The studio opera recording is a rare beast these days and its arrival always a cause for celebration. Its rarity also raises the stakes and invites scorn when the casting is dubious. Few things strike greater fear in the heart of an opera lover than the dreaded Andrea Bocelli announcement as part of a recording project. (What’s the point of getting Fleming, Borodina, and D’Arcangelo into the recording studio, putting up with Gergiev’s body odour, only to have the whole project doomed from the start?)  
Warner Classics’ new Aida is cause for joy not only because it is a major new release but because the studio seems to have got things right. The chief attraction here is the casting of the world’s dream couple of Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann as the leads. Add to the mix Antonio Pappano, one of the leading opera conductors of the day, and a fine supporting cast, and one has the ingredients for a valuable addition to the catalogue.

Harteros has one of the world’s most gorgeous voices by any measure. Her big, smooth, glowing soprano has been sending audiences reaching for superlatives for some 15 years. Though most of her success has come in the Mozart and German side of the repertoire, she has been gradually adding the Verdi heroines to her résumé, most recently in a high-profile Forza del Destino from the Bavarian State Opera (also with Kaufmann).

Harteros does not have a classically Italianate sound but it is not a particularly un-Italianate sound either. She has many of the qualities needed to do Verdi’s music justice, from her strong mid-register, soaring top, even tone, command of line, seamless legato, and pleasing phrasing. What she lacks is a strong chest voice (though to her credit, she doesn’t try to oversing to compensate) and the ability to float her high notes. At the end of “O patria mia”, she does a diminuendo on her high A, gradually pulling away the vibrato. The note hangs more than it floats but the effect is still appropriate. She achieves a similar effect in the soft high B-flat in the duet with Radames later in the act.

This is a beautifully and vividly sung Aida. And while there’s much beauty here, she is also attentive to the text and conquers all the dramatic requirements. She is urgent in “Ritorna vincitor”, anxious after challenging Amneris in in the second act, horrified when her father asks her to trick her lover, and firm when she urges said lover to flee. She sings with first-rate musicality and has all the notes. Even her less than penetrating low notes are solidly intoned. The notorious high C in “O patria mia” is neither soft nor loud but is still “dolce” as the score asks.  I had high expectations for the final duet, and she and Kaufmann do not disappoint, singing their farewell to life with touching lyricism.

The most popular tenor of the moment, Kaufmann has been celebrated for many things, among them his versatility. His tone and delivery may not lend itself naturally to French music but damn if his Werther isn’t terrific. For many, his baritone-coloured voice is best suited to the German repertoire where he is somewhat reminiscent of the great Jon Vickers. And he has had great success as Bacchus, Florestan, Lohengrin, Parsifal and Siegmund, among others. But for me, he is perhaps most essential in Verdi.

For much of the last 25 years, the opera world has been short on great Verdi voices. Things have been looking much more promising on the soprano side of late (thank you Sondra, Anna and Liudmyla!) but there has been no consistent Verdi tenor on the international scene since Placido Domingo started to retire his Verdi roles. Kaufmann has the vocal weight to sing Verdi’s great roles but also the musical and technical finesse needed to pull them off with style. Yes, people may complain that he lacks squillo (so did Domingo) but he has the ringing power needed to rise to the heroic demands of Verdi’s medium-to-heavy roles.

Radames has always been one of Verdi’s most difficult roles. It is his heaviest after Otello but also requires much soft singing which is where most tenors fall short. After my first hearing of Kaufmann’s “Celeste Aida”, I realised that, for the first time, the aria had come across as the dreamy evocation that (I assume) Verdi intended. And for once, I was not aware of the difficulty of the aria, so effortless is Kaufmann in this music. The diminuendo endings of the phrases are floated smoothly but when the music requires it, Kaufmann fills the music with vocal amplitude.

He takes the final line in one breath, singing the high B-flat in a lovely mezzo-piano and achieving a perfect “morendo”, as written in the score. Even the great Vickers cheats here and creates the reverse effect. For all his elegance, Jussi Bjoerling is rather blunt in that tricky ending, sneaking in a breath and doing nothing with the dynamic marking. Franco Corelli can pull off a spectacular diminuendo but lacks the elegance of line elsewhere. In meeting all the aria’s demands, Kaufmann puts down an interpretation for the ages.

