Verdi’s first act aria from his Egyptian opera, ‘Celeste Aida’, is the last Italian tenor aria in the style so often used by the master and his predecessors – recitative followed by a formal aria. Verdi himself abandoned the format in his last two operas, Otello and Falstaff, which followed Aida. Puccini’s tenor arias are much freer in their construction as are those by his contemporaries; they give up a degree of nobility in exchange for more integration into the story.
Radames is a tenor role that requires a solid spinto voice, but his famous romance also requires vocal delicacy and restraint especially at its closing lines. The last page of the vocal score is below – note how many Ps Verdi tosses at the singer and then marks the final high B flat morendo (slowly dying away). This is beyond the capacity of even the most accomplished tenors.
Here are 10 versions of the aria presented more or less in chronological order. At the bottom of this piece are the words followed by an English translation.
Aida was central to Enrico Caruso’s career. He sang the opera 91 times at the Met. His timbre was perfect for the role. He throws ‘morendo’ in the trash can and belts out the final B flat. Caruso Celeste Aida
Max Lorenz was the preeminent Wagner tenor (after Melchior) of the first half of the last century. He sings the aria in German. His steely sound is not as round as Caruso’s and the forte B flat is forced. Lorenz Celeste Aida
Beniamino Gigli was a great lyric tenor. He did not have the ideal voice for Radames. He sang the role twice in his last season at the Met (1938-89). The second of these was a broadcast with Zinka Milanov in the title role. Gigli’s voice is pushed to its limit and beyond in this recording. Gigli Celeste Aida
The great Danish tenor Helge Rosvaenge also sings the aria in German. He comes very close to singing the music the way Verdi intended. An outstanding performance. Rosvaenge Celeste Aida
Galliano Masini was one of Italy’s most prominent tenors in the 1930s. He sang only 9 times (two as Radames) at the Met during the 1938-39 season. Doubtless, World War II precluded further appearances with the New York company. His is another full blast interpretation. Masini Celeste Aida
Richard Tucker didn’t get around to Radames until he was past 50, at least in a staged production. He has all the resonance and trumpet power needed for the role, but he makes no attempt to sing the last phrase as written. Tucker Celeste Aida
Mario Lanza is 20th century opera’s saddest story. His stage career was consumed by the movies. The cause of his premature death is still a mystery. His interpretation of the aria is well done, but the recording suggests that his voice might have been a tad light for Radames. Lanza Celeste Aida
Franco Corelli had enough voice for Radames and his whole army. He typically roared out the final high note, but on this recording he sings the note forte and then takes a diminuendo on the B flat – a stunning effect. Some have attributed this feat to the recording engineer, but I think this an unfair accusation. Corelli was capable of such an effect when the spirit so moved. It just didn’t nudge him in the direction of soft very often. Corelli Celeste Aida
Placido Domingo had the ideal voice for Radames – no notes above B flat, which was the sweet spot for his tenor. He sang the role 14 times at the Met. I heard him in the performance of September 28, 1989 when the scenery caught fire in the 4th act. The show continued as a stagehand with a fire extinguisher crept onstage and put out the blaze. I remember little else of that evening. Domingo’s solution to the aria’s difficult ending is to use the Toscanini conclusion. The maestro apparently had Verdi’s blessing to allow the tenor to sing the climactic B flat forte and then to drop down an octave and end the aria softly. Domingo Celeste Aida
Jonas Kaufmann is the only tenor presented here who is still active (Domingo is no longer a tenor). He’s also the only one who observes all of Verdi’s dynamic markings. A bravura performance. A spinto with soul. Kaufmann Celeste Aida
Se quel guerrier
Io fossi! se il mio sogno
S’avverasse!… Un esercito di prodi
Da me guidato… e la vittoria… e il plauso
Di Menfi tutta! E a te, mia dolce Aida,
Tornar di lauri cinto…
Dirti: per te ho pugnato, per to ho vinto!
Celeste Aida, forma divina.
Mistico serto di luce e fior,
Del mio pensiero tu sei regina,
Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.
Il tuo bel cielo vorrei redarti,
Le dolci brezze del patrio suol;
Un regal serta sul crin posarti,
Ergerti un trono vicino al sol.
If only I were that warrior!
If only my dream might come true!
An army of brave men with me as their leader
And victory and the applause of all Memphis!
And to you, my sweet Aida,
To return crowned with laurels,
To tell you: for you, I have fought,
For you, I have conquered!
Heavenly Aida, divine form,
Mystical garland of light and flowers,
You are queen of my thoughts,
You are the splendor of my life.
I want to give you back your beautiful sky,
The sweet breezes of your native land,
To place a royal garland on your hair,
To raise you a throne next to the sun.