Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Aïda, opera in four acts (1871)
Aïda – Dusolina Giannini (soprano)
Radamès – Aureliano Pertile (tenor)
Amneris – Irene Minghini-Cattaneo (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro – Giovanni Inghilleri (baritone)
Ramphis – Luigi Manfrini (bass)
Il Re di Egitto – Guglielmo Masini (bass)
Un Messaggero – Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)
Sacerdotessa – Cantoni (soprano)
Orchestra & Chorus Teatro alla Scala/Carlo Sabajno
rec. 1928, Teatro alla Scala

Although this recording was, by a tiny margin, the first complete electrical recording of the opera, it was not the very first recording. Although undoubtedly not complete, a very substantial part of the opera was recorded by Zonophone in 1906/7 with a cast of singers almost entirely forgotten even by collectors of 78s. Another set which was also far from complete was recorded by Italian Columbia in about 1912; it included the great baritone Cesare Formichi as Amonasro, but, in a decision which seems bizarre beyond belief today, used three different tenors for Radames, four mezzos for Amneris and five sopranos for Aida. In 1919, an HMV recording at least used the same singers throughout for each role, but with the exception of Valentina Bartolomasi as Aida, they are now completely forgotten names.

Things took a huge step for the better in 1928 when, in an absurd bit of rivalry, both HMV and Columbia recorded the opera in a genuinely complete form within a month of each other and both using the forces of La Scala , Milan. HMV pipped Columbia to the post by recording all but three sides in October, Columbia following in November (also reissued by Pristine review). It is a great pity that they could not have joined forces and produced a really superlative recording using Pertile and Minghini-Cattaneo from HMV with Arangi-Lombardi and Pasero from Columbia. Columbia further shot itself in the foot by using the decidedly mediocre Aroldo Lindi as Radames when Francesco Merli, who was second only to Pertile at La Scala at the time, was on their books. They similarly failed to use either Cesare Formichi or Riccardo Stracciari for Amonasro, both Columbia artists, opting for the adequate Armando Borgioli.

The Radamès in this HMV set is “Toscanini’s tenor”, Aureliano Pertile. Pertile had a hard time with the critics in this country, being seen as a clear example of the decline in Italian singing from the previous generation (which, of course, George Bernard Shaw had seen as a grievous decline from the generation previous to it). It cannot be denied that in some of his records (mainly those from the 1930 and 40s) he can go completely over the top into a ranting emotionalism that serves no good purpose. There is none of that in this Aida, though. In “Celeste Aida” every syllable is characterised and the dynamic range is wide and varied within phrases (none of “Here’s a section of loud singing” and “Here’s a section of soft singing” that you can get with Domingo, for example). Not everyone, particularly in Anglophone countries, reacts positively to the flicker vibrato which was standard in Italian singers from at least the late 19th century until after world war two, but it would need to be someone who was positively allergic to it not to be able to appreciate the highly musical and dramatic performance that Pertile gives. He is tremendous in the Nile Scene: full of eagerness at seeing Aida again in “Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida” (“con trasporto” is Verdi’s marking), but retreating into hurt incomprehension at “Del l’amor mio dubiti, Aida?”. When in “Nel fiero anelito” he then explains how the Ethiopian forces are massing again and how he will lead the Egyptians to victory and demand Aida’s hand as his reward, Pertile’s narration of how these events will make everything all right is masterly. It is difficult to see how his performance could be improved upon throughout the scene – every phrase bears scrutiny both vocally and interpretatively. He even manages to make “Sacerdoti, io resto a te” thrilling without milking it like del Monaco does. His performance in the final scene is equally full of detail and utterly convincing, though Sabajno rushes the tempo slightly, presumably to get it all on one 78 side.

