VERDI: Aida (Caniglia, Gigli) (1946) (Beniamino Gigli/ Ebe Stignani/ Italo Tajo/ Maria Caniglia/ Rome Opera Chorus/ Rome Opera Orchestra/ Tullio Serafin/ Ward Marston) (Naxos Historical: 8.110156-57)
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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,