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One for the vault

Of all of Verdi’s operas. Aida is the one I find least interesting dramatically. Compared to Don Carlos, Macbeth, yes, even Il Trovatore, Aida has a very old-fashioned libretto which could almost be a scenario for an 18th-century Metastasian opera seria; indeed Charles Osborn in his Complete Operas of Verdi maintains that a libretto called Nitteti by Metastasio and set to music by at least thirteen different composers was the source of the entire story of Aida.

The great Verdian scholar Julian Budden, however, dismissed this idea, pointing out that the plot is merely a love triangle, subject of countless operas, set against an exotic background of a culture which had captured the imagination of many due to the spoils of archaeological excavations in Egypt on display in numerous museums.)  

The Khedive of Egypt, anxious to present the world premiere of a major work by a leading composer in his new opera house, which had opened in 1869 with Verdi’s Rigoletto,approached Verdi who was unenthusiastic at first. When the management told him “You are our first choice, but if you turn us down, we are going to ask Gounod and then Wagner”, Verdi showed more interest; contracts were signed in 1870 and the opera opened to great acclaim in 1871. Verdi did not attend the premiere or supervise the rehearsals and considered the Italian premiere at La Scala in 1872, in which he was heavily involved in the preparations at every stage, the opera’s real debut.

This DVD is part of the “Tutto Verdi” series, an admirable project to release all of the composer’s operas for his bicentenary this year. The performance comes from the Teatro Regio di Parma, which is associated with one of my favourite Verdi anecdotes.

In 1872, Verdi received a letter of complaint from a man who had gone to see Aida at the theatre in Parma, twice, as the first time he had not enjoyed it at all but felt he should try again. He still came to the conclusion, though, that the success of the opera was due merely to its spectacular scenery and could not stop thinking of all the money he had wasted on two tickets, two train fares and two dinners so sent Verdi a bill for these expenses.

Verdi wrote to his publisher RIcordi and told him to reimburse this music lover, but to deduct the cost of the dinners as “he could have eaten at home” and have the man send him a receipt and a written promise never to attend one of Verdi’s opera again as he could not afford to keep issuing refunds. The gentleman complied, received his refund, but was mortified when Verdi sent all this correspondence to the press, resulting in national ridicule.

What Aida lacks in dramatic originality is made up for, of course, by its magnificent and beautiful music and has long been one of my favourite operas. This performance from Parma in 2012 does not get off to a good start with scrappy playing by the strings in the exquisite writing for high violins in the prelude. The curtain rises on a rather handsome set of a colonnade on two levels, steps, and sliding panels covered in gold with hieroglyphics and bas-reliefs. Costumes are a mix of ancient Egyptian and Hollywood “Biblical”. A lot of the decoration and lighting is blue, and blue is even used as a basis for the Egyptian characters’ make-up, with most unfortunate effect on the poor Amneris who has a ghastly bluegreen tinge to her face all the way through.

Musically the performance is undistinguished, conductor Antonio Fogliani plodding his way dully through the score. Scene two of Act One, the ceremony of the consecration of the sword and Radames’ installation as commander of the army in the temple of Vulcan, a scene unique in Italian opera in its evocation of ritual and its blend of dance, singing and drama, does not make much of an impression with unimaginative and silly choreography (as is the rest of the dancing in the opera ).

Susanna Branchini as the heroine is the only one in the cast to make anything of the text she is singing. A very handsome woman with striking stage presence, she lacks the ability to sing sweetly and softly as the role requires at times, but has the power for the more dramatic passages and her performance is a pleasure to see and hear.

There is an adequate Amonasro from baritone Alberto Gazale—and now I have run out of nice things to say about the performers. Two wobbly basses, Carlo Malinverno as the King in a faux-bejewelled headdress that seems a size too big for him and wobbles along with his voice, and George Anguladze as the high priest Ramfis, have inaudible low notes and strained high ones.

Tenor Walter Fraccaro as the object of both the ladies’ passion sings all the way through in loud, unvaried tone, utterly devoid of colour or interest. His “acting” consists of stretching his arms out wide.

The disaster, though, is Mariana Pentcheva as Amneris, the most interesting character in the opera and of course one of the great Verdi dramatic mezzo roles. Sprawling languorously on a couch being fanned by slaves and calling voluptuously for her love to come to her at the beginning of Act Two, she looks risible and reveals a very worn voice, barely in tune. The great Judgement Scene of Act Four goes for nothing and she receives polite, tepid applause (which I suspect may have been edited anyway).

The director, Joseph Franconi Lee, appears to have done little beyond having extras march across the stage every now and then and arrange ludicrous poses for the principals at the ends of scenes. The camera pans across the chorus’ faces during the dreary Triumph Scene and reveals several of them mechanically singing their music, looking bored to death.

With so many great recordings and DVDs of Aida available, there is not much reason to choose this one. Avoid.

32 comments

  • soubrettino says:

    Pedantic questions: Why is it so hard to get Aida right (as in the opera as a whole, not just the role Aida)?

