidable quarted produces red-hot Verdian Darma? Although the Rome Opera orchestra occasionally sounds a bit scrappy, Serafin's conducting delivers plenty of theatrical punch and helpful flexibility for his singers."
Verdi wrote his Egyptian opera Aida for performance at the new Cairo Opera House, which had opened in 1870 with a performance of Rigoletto. The story of the new work has some basis in the Hellenistic Aethiopica of Heliodorus, but was claimed as the original work of Auguste Mariette, known as Mariette Bey. It has been suggested that Temistocle Solera was responsible for the scenario, but if this is so, the fact was not known to Verdi, who had quarrelled with Solera in 1846 over the libretto of his opera Attila. The text of Aida was by Antonio Ghislanzoni and the opera was finally staged in Cairo on Christmas Eve 1871, after various delays, during the second season at the new house. It was mounted the following February at La Scala, Milan, in both places to very considerable acclaim.
The recording of 1946 was conducted by Tullio Serafin, whose thorough grounding in the traditions of Italian opera and inspired leadership did much to encourage and foster interest in the art, particularly in the years after 1945, when younger singers could profit from his long experience. From 1924 until 1934 he had worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, conducting a wide-ranging operatic repertoire, and on his return to Europe was engaged first as artistic director of the Teatro Reale in Rome, which he finally left in 1943. His earlier career had involved him with La Scala, Milan, before and towards the end of the first world war, and he returned there for the first post-war season in 1946.
Beniamino Gigli had made his operatic début in 1914 and his début at La Scala four years later in Boitos Mefistofele, undertaking the rôle of Faust again in that opera for his Metropolitan Opera début in 1920. He continued to appear at the Met for the following twelve years, returning to Italy and pursuing an international career there and elsewhere in the years that followed. It was in 1946 that he was able to re-establish his international reputation once more as the heir to Caruso in a career that only ended in 1956, the year before his death. In the present recording he is partnered by the Italian soprano Maria Caniglia, who had made her début at La Scala in 1930, at the age of 25. She appeared there until the destruction of the theatre in 1943 and returned for three seasons from 1948, after its rebuilding. She died in 1979. The rôle of Amneris is sung by the great Italian mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani, who had made her operatic début at the San Carlo in Naples in 1925 in the same part. She was engaged for La Scala by Toscanini in 1926 and continued there and in an international career for many years, with a repertoire that embraced the principal Verdi mezzo rôles, including that of the Requiem, which she memorably recorded with Gigli, Caniglia and Ezio Pinza under Serafin in 1939. The dramatic baritone Gino Bechi sang at La Scala from 1939 until 1953, appearing at the post-war re-opening of the house in 1946. He retired in 1961. Italo Tajo, later to be distinguished as a basso buffo, returned to Milan for the first post-war season. He made his American début in the same year in Chicago, when he sang the rôle of Ramfis, here taken by Tancredi Pasero, a singer of an older generation, who appeared at La Scala from 1926 until 1952, the year before he retired. He died in Milan in 1983.
 The Prelude presents material characteristic of Aida, contrasted with the opposing chant of the priests.
Scene 1. The scene is set in a hall in the palace of the King at Memphis. On the left and right there is a colonnade with statues and flowering shrubs. At the back is a great gate, through which are seen temples, the palaces of Memphis and the pyramids.
 Radamès, Captain of the Guards, and the Chief Priest Ramfis are in conversation. Ramfis tells of the rumour that the Ethiopians are again on the warpath, threatening Thebes and the Nile Valley. Radamès asks Ramfis if he has consulted Isis and Ramfis tells him that the goddess has decided the name of the supreme Egyptian commander. He looks fixedly at Radamès and adds that the man chosen is brave and young: now he must tell the King of the decision of Isis.
 Left alone, Radamès wonders if he is the chosen man. This, after all, is his ambition, to lead soldiers to victory to the acclaim of all Memphis. Then he might return, garlanded with laurels, to his beloved Aida. He sings in praise of his heavenly Aida, the queen of his thoughts. Victorious, he will set her free to breathe again the air of her own land.
 He is joined by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, who notices the unusual joy that now appears in his regard. She feels jealousy of the woman who has been able to bring him such happiness. Radamès tells her that his heart has been filled with a dream of fame: the goddess has chosen the leader of the Egyptian army, and he might be the one. Amneris seeks to know whether he has not had another more tender dream. Radamès wonders if she has guessed his secret, while she expresses her own strong suspicion. He catches sight of Aida. Amneris sees his look, but then turns to her slave, greeting her not as a slave but as a sister. Aida fears the approaching war, anxious for her unhappy country, but Amneris asks if this is really the reason for her anxiety. Aside, she bids her slave tremble, and Radamès notices her anger, fearing her suspicious jealousy, while Aida expresses her own misgivings.
