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, Milan, Italy

It seems obvious to me that someone at Pristine Audio must really love Verdi’s Aïda because throughout 2022 they released no less than three historic versions of it. They even began 2023 with yet another, by issuing a new transfer of Arturo Toscanini’s classic recording of Verdi’s Death on the Nile opera.  This review concerns the last of the 2022 releases, the celebrated 1928 HMV recording from La Scala conducted by Carlos Sabajno. It was originally issued on a hernia-inducing set of 17 shellac 78 Rpm discs. In the days before tape recordings enabled longer musical takes, it must have been enormously frustrating for all concerned to maintain any sort of musical flow or dramatic tension with the constant starting and stopping necessitated by the time restrictions of the discs. With that in mind, the tension that comes across in this performance is nothing short of a miracle.  In the 95 years since this recording was released none of the modern versions have quite equalled it for excitement and grandeur despite their improvements in sound quality. That is because, for once on records, the singer’s performances actually manage to dwarf the spectacular elements inherent in this opera. When it comes to strengths of the cast even Toscanini’s wonderful recording takes a back seat to this one.

Among the chief vocal attributes found on this recording are the supreme Radamès of Aureliano Pertile.  His is a voice of stentorian ringing tone, not unlike Franco Corelli’s. What impresses here is his mastery in handling recitative sections, such as in the bars that come before “Celeste Aïda”, or his sense of utter disbelief at “Sogno…deliro e questo…” in the Nile scene. He colours his vowels beautifully during the tomb scene, and he consistently employs a wide dynamic range to communicate emotions as if every single phrase mattered. For all of the varied attractions of Bergonzi, Domingo, or Corelli in more recent recordings, no-one quite reaches this level of achievement.

The other chief attraction of this recording is the near sublime portrayal of Amneris by Irene Minghini-Cattaneo. While modern listeners may need time to adjust to the Mediterranean style of tonal oscillation that was common among singers of the Italian school during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, there is no doubt that she was a mezzo of major star quality. Her dappled glittering tone cuts through every phrase as if it was softened butter. She commences her calls of “Ah vieni, amor mio” with the softest tones imaginable before arching out into the fullness of the main phrase, yet during the judgement scene the ferocity of her condemnation of the priests is truly spine-chilling.

Dusolina Giannini was a well-known soprano during the 1930s and 40s. Her Aïda reveals a soprano who sounds slightly more lyric than dramatic, unlike her competitor, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi.  Arangi-Lombardi sang Aïda on the rival Columbia recording of the opera, which was issued the same year as this one, also with the La Scala forces.  Giannini’s tonal production is utterly even and disciplined throughout her range, although her highest notes have a little less colour in them than did Arangi-Lombardi.  As a singer she emotes less than Maria Callas, or even Leontyne Price, but she does do some nice things with phrasing, such as during the agitated sections of “Ritorna vincitor”. In her repeated cries of “Numi pieta” she actually manages to convey the heroine’s abject misery by employment of sound and vocal colour, perhaps not on the level of Callas, but she is not far behind her.

Giovanni Inghilleri is a commanding Amonasro; his incisive baritone has a nobility of tone that works extremely well to convey the tattered splendour of the fallen Ethiopian King. Each time I encounter this fascinating singer I am left wishing to hear more of him. On this recording he is captured at the zenith of his vocal opulence. It is a pity that Amonasro doesn’t get more stage time when singer of this calibre is around.

The two basses, Luigi Manfrini as Ramfis and Guglielmo Masini as the King of Egypt, both have nicely contrasted voices so that one can’t possibly be confused as to which voice is the one singing. Manfrini in particular possesses that vibrant glint and flickering tone, similar to Minghini-Cattaneo, making him sound pungent and threatening when compared to Masini’s more rounded tones, which convey a more sympathetic-sounding King than is often the case.

Carlo Sabajno leads with some fairly brisk tempi that are no doubt necessitated by the length limitations of recording on old 78 rpm discs. Yet he is no cattle driver because despite the speeds he leads a very exciting and often sensitive reading of Verdi’s score. Listen to the various ballets of Act two where he gives the music a greater sense of being part of the entire fabric of the opera rather than just being tossed off as a divertissement. The quality of a remarkably successful electrical recording of its day assists Sabajno to get his expressive points across. It is quite surprising to discover the clarity of the orchestra in a recording that is almost one hundred years old. The numerous offstage choruses register with appropriate distancing; it is only in the judgement scene that Ramfis and the priests sound too closely placed to the microphone.  In a recording of this age the string tone lacks sweetness but even the plucked basses and various other quiet effects from the percussion section emerge with clarity. Mark Obert- Thorn has remastered the old discs very skilfully. I do note that this is the first issue from Pristine on which I have not seen their XR process clearly identified on the front cover, which must indicate that it wasn’t used on this particular transfer. Let that not be a deterrent however; Pristine has done us a splendid favour by bringing out this old recording to savour again. It remains among the finest of Aïdas ever committed to disc, and while any music lover probably already has one or more of the good stereo recordings of this opera, they would also do well to give this one a listen to hear what truly great vocal acting was all about.

Mike Parr

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Paul Steinson

Availability: Pristine Classical