    • steveac10 says:

      I think most productions aim in the wrong direction. Bombast and spectacle are provided for when it’s subtlety and refinement that are required. Minus the two giant choral scenes the opera is really very intimate and introspective. Even the spectacle heavy consecration scene has an impressionistic feel that is best served by lightness of touch.

  • Camille says:

    Hey, grimmie! I share your same problem with Aïda! I’m so glad someone else feels similarly. So many people love it but for me it is so hard to swallow. It’s Meyerbeer in excelsis!

    My Italian friend said to me, years ago—”Camille, you’re not Italian, so don’t bother yourself about it as you are never going to understand, ’cause for us Italians it’s like CRACK!

    Pacem

  • Camille says:

    And speaking of Egypt—has everyone heard the news about the big mitary coup there today? Perhaps better times will come to this ancient land? Hopong the best for the land of Aïda.

    • manou says:

      Well of course Aïda was first performed in Egypt for the opening of the Opera House (and probably not for the inauguration of the Suez Canal).

      Interestingly, the Triumphal March became the national anthem of Egypt until King Farouk was deposed.

      (I had typed Kink Farouk, which was a nice Freudian typo).

      • grimoaldo says:

        “Contrary to popular belief, the opera (Aida) was not written to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, nor that of the Khedivial Opera House (which opened with Verdi’s Rigoletto) in the same year. (Verdi had been asked to compose an ode for the opening of the Canal, but declined on the grounds that he did not write “occasional pieces”.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aida

        The DVD does not include the first night curtain calls, which you can see here, with the audience making its feelings quite clear:

    • Camille says:

      That’s a MILITARY coup, for heaven sakes. About time, too.

  • Batty Masetto says:

    Grimmy and Camille, here’s another perceptive musical person who was not quite persuaded by Aida: Thomas Mann’s son Michael, a teacher of mine -- not only a Germanist but a former professional violist (I think it was in the Pittsburgh Symphony). A brilliant mind, though troubled like everyone in that ill-starred family. We talked once about Aida, and he said he felt that it and Lohengrin both suffered from the same problem -- that the composer was in a sense running on auto pilot: almost unlimited technique without quite having their heart and soul in the project.

    • Camille says:

      Aha. That is quite interesting to hear, Batty, and thank you for relating it.

      It was always my gut reaction that Verdi was made “an offer he couldn’t refuse”, or a king’s ransom, and that is the reason the world has Aïda, As he at first resisted the offers pitched his way by the Khedive. Isn’t it the case that the money is in large part the reason not only for the Casa di Riposo in Milano but also why it is running in sempiternum?

      Anyway, the music is magnificent, even if the livret doesn’t do it for me.

      Batty, there was a film based upon the life of Thomas Mann and his family which I saw—on PBS, and where and when I just cannot remember—but have you seen it, by chance? Very interesting.

  • CruzSF says:

    If you don’t want to see this poorly-reviewed Aida at home, you can see La Scala’s Aida in the cinemas this summer. Emerging Pictures will be showing it (starring Violeta Urmana and Roberta Alagna) as part of their Very Verdi series. (The other operas are Don Carlo and La Traviata.) Details, including which US cinemas will showing the series, can be found here:
    http://www.emergingpictures.com/series/very-verdi/

    These productions might be just as bad as the one reviewed above, or they might actually be good. But at least they will be different from what most of us have already seen.

  • aulus agerius says:

    I saw Alberto Gazale in Dallas as Macbeth and I thought he was a real Verdi baritone: lots of effortless rolling tone with high notes and tolerable intonation. Not much of that around imo. Tatiana Serjan was the Lady and I though she was very good too.

  • arepo says:

    How can one SIT through the entire opera with sounds of abomination issuing from singers’(?) lips.
    It assaults the senses.
    Why didn’t you just walk?

    • Camille says:

      You sound like you are speaking of my experience with the last Macbeth cast at the Met. In fact, I DID walk. Ran, actually. The horror still lives on in my memory, though.

  • Patrick Mack says:

    The Scala Aida in the movie theaters is, I think, from all the way back in 2008 and is Zeffirelli horrific. So Vegas you’re waiting for the cocktail waitress to walk by. Violetta Urmana is so tall no one will stand next to her. Subsequently in the Nile Scene duet with Daddy she’s forced to throw HERSELF to the ground. Hilarity ensues. One lovely bit of staging at the end of the judgement scene has the guards HURLING Robert Alagna through the open tomb in the floor. THAT was fabulous.

    In my humble opinion the very best Aida is also a Zeffirelli but the one from Busetto in 2000 with a barely legal cast and in a tiny, tiny theater. No ballet music. The first Aida I’ve ever seen where the title character is actually represented like she’s African and there’s a super sexy moment in the Nile Scene with the tenor I won’t spoil. Scott Piper is a beautiful lyric Radames and Kate Aldrich starts fire with two sticks and her score.

    Bergonzi coached all the young singers and here’s a clip. It’s Zeffirelli’s Verona production scaled down to matchbox size.

    It’s not easy to find but really, really worth it.

  • armerjacquino says:

    I’m going to mount a big old defence for the taut, intense dramatic brilliance of AIDA’s libretto.