 The King enters, preceded by his guards and followed by Ramfis, ministers, priests and captains. He addresses his nobles. A messenger steps forward and tells how the sacred soil of Egypt has been invaded by barbarous Ethiopians, destroying fields and crops, soon ready to attack Thebes itself. The Ethiopian army is led by a fierce warrior, Amonasro, their king, Aidas father, as she exclaims in an aside. Now, the King declares, is the time for war and Isis has declared the name of the Egyptian leader, Radamès. He is delighted at this answer to his prayers, while Aida is troubled. The ministers and captains shout the name of Radamès in acclamation. The King continues, bidding him to the temple of Vulcan, there to receive his weapons: Egyptian heroes will arise to wreak death on the foreign aggressors. Ramfis proclaims glory to the gods, who rule everything and hold the fate of the warrior in their hands. Aida, in her mind, is divided whether to pray for her lover or for her own country, while Radamès has no doubts about the glory that awaits him. Amneris gives him the glorious banner, to guide and protect him on the path of glory. The assembled ministers and captains shout their defiance of the enemy, for Radamès will return as victor.
 Aida is left alone, haunted by these last words. She cannot wish Radamès victorious over her own father, who fights to set her free and restore her to her rightful place: Radamès would be victor over her brothers, stained with their blood, her father brought in chains behind the conquerors chariot: she begs the gods not to hear her mad words but to let the enemies of her people perish, but then what of her love? How can she wish the death of Radamès? She dare not utter the names of father and lover and trembles in confusion: only death can end her dilemma.
Scene 2. The interior of the temple of Vulcan at Memphis is lit by a mysterious light from above. There are long rows of columns and statues of various gods. In the middle, above a platform covered with carpet, is an altar, surmounted by sacred emblems. The smoke of incense rises from golden tripods. Priests and priestesses stand with Ramfis at the foot of the altar.
 A priestess within the temple prays to the powerful god Phthà, her voice soon joined by those of her priestesses, while Ramfis and his priests, before the altar, invoke the god, father and son, source of light, life of the universe. Radamès enters, unarmed. While he approaches the altar, the priestesses carry out a sacred dance. A silver veil is placed over his head.
 Ramfis addresses Radamès, entrusting him with the destiny of Egypt. He gives him the sacred sword, tempered by the god, to be a terror to their enemies. Ramfis turns again to the altar, seeking the protection of the gods over the soil of Egypt, a prayer echoed by Radamès. While he is invested in his sacred armour, the priests and priestesses chant their prayer and perform their mystic dance.
Scene 1. The scene is a room in the quarters of Amneris in the palace.
 Amneris is surrounded by slaves, preparing her for the triumphal feast. The slaves sing of a bold warrior, victorious and to be rewarded with love, while Amneris wishes for her lover, to intoxicate her and make her happy. The slaves continue their song of victory and love and there is a dance of little Moorish slaves to entertain the princess. While the slave-girls sing, Amneris expresses her secret thoughts, but is silent when she sees Aida approach, carrying the victors garland. Amneris still harbours jealous suspicions in her heart.
 Feigning kindness, Amneris turns to Aida, promising to be her friend and telling her to be happy, but Aida cannot be happy, far from her own country, with the fate of her father and brothers unknown. Time will heal her sorrows, and a powerful god, love, Amneris assures her. This is more disturbing to Aida, divided in her loyalties between joy and torment, while Amneris looks at her closely in suspicion. She asks her to reveal her secret thoughts and tell her of her love: does she love some hero in the battle? By some quirk of fate the leader of the Egyptians has fallen in battle. Aida, believing what she has been told, is distraught, promising to mourn Radamès for ever, only for Amneris to reveal that the news was false: now, however, she is certain that Aida is her rival. Aida openly admits her love for Radamès, but Amneris threatens her, since this love can only bring death to her: she has power over Aida and has in her heart feelings of hatred and revenge.
 Amneris commands Aida to be with her at the triumphal celebration, while the voices of the people are heard celebrating victory. For Aida nothing remains, her life is a desert and she can only die. Amneris bids her follow, since she will teach her to struggle with her. The people demand war and death to foreigners. Left alone, Aida calls on the gods to pity her suffering.
