The two telecasts represented on this DVD were historical moments in the histories of music and mass media. Verdi
had been central to Arturo Toscanini's repertory across the first four decades of his career -- it was the work with which he made his debut at the podium (and it may well have been the first opera he ever saw, at age four); it was the last work he conducted (in the form of corrected passages for a pending LP release) prior to his retirement, and it was the opera that he conducted more than any other in his repertory except for the same composer's Falstaff
. Although at the time of the two broadcasts represented here, he had not conducted the piece in 20 years, he was as much an authority on the performance of the work as anyone since Verdi himself, and this seemed to be recognized implicitly by the structure of these broadcasts. Toscanini's programs were normally around an hour in length, but even splitting the opera in half to present it across two separate weeks, one was dealing with 150 minutes of precious network primetime (a word that didn't even exist in 1949), and still NBC permitted it for this concert performance of Aida
. As to the release as it's handed down to us, the source materials themselves look generally stunning, apart from a few widely dispersed and momentary visual flaws in the kinescope, and the sound is even better. This DVD is a wow -- that's the only way to put it. It wasn't an ideal cast, or a perfectly sung group of performances on display, but the whole production is beautifully, perfectly shaped, so much so that if one only concentrated on the audio portion of the broadcast, it would be easy to forget that this was a concert rendition rather than a full-blown dramatic production. Toscanini himself -- possibly aware that more people were seeing this live performance (albeit as a concert piece) of Aida
than had seen the work performed in the previous 60-some years of its existence -- looks more engaged and intense than he does in any of the other NBC telecasts, and the overall presentation is a wonder. The sound is impeccable, the balances between the orchestra and the singers perfect, and the fidelity far better than it has a right to be for 1949, and the image is bright and sharp and downright crisp in spots. By this time, the director and the camera crew knew how to deal with Toscanini's telecasts from Studio 8-H, and the camera angles are well chosen and the flow of the images is beautiful, graceful, and musically and dramatically sound. The disc is generously chapter-encoded and there's also some fairly extensive annotation to go along with the viewing -- the only pity is that there aren't concert broadcasts of Puccini
's La Boheme
to go along with this release, because this is the kind of presentation that could "sell" the uninitiated on opera, and probably did just that in 1949.