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Glyph you hadn’t, but you did

If you like opera to look like a museum, the Arena di Verona’s latest video of Aida should jump to the top of your wish list. The sets and costumes, claim the liner notes, are reconstructed from the 1913 production that Tullio Serafin conducted. It’s the kind of production that operates under the assumption that ancient Egyptians carved huge hieroglyphs onto every column they ever built, and priests are even wear hieroglyphics on their robes.  

The vast Verona amphitheater with its stone background adds to production’s the faux-ancient feel. Stage director Gianfranco de Bosio is content to let the sets speak for themselves. Blocking and directions are rudimentary.  The second scene of Act Two descends into a Vegas-like display. Still, it’s charming, if you like that sort of thing.

With that being said, Aida lives and dies by its singers, and the video really has a utility Aida cast. No one is really embarrassing, but no one stands out either. One night in La Casa della Cieca I compared Matthew Polenzani’s voice to a Honda Civic. Well, this Aida cast would be like a Chevy pickup truck.

Hui He in the title role has a pleasing enough timbre — it’s a nice basic sound. She also has decent musicality. However, her voice is not always under control — she can fly off pitch at the most distracting times and her upper register is rather harsh. The high C in “O patria mia” is taken forte. Dramatically she’s pretty stolid. She manages a pretty exciting “Ritorna vincitor,” but her confrontations with her father and Amneris go for nothing.

Marco Berti is the definition of an Italian utility tenor. In the old days he might have been called “provincial.” His big voice boasts enough ping and squillo to satisfy the Italian opera die-hards. He knows two dynamics, loud and louder. Upper register kind of strangulated, but hey, he belts out everything forte. He’s a decidedly unromantic hero — he looks angry most of the time. “O terra addio” is marred by some off-pitch crooning. And, just saying, a white muumuu does his figure no favors.

Amnerises often steal the show. Andrea Ulberich’s mezzo soprano is a counterpart to Berti’s tenor — loud and abrasive, and without a hint of sexiness in either appearance or voice. She does manage the Judgement Scene pretty well—it’s not subtle, but it’s loud. Even the usually rich-voiced Ambroglio Maestri (Amonasro) gets into the park and bark act. Daniel Oren’s conducting does the singers no favors — he seems to think Aida should be conducted like a Fascist marching band, which robs the performance of any last hint of intimacy and sensitivity.

Kind of hard to tell whether the audiences at Verona really feel productions like these are high art. Sometimes I think they’re the equivalent of the Radio City Rockettes—a beloved annual tradition, its very ossified style part of its appeal. Something fun for both the locals and tourists. The spectacle I imagine has a lot more appeal in person than on video, where all you see are the hideous wigs, the oversize false eyelashes, the campy sets. Aida has a lot of spectacle, but also a lot of great music, and videos like these don’t really help the reputation of this opera.

22 comments

  • Porgy Amor says:

    There are so many bad Aïda DVDs, and more keep coming! I cannot account for it. The Don Carlo/s, Otello and Falstaff videos have a better hit rate, many of them being performances of considerable distinction. It is possible I have missed something, but the only two Aïdas I would recommend at all with a performance date later than 1980 are the Met’s first (Millo and Zajick close to their best, though the guys have seen better days) and, even better, this one, also Arena di Verona:

    This is the performance that made me a Maria Chiara fan. I had known her by name, but had no idea she was such a sensitive, individual singer. It is not a huge voice, but a colorful, haunting one. I am surprised she was not a bigger deal, even with the competition of the time. (Did anyone here catch any of her 1977 Met Violettas, her only appearance there?)

    Beyond those, all I bother with is the old stuff, such as the Verona and Tokyo performances with Bergonzi and Cossotto (the earlier and more primitive of those has Gencer).

    • antikitschychick says:

      Indeed Porgy…and the ones that should get DVD releases sometimes don’t because of previously existing ones that in comparison end up being sub par. In all fairness though, opera companies can’t always predict these things since casting is done way in advance. Oh wells. Thanks for the concise review Ivy.

      • Porgy Amor says:

        Did you enjoy the 2012 HD broadcast, antikitschychick? I don’t know that I would want to revisit it in whole. Monastyrska was impressive, and Gagnidze was effective in the way he typically is (meaning, not pretty to hear or to see, but having the music within his means and committing to what he says). But Borodina and Alagna sounded like faded stars of the ’90s — no doubt still good in some things, but not this — and there was nothing in Luisi’s conducting to make me forget for a moment I was looking at a very old show. It made me want to hear Monastyrska in the role in other surroundings.

        • antikitschychick says:

          Yes I enjoyed it immensely Porgy, but mostly because of Monastyrska (I call her Lumi for short). That was the first opera I had heard her in and I was completely floored by her performance, mainly because even though I had heard this opera countless times before (and since) when I heard her rendition of Aida it was like I was hearing it for the first time. Not only was it a near flawless vocal performance, but she really put her stamp on the role in a way I’ve only heard a couple other singers do and I’ve heard quite a few renditions of this opera. I had attended the HD with Urmana a couple years prior and Aida was coincidentally the first opera I ever saw live (with Angela Brown, circa late 2006 when she was still singing well) so I was familiar with the Opera by the time I saw last year’s broadcast as I had also watched many clips on yt of countless singers essay the major arias. Its not that its my favorite opera ever, I do enjoy it but I didn’t intentionally seek out performances because of the opera itself but because of the singers. Incidentally, I skipped the HD broadcast but after watching Lumi’s performance during last year’s Tucker Gala and found out she was the one who had sung the Aida I decided to watch it online since it was already available. I had seen several clips of on YT of other renditions of that role, including the fabulous one by Aprille Millo who is definitely one of my favorites. I would buy that performance in a heartbeat if it weren’t for Sherrill Milnes who really did not sound his best during that performance, but the rest of the cast was great, esp Dolora Zajick.