Scene 2. In the foreground are palm-trees, to the right the temple of Ammon and to the left a throne with a purple canopy above it. In the background is a triumphal gateway.
 The people crowd round as the King enters, followed by ministers, priests, captains, fan-bearers, standard-bearers, then Amneris with Aida and her slave-girls. The King takes his seat on the throne and Amneris takes up her position on the left of the King. The people sing glory to Egypt and to Isis and their King. The women promise a laurel wreath for the brow of the victor and Ramfis, with his priests, offers thanks to the gods.
 The Egyptian troops march in, preceded by fanfares, passing before the King. There follow war chariots, standards, sacred vessels and statues of the gods. Dancing girls follow, bearing the spoils of victory.
 The people sing the praises of the conquerors. Radamès enters under a canopy held by twelve officers.
 The King descends from the throne to embrace Radamès, who bows to Amneris, as she offers him the crown of victory. The King promises him whatever he wants, but he asks first for the prisoners to be brought in. These now enter, escorted by guards, with Amonasro at the end, dressed as an officer.
 Aida recognises her father and embraces him, but he whispers to her not to betray him. The King bids him come forward.
 Amonasro tells the King that he is Aidas father and has fought for his king and country, but his king was killed in battle: if it is a crime to love their country, then they all must die. He asks the King for mercy, for today they are defeated, but tomorrow it may be the Egyptians who suffer.
 Aida joins the prayer for mercy, while the prisoners echo Amonasros words. Ramfis and the priests seek the death of the prisoners, while Amneris watches Aida and Radamès, who finds Aida more beautiful in her distress. The King and the people are inclined to mercy, but the priests remain adamant.
 Radamès now asks the King to grant his request, which the King promises. He asks for life and freedom for the prisoners, a request that surprises Amneris and is opposed by the priests. Ramfis warns the King not to listen, since these prisoners have vengeance in their hearts. Radamès claims that, now Amonasro is dead, the warrior king, the defeated have no hope. Ramfis suggests that at least Aidas father, in fact Amonasro, should be kept as a hostage, and the King agrees to this. As a reward the King grants Radamès the hand of his daughter Amneris in marriage, to the latters triumphant delight.
 King and people join in proclaiming glory to Egypt, while the slaves and prisoners praise the clemency of the King. Aida wonders what is now left for her, only the tears of disappointed love, and Radamès, appalled by this turn of fate, declares that the land of Egypt is no recompense for the love of Aida. Amneris, meanwhile, is delighted at the apparent fulfilment of her dreams and Ramfis prays that the fates be propitious over Egypt. Amonasro takes the chance to tell Aida to take courage, since revenge is at hand.
Introduction. By the banks of the Nile granite rocks are seen, from which palm-trees grow. Above the rocks is seen the temple of Isis, half hidden by foliage. It is a starry night and the moon shines brightly.
 The voices of priests and priestesses are heard from the temple, singing to Isis, immortal mother and wife of Osiris. A boat comes to the shore and Amneris disembarks, with Ramfis, some of the court women, veiled, and guards. Ramfis addresses Amneris, bidding her to the temple on the eve of her marriage, to seek divine favour. She says that she will pray that Radamès give her his whole heart, as she gives hers to him. They enter the temple, as the priests and priestesses continue their hymn.
 Aida enters cautiously, apparently summoned by Radamès and wondering what he will say to her, since this must be their last farewell. She remembers the blue skies, the sweet breezes, green hills and flowing rivers of her own country, which she will never see again.
 To Aidas surprise, Amonasro approaches and tells her he knows of her troubles, with the daughter of Pharaoh, ruler of their hated enemies, her rival in love. She laments that she is in their power, but Amonasro assures her that she can again have country, throne and love: their people are ready to attack and Aida herself can discover from Radamès the route of the Egyptian armies. She is horrified at the suggestion that she should betray Radamès. Amonasro calls on the cohorts of Egypt then to destroy his people and country. Aida begs him to pity her, but he continues to tell her of the horrors of war that her country will suffer and from which she can save her people: otherwise she will have the curse of her mother and be disowned by her father, to remain an Egyptian slave. Aida begs again for pity, but he tells her that she must have the courage to help her country. He withdraws and hides among the palm-trees.
 Radamès now joins Aida. She asks him what he wants, since he is to marry Amneris. He assures her that he loves her alone: she must not doubt his love. She asks how he can defy the King and brave the anger of the priests, but Radamès tells her that danger again threatens, for the Ethiopians have again invaded Egypt: he will earn the gratitude of the King and the reward he wants. Aida warns him to beware the vengeful fury of Amneris, which will fall on her, her father and everyone. Radamès promises to defend her, but Aida tells him he cannot: one way is open to him, flight.
