Notes and Editorial Reviews
Anna Tomowa-Sintow (
); Plácido Domingo (
); Brigitte Fassbaender (
); Siegmund Nimsgern (
); Robert Lloyd (
); Nikolaus Hillebrand (
); Marianne Seibel (
); Riccardo Muti, cond; Bavarian St Op O & Ch
ORFEO 538022 (143:20) Live: Munich 3/22/1979
Casting an Eastern European soprano as Aida is a time-honored tradition going back at least to Emmy Destinn, but also including Ljuba Welitsch, Zinka Milanov, and Eva Marton, among others. Yet when the soprano has not only the cool timbre of an Eastern voice, but also the characteristic native vibrato that is often prominent in such singers, some listeners and critics back off from unstinted praise. Anna Tomowa-Sintow was one such singer, and it was to her credit that she carved out a major career, in a variety of roles from Mozart to Verdi, at a time when Western antipathy toward such voices was possibly at its height.
She did this by virtue of an exceptionally beautiful high range that at its best displayed a silvery timbre, and acting skills far above the norm for her time. A passionate advocate of Maria Callas, Tomowa-Sintow followed in her footsteps as a singing actress, bringing an almost overwhelming emotional commitment to every role she essayed. Aida was one of them, and this 1979 document of a live Munich performance is perhaps her very best.
One of the risks of recording a live performance is that you can never predict when the cast really clicks or is in good voice, but when you have one of those nights when everyone is in the zone, so to speak, sparks are struck and a real smoldering flame ensues. This was one of those evenings, and as is often the case when these things happen, one singer was the catalyst who forced all the others to elevate their game face. This evening, it was mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender, the Amneris. Plácido Domingo struggles a little with “Celeste Aida,” his voice breaking off the ends of phrases with small gulps into the middle of the aria, but when Fassbaender enters immediately afterward one can sense that she is smoking-hot. The voice is placed deep in the chest, an unusual
for Fassbaender, and she is completely in character as she sings, not to Domingo, but to Radames. Fassbaender
Amneris at that moment, yet the burnished glow and ring of her voice makes the announcement to her colleagues: “You’d better bring your A Game onstage if you sing with me tonight, or I’ll blow you off it.”
Domingo gets the message and makes adjustments. Tomowa-Sintow, probably hearing what was going on, is already focused when she begins singing Aida. Everything falls into place; before the first act is over, you do not get the impression that you’re listening to Singer X, Y, or Z, but to the characters in the opera. This is not merely a well-sung
it is a well-acted
Riccardo Muti, whose tempos in “Alta cagion v’aduna,” the Triumphal March and ballet, and finale of act II are amazingly fast—even faster than Toscanini—nonetheless conducts a fine performance that is far more alive than his studio recording of the opera. More interestingly, he seems to catch the infection of his cast, as by the end of act I his emotional involvement is nearly as complete as theirs. Yet since all those involved, from top to bottom, are outstanding musicians as well as great stage performers, they never cross the line into sloppy note values or self-indulgence. Everything is clean as a whistle, musically speaking; neither Domingo’s high B? at the end of “Celeste Aida” nor Tomowa-Sintow’s high C in “O patria mia” is held beyond its written duration, nor is any other high note for that matter, but because everyone is hot this night, it all jells into the greatest performance of
I’ve ever heard.
In 1974, I heard an equally fabulous performance of
—in, of all places, Newark, New Jersey—with a cast of Mary Costa, Pier Mirando-Ferraro, and Giuseppe Taddei, conducted by Alfredo Silipigni—that to the best of my knowledge was not recorded. It’s gone except for the memory of those who saw it. So, too, is the legendary 1955 Chicago
where mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani struck sparks onstage similar to Fassbaender here, galvanizing Maria Callas, Jussi Björling, and Ettore Bastianini into giving the greatest performances in that opera of their lives. It, too, has not survived on a recording (though one
made, it was later destroyed). But this
exists to give vivid testimony to one of the most fabled nights in the history of that work. When this recording came my way, it didn’t take long for me to realize that, and so it replaced the venerable Milanov-Barbieri-Björling-Warren recording on my shelf. If you are sensitive to outstanding singing-acting, and if you enjoy
you owe it to yourself to get this recording. It just may change your perception of the opera forever.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley