Maria Callas as Aida

Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida left Maria Callas’s stage repertoire in 1953, but it was an important opera for her during the early part of her career.

As a student and young professional in Athens, Callas frequently sang Aida’s arias, "Ritorna vincitor!" and "O patria mia." She offered music from Aida at her La Scala audition in 1947 and first sang in the house (albeit not as an official member of the company) in Aida in 1950. All told, she portrayed Aida some three dozen times and on three continents between 1948 and 1953 and also made a complete recording of the opera for EMI in 1955.

The opera’s final scene, today’s selection for Verdi’s birthday week, comes from a 1953 Covent Garden performance, part of Callas’s second-to-last run of Aida. While Kurt Baum is a coarse Radames, the rest of the company could hardly be bettered, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting and Giulietta Simionato as Amneris. (Incidentally, the sacerdotessa in this Aida run was the young Joan Sutherland.)

The recorded sound is dim and distorted, but Callas’s singing is ecstatically beautiful—dreamy, gentle, and death-besotted in the scene’s opening phrases, in which she makes exquisite use of portamento. To my mind, her performance here equals and, perhaps, surpasses the legendary Ponselle/Martinelli recording of this duet.

(Since it is Verdi’s birthday week, listen also to the version of this scene by Aureliano Pertile, Dusolina Giannini, and Irene Minghini-Cataneo under Carlo Sabajno.)

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi, and hear additional selections with Giulietta Simionato.

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