The Amneris is Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, a wonderful mezzo in the classic Italian mould who is, most unfairly, largely forgotten today. She was in the line which continued with Ebe Stignani and Fiorenza Cossotto and was their equal. She and Pertile really strike sparks off each other in the Act 4 Judgement Scene, though in the continuation where the priests question and condemn Radamès I feel that she would have been even more thrilling in live performance. The duet itself, though, really is about as good as it gets. She has the two essential foundation points for any successful performance – a powerful chest register and a thrilling top – and is prepared to throw herself into the dramatic situation with abandon. Unfortunately at the end of the scene she seems to have been moved slightly back from the microphone (presumably to avoid blasting), so does not make quite the hoped for impact.

Aida is the Italian-American soprano Dusolina Giannini, whose tenor father, Ferruccio, had made the first ever operatic discs for Berliner in the US in 1896. Dusolina studied first with her father, but later with the great Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich. She made her stage debut in Hamburg in 1925 as Aida, singing the role at La Scala in the same year as this recording. It was also the role in which she made her belated Met debut in 1936. She sang in many of the great opera houses from the late 1920’s into the 1940s. Hers is a fine spinto voice, and this recording shows that, with one exception, it was solid and focussed up to top C. That exception is the C in “O patria mia”, but that note is the terror of every soprano who sings the role, so we can, perhaps, be a little lenient with her. For me, one of the joys of her performance is the fact that the voice never loosens, right up to the top (something that can be said of very few present-day Aidas). The sound is bright and clearly would have carried in the opera house. As an interpreter, she is undoubtedly intelligent, but does not quite have ability to plumb the depths of the role. The start of “Ritorna vincitor” does not really convey the horror that Aida feels as she realises what she has just said in the ensemble, though slightly later at “Imprecherò la morte a Radamès a lui ch’amo pur tanto!” the turbulence of her feelings is very well conveyed. In the final section of the aria, “Numi pietà”, again her shortcomings are demonstrated; it is a well-sung performance, but the pianissimo desperation of her prayer for pity is not really there. “O patria mia” similarly lacks the sense of longing that it should have, and in the Act 3 duet “La tra foreste vergine”, she doesn’t have the wheedling sensuality necessary as she persuades Radamès to betray his country and flee with her. It is not in any way a bad performance – indeed, it is one that anyone would be thrilled to hear in the opera house, but judged by the highest standards it falls a little short.

Giovanno Inghilleri’s Amonasro is perfectly good, though not in Pertile or Minghini-Cattaneo’s class. In “Quest’assisa ch’io vesto” and the continuing Act 2 ensemble he doesn’t quite have the vocal richness or amplitude of phrasing to give a really memorable performance. He is better in the Nile Scene but doesn’t manage the disingenuousness needed as he reminds Aida of the beauty of her native land or the fury of “Su dunque”. Though “Non sei mia figlia! Deh faraoni tu sei lo schiavo” is effectively done, he is again rather disappointing in “Pensa che un popolo vinto, straziato”. All the minor parts are well-done, especially Nessi’s messenger and Manfrini’s Ramfis.

I find Sabajno’s conducting a bit of a mixed bag. At times, as in the Nile Scene, he can be very exciting, but at others, such as the end of the Judgement Scene and the very start and the very end of the opera he is distinctly routine. The La Scala orchestra and chorus are much better than they sometimes are in recordings from this period. The opening of the prelude makes one fear the worst, sounding very amateur, but the orchestra is much better elsewhere. The chorus, while not being anywhere near as good as a present day opera chorus, are far better than the absolute embarrassment the “La Scala Chorus” usually is on acoustic recordings.

For a recording approaching its hundredth birthday, the sound is quite astonishingly good. A lot of detail comes through and the dynamic range is not at all bad; even the big ensembles are perfectly enjoyable to listen to. A huge amount of praise must be given to Mark Obert-Thorn for his transfer, which is a complete success in every way. He tells us that CD1 tracks 3 and 6 and CD2 track 5 were dubbed at the time of issue but that he has “been able to ameliorate the sound degradation on these sides to some degree”. Well, all I can say is that I would not have noticed anything had it not been pointed out. There is hardly any surface noise, and the voices leap out of the speakers.

However many recordings of Aida you already have, this is one you should have in your collection, and it is impossible to imagine it being better transferred in the foreseeable future.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Ralph Moore (January 2023)

Availability: Pristine Classical