          Last year’s Aida has been discussed several times here so I won’t go into details about the rest of the cast again except to say I really enjoyed Olga Borodina’s performance, save some labored high notes. Alagna not so much, though he did the best he could. Gagnidze I agree was effective. But Monastyrska’s was a break-out superstar performance that deserved the DVD treatment imo but alas, they had just released a DVD with the cast from 2 years prior, in the same production :-( . A pity because I would have bought that DVD in a heartbeat even if it were Katherine Jenkins singing Amneris and Paul Potts singing Radames lol. Happily, I have found a website that is selling a DVD of the Nabucco performance from ROH with her and Placido, which I will probably purchase soon since several months have passed and there’s been no word of a DVD release of that perf from ROH.

        • oedipe says:

          It made me want to hear Monastyrska in the role in other surroundings.

          Who do you have in mind for those surroundings?

          • antikitschychick says:

            While we await Porgy’s response, I shall offer my own alt casting:

            Jonas as Radames of course! lol (though I’d also like to hear Antonenko in this role) either Krasteva, Semenchuk, Barton or Garanca as Amneris, Peter Mattei as Amonasro (his voice may be too light but I dont care!) and 2nd choice would be Tezier, and the same bass, Stefan Kocan as the high priest since I dont think it realistic to expect Rene Pape to sing such a small role lol.

            • Porgy Amor says:

              I believe I would enjoy that performance, antikk; I was thinking Antonenko and Semenchuk myself. I might pull Kocan out of there, though. Furlanetto would probably be game; even as a big star and eminence grise, he’s sung Banquo, a smaller role. And since dreams don’t have to be likely, Muti conducting. His recording with Caballé is one of my favorite studio-made sets of anything, one of the recordings that made me love Italian opera, and his later live one with Tomowa-Sintow is almost as good, even though on paper it looks like a Lohengrin cast. Production by Carsen, or Kusej, or Alden, or…

            • oedipe says:

              I think Antonenko, though not ideal (his voice is on the small side and his high notes are rather short and strained), would be preferable to Kaufmann as Radamès: it is a high lying role that needs a lot of squillo (I am sounding like Zinka!!!!!); and pp’s are not very useful in the mass scenes. Possibly Riccardo Massi? The pickings are meager, anyway.
              I’d also pick Semenchuk over the other mezzos, though Garanca might work out a couple of years down the road. I have heard Krasteva live before and I find her quite mediocre.
              I can’t see Tézier as Amonasro.

            • oedipe says:

              P.S. I have rarely seen anything by Kusej that I liked. Alden could be an idea, maybe.

            • Porgy Amor says:

              I did not specify which Alden brother; I was thinking here of David, as I was one of the admirers of the Ballo last season. Kusej, I will admit, tends to be more to my liking the closer the opera is to modern times. He often draws out vivid performances, and I thought the Netherlands Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was gripping theater from first to last.

    • kashania says:

      Thanks for the clips, Porgy. The Amonasro duet in particular shows off the special quality of Chiara’s voice well.

      • Porgy Amor says:

        Kashania already knows this, but I’ll supply the trivia for the general audience: Chiara has a small part in movie history. Woody Allen used her singing of Manon Lescaut‘s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” in Hannah and Her Sisters. It is the scene in which the architect played by Sam Waterston takes Holly (Dianne Wiest) to the Met. This was one of Allen’s most successful films, so millions of people, even non-opera fans, have heard Chiara without knowing it.

        • armerjacquino says:

          When I first got into opera I went through my parents’ vast collection of old GRAMOPHONE magazines. Back in the 70s and 80s they seemed to be pushing Chiara very hard- her debut album received glowing reviews and pretty much every review of any Verdi or Puccini recording, whether it starred Freni or Caballe or Price or Arroyo or whoever, would be greeted with ‘why wasn’t this Maria Chiara?’

          • Porgy Amor says:

            Interesting. Chiara had even fewer performances at Covent Garden than at the Met — one 1973 Liù (with Shuard and Konya) and one 1978 Desdemona (with Cossutta and Carroli). She never seemed to catch fire outside Italy; I can only speculate as to why. I know she was a favorite stage partner of Pavarotti’s.

          • MontyNostry says:

            That debut album was good, though. I bought it around 1979 and played it quite a lot. The flaws were that her tuning could be a bit dodgy and the high register could sound perilously open, but her singing had a kind of radiance and fluency that — though this will get me beaten up on here — I’ve never quite heard from Freni; and she was less mannered than Caballe and more authentic (quite logically) in Italian repertoire than Price and Arroyo.

    • Bluevicks says:

      Yes, Porgy and for a lover of spaghetti peplums from the 50ies there is always this:

      The actor who plays Radames is extremely irritating though…

  • grimoaldo says:

    That clip is quite funny, there is an assistant conductor over on the left side of the screen dressed up in Egyptian robes leading the stage band and when four white horses come in and bow/curtsy to the audience, the crowd bursts into applause over the music.

  • Poison Ivy says:

    There’s an old, fuzzy video from Japan with Tucci, del Monaco, and Simionato that is also well worth seeing. Skip this video.