 Aida tells Radamès that they must escape together to a new country, where they can love each other. He exclaims on the idea of seeking refuge in a foreign land, abandoning his own country, the altars of his gods, the land where he won glory. She accuses him of not loving her, if he will not join her in flight: he must go to the altar with Amneris. Radamès gives way: let them fly together from these walls to the desert, where stars will shine upon their love. Aida adds her nostalgic memories of her native land, where they can be happy together. Together they dream of escape. As they are about to hurry away, Aida pauses. She asks him the route to be taken by the Egyptian armies, apparently so that they may avoid them in their flight. He tells her that the approach chosen will remain unguarded that night and she elicits from him the information that the army will attack through the gorges of Napata. Amonasro emerges from hiding, announcing that his men will be there waiting. In reply to the question of Radamès, he reveals his identity as Aidas father, Amonasro, king of Ethiopia.
 Radamès is aghast and cannot believe what he has heard. When assured by Aida of the truth of the claim, he is horrified at his own treachery. Amonasro declares this the work of fate and invites Radamès to cross the Nile with him and join the Ethiopians, to be rewarded by the hand of Aida. At this point Amneris, Ramfis, priests and guards emerge from the temple. Amneris declares Radamès a traitor, while Aida recognises the power of her rival. Amonasro threatens Amneris with his dagger, but is prevented from killing her by Radamès. Ramfis calls the guards, while Radamès tells Aida and her father to escape, prepared himself to stay.
Scene 1. The scene is a hall in the palace of the King. To the left a great door leads to a subterranean court of justice, while a passage on the right leads to the prison of Radamès.
 Amneris crouches by the door, regretting the escape of her rival: Radamès will be condemned as a traitor, although he is not, but yet he wanted to escape with Aida: she would save him, if she could.
 Radamès is brought in by the guards, and Amneris foresees his condemnation by the priests: yet he can still save himself and she will intercede with her father for him. Radamès vows he will say nothing in his defence. Amneris tells him that if he does not defend himself, he must die, but he would welcome death. She urges him to choose life, through her love: she will sacrifice country, throne and life for him. He, however, sacrificed his country and his honour for Aida, who is now dead. Amneris assures him that Aida is still alive: her father was killed, but she survived. She asks him to abjure his love for Aida, if she is to save him, but that he cannot do, preferring to die. Angry, she threatens revenge, if he rejects her love, but he declares death a great good: he has no fear of human anger. Amneris, however, still threatens revenge.
 Radamès is taken away, escorted by the guards. Amneris, now alone, sits, in despair, wishing to save Radamès and blaming herself for his capture. She turns and sees the priests crossing to enter the subterranean court, exclaiming on these inexorable ministers of death. She covers her face with her hands, blaming herself for the arrest of Radamès. Ramfis and the priests seek divine guidance, while Amneris prays for the release of Radamès, who is now taken down to the court, to her increased dismay.
 Accused by the priests, Radamès makes no answer. The accusers renew their demands and Amneris her prayers for mercy, while Radamès remains silent and is condemned to be immured, living, in the tomb. Amneris pleads for him, but in vain, and she ends by cursing them, as they go out.
Scene 2. The scene is divided into two levels, the upper representing the interior of the temple of Vulcan, splendid in its gold and light. The lower reveals an underground chamber, with long arcades disappearing into the darkness. There are great statues of Isis and Osiris with crossed hands, supporting the pillars of the court above. Radamès is there, on the steps leading to the chamber. Two priests above are sealing the entrance with a stone.
 Radamès prepares for death in the tomb, never to see the light again or his beloved Aida. At this moment Aida reveals herself.
 Aida explains how she has hidden herself there, anticipating his death, and here she too will die, in his arms. Radamès is overcome with emotion, that she, so pure and beautiful, will die for love of him and perish in the flower of her youth. Almost in a trance, she tells him to see the angel of death drawing near: Heaven now awaits them. The voices of the priests are heard from the temple above, praying to great Phtha, a sad song, Aida says, the triumph of the priests, their hymn of death. Radamès tries to move the stone that seals the chamber, but in vain.
 Together they bid the earth farewell, while the priests continue their chant, and Amneris, dressed in mourning, appears in the temple, throwing herself upon the stone that seals the underground vault. In the crypt below Aida dies in the arms of her lover, while Amneris prays to Isis for them and the priests still call on the great god Phtha.