In between the soft singing required at the beginning and end of the role, Kaufmann sings heroically yet always musically. He maintains long lines and does his most to bring a rather two-dimensional character to life. When summoned by Amneris in the fourth act, Kaufmann sings his first line as if emerging from deep thought, his attention obviously elsewhere. Though others have sung the role with greater vocal glamour (some have more squillo, others more sweetness of tone), this is as complete a role assumption as one could hope, fully responding to the musical and dramatic requirements.

Like many North Americans, I first came across Ekaterina Semenchuk in the Met HD broadcast of Boris Godunov, which made me glad for the inclusion of the Polish Act and wish that Marina were a larger role. Verdi features prominently in her active repertoire (especially in Europe) and here, she deploys her large-ish voice with sensitivity and a full range of dynamics. She is attentive to the text and has the temperamental mojo Amneris requires.

The most interesting part of her voice is the chest voice, which is alluring in tone and slightly reminiscent of Fiorenza Cossotto, one of the legendary exponents of the role. The voice grows less interesting as it ascends, losing colour on top. She has the high notes and holds them adequately without exactly thriving up there. Throughout, she sings with musical polish and dramatic commitment. But her work is not as distinctive as the other participants in the opera’s love triangle.

I must admit to being taken aback by the casting of Ludovic Tezier as Amonasro. There’s no doubt that he is one of the finest baritones singing today, with a handsome tone and an assured musical elegance. But while Tezier has been gradually making his mark in the big 19th century Italian roles, Amonasro is about as heavy as Verdi gets. With its low tessitura and the character’s aggressive, warrior persona, it is sometimes assigned to bass-baritones.

Once I put away my initial hesitation, I looked forward to hearing an elegantly sung Amonasro instead of a sneered or bellowed rendition. After all, Tezier has an appropriately dark tone which might allow him to put the role across successfully in studio conditions. My initial trepidation turned into a hope for a revelation of sorts but, unfortunately, that was not to be. Tezier is musical as usual but no more elegant than any other Amonasro in the lyrical passages such as the “Ma tu, Re” chorus or the final section of the third-act duet with Aida. And in the explosive mid-section of that duet, Tezier is less than explosive, overwhelmed by the orchestra and sounding a touch wobbly.

I was afraid that Erwin Schrott might be similarly overparted as Ramfis but was pleasantly surprised. To these ears, Schrott’s voice has grown since his Figaro days and satisfyingly fills out the grave and serious music Verdi gives him. No, he hasn’t transformed overnight into Nicolai Ghiaurov but his dark-coloured instrument has the gravitas and his singing the sweep necessary to pull off a satisfying Ramfis. I don’t know how he would fare in the role in the theatre but this studio effort is a success.

The King is given a routine interpretation by Marco Spotti, sounding surprisingly Slavic in tone. The High Priestess is interestingly cast by not just another high, silvery soprano. The young Eleonora Buratto has the beauty of tone and ease on top to sing the Sacerdotessa but there’s a depth to the voice that suggests that she might be heading for heavier assignments.

Pappano leads a dramatically alert and musically detailed account of the score. I wished for more old-school Italian blood and fire from the otherwise fine Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. In the orchestral tuttis, the brass are so soft-grained at times to make one wish for a touch of Solti’s vulgar brass. The Chorus of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, however, does not disappoint in the old-school blood and fire department. And they sing with a splendidly uniform and penetrating sound, with the sopranos soaring particularly well. Kudos to Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.

So, how does this recording stack up in the catalogue? Those wanting old-school Italianata might not be interested. But those wanting a musicianly account of the opera that does not sacrifice dramatic alertness can find much to like from all the participants here. Mainly, this recording will be remembered—if it is remembered—for its two glamorous leads. Harteros and Kaufmann give thoughtful, engaging interpretations with vocal thrills and beauty.