    Drama, they tell you as a student, is all about conflict. And what’s so wonderfully gripping about AIDA is that all three main characters are in a state of internal conflict pretty much throughout. I can’t think of another opera where, at every moment big or small, the main characters are being pulled so hard in two different directions.

    ‘Celeste Aida’ is just about the only moment in the whole work without subtext. ‘I love her and I want to take her home’. But even that contains irony: he’s also just prayed to be the man who destroys her home. From the moment Amneris and Aida enter, the three characters NEVER have a simple objective; they ALWAYS have some kind of decision to make, or some kind of internal dilemma, or some kind of sub-objective. Ritorna Vincitor. Amneris making nice with Aida to extract information. Aida trying to hide how she really feels. The mixed emotions of the Triumphal scene.

    And then, in Act 3, it becomes almost ENTIRELY an opera about decisions, and internal duality. That’s the clear driving force of the Aida duets, with father and lover, in Act 3; first hers and then his. It’s also the clear driving force of Amneris’ duet with Radames, a scene which always reminds me of the end of THE CRUCIBLE: if one person bends, just a little bit, the tragedy could be avoided, but you watch it knowing that neither will.

    Just a personal opinion of course, and one which may not be backed up by some of the more Route One productions of AIDA that make it to the stage, but I’m baffled to see such a psychologically fascinating opera dismissed by so many as dramatically dull.

    And how parterre’s changed! A couple of years ago I remember a reviewer was given both barrels for daring to suggest ATILLA isn’t a work of genius, and now we’re queuing up to slag off AIDA? De gustibus…

    • luvtennis says:

      AJ:

      Can’t respond now, but I will take you one further -- Verdi’s greatest work. Most technically perfect and most profound.

    • kashania says:

      I agree with you AJ. Aida makes for fine drama. Yes, it’s difficult to cast but I think too many people dismiss the work because somehow, the grandeur of the Triumphal Scene is supposed to cheapen the work. I think that’s a very superficial criticism.

      • MontyNostry says:

        … and, of course, what really makes the Triumphal Scene is that the personal dramas are played out against the formal spectacle. Those two big ensembles surely show Verdi at his best, especially when the solo voices soar up over the big march tune in the finale. Last time I saw it I had a huge lump in my throat there!

        • kashania says:

          Oh yeah, when the Big Tune comes in at the end, it’s devastating, especially when you have a properly emoting diva.

          This broadcast was what turned me into a confirmed opera lover and I always remember Millo’s face at the end. Good video editing too.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I meant when the voices soar over the ‘Gloria all’Egitto’ tune rather than the trumpety march tune -- sorry, badly explained!

          • kashania says:

            Well that too of course. My favourite part is the ‘ma tu re’ chorus. I prefer this scene to the auto da fe in DON CARLO.

          • MontyNostry says:

            You’re right -- the auto-da-fé in Don C is not in the same class as the Triumphal Scene, even though I find it less anti-climactic then I used to. In particular the chorus’s tune is really too banal and jolly for what’s going on. And though the Voce dal Cielo’s tune is rather wonderful and touching, its intervention always makes me think of the end of the Veterinarian’s Hospital sketches in the Muppets. (See 0’52″)

    • MontyNostry says:

      AJ -- that’s a brilliant analysis.
      I am a total sucker for Aida anyway. It was my coup de foudre with opera, Act III is one of the greatest operatic sequences for me (especially the Aida-Amonasro duet) and, if done properly, the final scene ends up being very moving after everything that’s gone before.
      When Latonia Moore sang Aida in London a couple of years ago, one of the most impressive aspects of her performance was that she managed to suggest the ambiguities in Aida in Act III. She made sexy, floaty noises to Radames, but you could sense the dramatic tension as opposed to just the sensual beauty. Not quite sure how she did it, but it was very impressive and brilliantly effective. She’s not just a pretty voice!

  • grimoaldo says:

    I was not intending to “slag off” Aida. I love every moment of it from start to finish and it is very dramatic, but to me, the drama is all in Verdi’s fabulous music.
    The libretto, to me, is very conventional, more so than any other Verdi opera, with its cast only of “high status” characters, a king and princess in disguise, the focus on a love triangle and the clash between love and duty.
    Maybe because almost all other Verdi operas are based on plays by such authors as Shakespeare, Schiller, Victor Hugo, Byron, etc, as well as authors little known to Anglophone audiences as Antonio García Gutiérrez and the Duke of Rivas, that give the texts a richness that the libretto of Aida lacks. Verdi was always wanting novel situations and new subject matter for his libretti, but in Aida, the text is very similar to operas that had been produced for more than a hundred and fifty years already.

    • armerjacquino says:

      So would you argue that the libretti of ‘Ernani’ and ‘Il Corsaro’ have ‘a richness that the libretto of Aida lacks’ because they’re based on Hugo and Byron respectively?

      • grimoaldo says:

        Yes, for me they do, the wild Romanticism of the subjects, which I know seem mere silliness to many, actually appeal to me.
        Those were very influential works in their day, and now survive almost entirely as Verdian operas, and that is something that I, personally, cherish. I don’t really expect others to agree with me, just my opinion.