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.