Joyce & Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall Erato 0825646 107896 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Verdi, Aida, Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tezier, Erwin Schrott/ Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano Warners 3 CDs 0825646 106639 ★ ★ ★ ★


Antonio Pappano has recently conducted two recordings that are extremely recommendable additions to any library.

The concert he did at the Wigmore Hall in September 2014 with Joyce di Donato, has actually won a Grammy award in America recently. Take my word for it, the award is fully deserved. The programme they put together consists of mezzo material from Haydn and Rossini that Joyce di Donato has made her own over the years and she sings and characterizes the repertoire of the first half of the concert with impeccable taste and understanding. Though I have indelible memories of Janet Baker’s performance of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos that Joyce di Donato cannot drive into second place, I would put Joyce di Donato’s assumption of this cantata up there with Baker’s; and certainly was just as won over by her Rossini songs. She’s a dazzling interpreter of this kind of material and has a voice that is richly lyrical, controlled and warm, just perfect for this repertoire; as well, like Baker she has a fully committed and intelligent relationship to the words she is singing. Listen to her performance of “La Danza” by Rossini. It won’t replace the interpretation by Mario Lanza; but it certainly is good enough to be spoken of in the same breath and returned to regularly. (But do listen to Lanza again too. You can probably find it on You Tube these days!)

Pappano is an impeccable partner for Joyce di Donato throughout this live recital. In the second half of the concert, they reflect their American backgrounds with some wonderful material from what is now called The American Songbook. Some people have claimed that joyce di Donato sounds too fruity in this more demotic repertoire, but I find her approach utterly pleasing and hearing this music sung in her unique way – especially the songs by Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen – is completely charming and musically convincing as far as I’m concerned. Thank goodness this recital was recorded so that posterity can enjoy it and hear for itself forever what all the fuss was about. I also love it that it was live on stage. There is a real sense of the occasion that comes across.

Another Pappano recording that caught my attention even more forcefully is the new and much-anticipated studio set of Verdi’s Aida. Right from the start you know this is going to be a collectable recording: firstly from the way Pappano conducts the contemplative, sad, soft overture, and then from the way he supports the declamation of the High Priest. This is followed by the first highlight, the inward, intense Jonas Kaufmann interpretation of of “Celeste, Aida”. Under Pappano’s direction the orchestra and the soloists correctly follow all the dynamics in the score; Kaufmann actually takes the final note of his first aria piano with a lovely diminuendo as required by Verdi.

This recording puts you in the presence of artists who take their commitment to the work itself seriously. Several critics have claimed that this interpretation does not quite match the great recordings made by Solti and Karajan in the early stereo era or supersede the famous Toscanini broadcast of the opera. How silly! This recording is its own thing. Nor are all these recordings mutually exclusive. The glorious thing is that we can acquire them all and compare them and turn to each over and over depending on mood. And do add the Maria Callas recording to the list if only for her rendering of the role of Aida herself! Each of these famous recordings illuminates aspects of the score in different ways. You need them all! And now you can add Pappano’s recording to the pile.

I found this performance considered, spacious, and remarkably true to Verdi’s intentions musically; it’s also very convincingly sung and acted. Also there is something compelling as well as totally pleasing about being able to hear the best contemporary artists and their interpretations of this work. Listen to the classic assumptions by all means; but don’t dismiss the performance that is brought before you now.

Anna Harteros has the right kind of dramatic heft in her voice for the role of Aida. Her singing of “Ritorna, Vincitor”, for example, has a clean vocal approach that I found completely convincing. She’s positively sublime in “O patria mia”. Jonas Kaufman sounds both heroic and sensitive as Radames; and Ekaterina Semchuk steals every scene she’s in as Amneris; while the superb French baritone Ludovic Tézier as Amonosro is wonderful not only in his singing but also at characterizing a cold, tyrannical father – a sort of Stalin of ancient Ethiopia. Semchuck is particularly fine at getting across the finer shadings of her role, both musical and dramatic; and she definitely knows when to chew the scenery. When she curses the priests for condemning Radames, you know that they are going to stay cursed for a good long time. Erwin Schrott is luxury casting for the smallish role of Ramfis.

For me, after several sessions of listening to it, the recording pretty much lives up to the hype that preceded it and is certainly one of the best all round performances of this opera for years.

I do have one quibble with this set that may just be personal; I found that the dynamic range is so wide that at times the quiet passages nearly disappeared and the big moments were liable to make me jump in my seat. But you can hang onto your volume controls; and maybe it’s just a matter of my now somewhat aging stereo equipment’s not being up to contemporary sound engineering. The presentation and booklet for this set are also top class.

In sum, then, I found this to be a central performance where Pappano and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome have brought out so many nuances, so much refreshing and well-considered detail, that it reminds one why Aida was, once upon a time, one of the most beloved and performed operas in the repertoire, always placed somewhere in the top five.

Aida has slipped from grace rather in the past couple of decades, possibly because that much spectacle is very expensive to mount these days; but this recording seems to me to go a good deal of the way towards restoring it to a high position on the “best operas” list. It’s a great drama about the conflict between private desire and public duty; a nearly perfect score; and this is a performance that is worthy of such a masterpiece, most particularly because of the flexible, sensitive conducting of Antonio Pappano, who controls the soloist, chorus and orchestra with a strong understanding of Verdian style.  Perhaps because it is so good, it does also provoke in me, at least, a strong desire to go back and listen, once again, to Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi in their legendary performances as Aida; to Jussi Bjoerling as Radames; or even to see once again the old 1950s Italian movie where the beautiful and angelic voice of Renata Tebaldi emerges from the mouth of a very young and sumptuously gorgeous Sophia Loren. Comparisons in such cases are not odious but illuminating of the grandeur and mastery of the work itself.

So if you have no Aida at all, this is as good a place to start as any; it is a fine reading of the work; and if it stimulates you to listen to Karajan with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, or Solti with the astonishingly perfect Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers, that would be a good thing too.

But don’t dismiss this extremely worthwhile performance just because a few old fogeys are nostalgic for some of the great performances of the past. Be grateful, rather, that they’re all available for our delight and that these contemporary performers have created another very fine interpretation of the work to add to the list of un-missable Aida recordings.


About The Author

Profile photo of Mel Cooper

Canadian-born Mel Cooper came to the UK to study at Oxford and stayed, captivated by the culture and history of the welcoming and tolerant society of Britain. He founded the magazine Opera Now. He was a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting and a member of the team that started Classic FM on which he broadcast shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature.


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