Botha, Johan


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.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuther Festspiele 2010 | Christian Thielemann, Tankred Dorst, Johan Botha, Kwangchul Yun, Albert Dohmen, Edith Haller, Linda Watson, Mihoko Fujimura, Sonja Mühleck, Anna Gabler, Martina Dike, Simone Schröder, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Annette Küttenbaum, Alexandra Petersamer | Opus Arte

Traditionally, Die Walküre is seen as the start of the Ring story proper, the previous episode Das Rheingold being only a prelude, musically as well as thematically, for what is to follow. It’s in Die Walküre moreover that what is seen as the human element enters into the story after the mythological struggle of dwarves, giants and gods in the first part. Personally, I’d argue that the human element is there from the first notes of Das Rheingold, the origins of the Ring being inextricably tied up in Wagner’s philosophy towards the creation of a new German art form, and the expression and attainment of those highest ideals that humanity can aspire to is evident in every aspect of the mythological symbolism of the whole work, as well as in its method of operatic expression. That’s perhaps a debate for another time, but in as far as it concerns this 2010 Bayreuther Festspiele production, one would have hoped to see more of the underlying humanism in the story brought out than is actually achieved here.

As if mindful of the need to relate the great struggle that continues to be fought out largely on an epic scale level to some kind of human level, Tankred Dorst introduces a few irritating and ultimately pointless elements into the staging. The opera opens with a very brief sequence showing a modern-day family, seemingly on a picnic, wandering through a deserted, semi-ruined manor house, the young boy unveiling the figure of Sieglinde and in the process setting off the retelling of the ancient myth that is to follow. In Act 2, the father sits in the background throughout, reading his newspaper, his bicycle by his side, while Wotan and Fricke carry on what I suppose could be termed a domestic argument, albeit one on which the eventual fate of all humanity depends.

As pointless as these kind of intrusions are, they are minor and easily blocked out, feeling little more than half-hearted attempts to introduce an underlying concept that doesn’t bear much scrutiny and doesn’t in the end impose much of a presence either. The minor tweaks to the staging relating to the position of the sword in a lamp-post that has fallen through the wall of the ruined hunting lodge, is likewise a minor conceit that doesn’t affect the overall purpose of the drama or how it is played out. It does in fact introduce a strong sense of ruin and decline that is to be the eventual fate of the gods, and indeed the inevitable end for all those who strive for ultimate power. Elsewhere however the staging feels a little anonymous and unimaginative, even somewhat restrictive, the performers not really given anything to do for most of the time other than statically sing their parts and attempt to express everything through the poetry of the libretto and the voices alone.

Fortunately, in that respect, the singers are all exceptionally good, if not quite good enough for the most part to make up for the deficiencies elsewhere in the production. Only Johan Botha really stands out, and he may even be considered to be one of the best Siegmund’s you’re ever likely to hear, with a wonderful voice that contains all the warmth of humanity that should be in his character’s make-up. That characteristic is just a little bit lacking in the others, although Edith Haller sings wonderfully and interacts well with Botha. Part of the problem might well be Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the Bayreuther Festspiele orchestra. Thielemann is a superb conductor of Strauss and Wagner when working with material that suits his style, but that style is often too clinical, intellectualised and, particularly in the case of Die Walküre, a little too aggressive. Whatever the reason, the richness in the melody and the wealth of the emotional content of the tragedy just isn’t found here.

Overall however, this is a worthwhile production, fairly traditional in its setting (not something you can always say about Bayreuther Festspiele productions), and more than competently performed – exceptionally so in the case of Botha and Haller – lacking only a little spark of warmth or inspiration that might have made all the difference. It’s presented well on the Opus Arte Blu-ray with a fine, detailed and strongly coloured picture, with the usual strong PCM stereo and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mixes. There’s a good 18 minute made-for-television featurette on the production on the disc, which is not in-depth, but sets the scene well (barring a horribly inappropriate modern jingle-style soundtrack).