How Toscanini Conducts Aida

Toscanini, the perfect conductor for Aida.(Photo: Aime Dupont Studio)
Toscanini, the perfect conductor for Aida.(Photo: Aime Dupont Studio)

Conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was twenty years old when he played in the cello section of the Orchestra of La Scala Milan at the world premiere of Verdi‘s Otello.

Two year later, when on tour in Sao Paolo Brazil, the young cellist took over from a suddenly indisposed conductor (the food? the water?) and led an opera for the first time. It was Aida, then a robust sixteen-year-old opera that had been a worldwide sensation since its premiere in Cairo in 1871.

How do you conduct Aida?

A Mozart symphony is exquisitely proportioned. Bizet’s Carmen performs itself. But Aida?

The perfect conductor of this work will balance the massive choral scenes with the drama of Aida, the slave girl who is an Ethiopian princess, in love with the Egyptian Captain Radames, who loves her back, and the Egyptian princess Amneris who loves Radames and suspects Aida.

Many conductors confuse speed with grandeur. Toscanini gives the music its weight while establishing a thrilling momentum, a sense of inevitability to the story. I am so pleased to have rediscovered his 1949 telecast on YouTube!

The audio portion of this performance has been available for sixty years, and the video for twenty. But I never paid enough attention until now.

The date is March 26, 1949. Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony in Studio 8-H, Rockefeller Center, New York.  The cast is Herva Nelli (Aida) Eva Gustavsson (Amneris) Richard Tucker (Radames) Giuseppe Valdegno (Amonasro) and Norman Scott (Ramfis). Tucker had a sensational career. Valdegno and Scott did very well. Gustavsson was a question mark. See for yourself:

A Bit About Herva Nelli

About Herva Nelli (1909-1994), our Aida. She starred in Toscanini’s broadcasts of Aida, Otello, Falstaff and Un ballo in maschera.

She had a good career at the Metropolitan and in Europe and was regarded as a perfectly acceptable soprano, nothing special. Zinka Milanov owned these big Italian operas at the time, and both Callas and Tebaldi were up and coming and known to Toscanini.

His choice of Nelli led to rumors about a private association with her, to the soprano’s detriment.

After watching and listening to her here, I approach her career with great admiration. The voice is fine. The commitment and the intensity of her performance is fantastic.

Later in her life she opened a restaurant and eventually worked as a chef for Jean Kennedy Smith. I hope that was her choice and that she was happy. Her artistic legacy as seen here is superb. Brava!