Aida


AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Firenze 2011 | Zubin Mehta, Ferzan Ozpetek, Hui Hei, Marco Berti, Luciana D’Intino, Roberto Tagliavini, Giacomo Prestia, Ambrogio Maestri, Saverio Fiore, Catarina di Tonno | Arthaus Musik

Aida is a tricky opera to stage effectively. It doesn’t hold up to modernisation or revisionism, demanding a very specific mood and setting that one messes with at one’s peril. I’ve seen it done before in a Risorgimento updating to Verdi’s time and in Robert Wilson’s particular minimalist style, both of which were interesting, but neither were entirely successful. On the other hand, a traditional approach to Aida requires both a big stage to match the grandeur of Verdi’s compositions of ceremonial marches through ancient monuments, and not everyone has the budget to go for the Full Zeffirelli. Even then however, the lack of dramatic incident and the demands placed on the singers mean that even a traditional setting can be rather static. Directed by Turkish-Italian filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek, the Florence production of Aida, recorded here in 2011, tends towards the traditional and looks marvellous, but in how it approaches those other considerable challenges that a staging of the opera presents, it unfortunately falls well short of the mark.

That’s disappointing from a musical point of view, particularly as we have as distinguished a musical director as Zubin Metha conducting the orchestra, for if there’s at least one thing you would hope to count on from any production of Aida, it’s that it presents a vigorous account of Verdi’s dynamic score. Aida is one of the most melodic and memorable of late Verdi operas, with hints of grand opera influence, but it’s also one that is attuned to the emotional content of the drama with an exotic flavour for its Egyptian setting. The performance initially feels somewhat perfunctory, for the first Act at least, a run-through with no real commitment on the part of the musicians or the conductor. It improves in subsequent acts, warming to the characters and their situation, but there’s never a sense that Metha is able to get the orchestra to do full justice to the dynamic theatricality of Verdi’s majestic score.

Aida

If that’s the case – and it’s only my opinion – it’s at least in step with the lack of dynamism elsewhere in the production. The stage sets, designed by Dante Ferretti, look marvellous – grand statues and monuments bathed in golden light, with colourful sunsets and deep blue moonlit night scenes – and the costumes are traditional and exotic. Stage director Ferzan Ozpetek however is unable to find anything for the singers do on stage but stand and project out to an audience, while priests and choruses stand grouped or march in solemn procession. There’s no question of their being any acting involved. Only once is there a suggestion of anything with imagination and that occurs briefly when the traditional pomp and patriotic fervour of the Triumphal March is initially undercut by the appearance on the stage of a young bloodstained child, looking bewildered by the celebration of the slaughter that has occurred. It’s a throwaway touch however, soon forgotten under the more traditional, but not particularly imaginatively choreographed battle ballet that follows.

Again, a lack of drama or ideas on the stage wouldn’t be much of a problem – it’s one of the issues with Aida – if only the singers were capable of making up for the slack elsewhere. Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of strong singing to sufficiently redeem this production. Marco Berti has a fine tone of voice as Radamès, but his technique is all off and his ‘Celeste Aida’ is a struggle. He comes through however in Act IV where it counts. Luciana D’Intino is a weak Amneris, her singing shrill and unpleasant, without sufficient force or personality to carry the role – an unfortunate drawback, since it’s this character who has perhaps the most important central role in the opera. Hui Hei’s Aida is about the best there is here, her Act III duets coming over well, particularly her duet with a fine Ambrogio Maestri as Amanasro. Without a strong enough Amneris however to hammer home Act IV after the rallying that comes through from the cast and orchestra in Act III, it’s all to little avail.

Aida

There are no extra features on the Blu-ray, so the single-layer BD25 is generally fine for the two-and-a-half hour opera. The image quality is excellent throughout, 1080i full-HD, with only a little sign of compression artefacts during a couple of faster pans of the camera. The audio tracks are the customary PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and there’s a decent tone and clarity to both. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The disc is All Region.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Daniele Gatti, Sonja Frisell, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, Violeta Urmana, Stefan Kocán, Adam Laurence Herskowitz, Jennifer Check, Carlo Guelfi | Decca

Although there is an intimate and tragic love story at its heart, Aida is set against the exotic background of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic sentiments, as the Egyptian army prepare to go to war to fight off a revolt by the Ethiopians. It’s a perfect subject, in other words, for Verdi, and it was undoubtedly the nature of the storyline, much more than any commission for the new opera house in Cairo (which he repeatedly refused) or the grand occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, that encouraged him to return to opera composition in 1871. This return would herald a new style of opera that we would see from Verdi in his final works, one that is mindful of the innovations introduced by Wagner, but which still retains elements here of bel canto in an opera that is filled with memorable arias and melodies. Despite its setting and the use of exotic Oriental melodies – which really see Verdi at his most inventive and original – Aida is very much an Italian opera, and one that is thoroughly and recognisably a true Verdi opera.

Considering its origins and its setting – whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not – Verdi’s Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There’s no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it’s certainly interesting to see something different attempted) – this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven’t got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production – now over twenty years old – for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It’s a big production in every respect – and yes, I include the size of the singers in this – with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It’s unfortunately a little too static – an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production – particularly a traditional one at the Met – and really, you’d feel somewhat short-changed if it didn’t have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets) .

You won’t feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don’t know about his acting ability – there’s not much required here of Ramadès – but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.

Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met’s Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I’d have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.