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Met Opera Live - Verdi, Aida: Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission live to the Barbican Cinema, London. 24.10.2009 (JPr)

This was ‘Grand Opera’ at its grandest and one thing is for sure, Covent Garden’s new staging of Verdi’s opera won't be anything like this when it opens next April. This 1988 production is by Sonja Frisell (here revived by Stephen Pickover) and at that time it replaced a planned staging by Franco Zefferelli which had been deemed too expensive. How he could have possibly thrown more money - and people - on stage than is seen here is hard to imagine. Frisell gave us horses – so perhaps Zefferelli wanted elephants too?

The production has huge sets by Gianni Quaranta which provide a foursquare monumentality; and with its large columns and imposing statuary there was more than a hint, most appositely, of the Temple Complex of Karnak in Thebes. Its imposing sun-baked grandeur in Gil Wechsler’s lighting was well matched by the sumptuous costumes of Dada Saligeri and the accretions of dust and dirt that these designs must have gained over the umpteen performances in which they have seen, can only have helped this pictorial rather than conceptual approach. All of this was well-captured in Gary Halvorson’s direction for the broadcast which included an overhead camera on a lighting gantry, effectively used to give the crowd scenes both power and grandiosity. Halvorson was less successful at the opera’s end , failing to zoom back enough to give us any real sense that Aida and Radames were entombed for ‘O terra, addio.’ Perhaps some split-screen camera work might have been useful here.

Whenever the stage can be filled to overflowing, Frisell does exactly that with a massive chorus, added extras, brass players, dancers and the horses. An Aida in Vienna, too many years ago than I care to remember with Gianni Raimondi as Radames, was the opera that gave me the first frisson that I hope now for every time I return to an opera house. There, the Act II procession came from upstage and seemed to go on for ever. Here, they went across the stage and apparently there must have been about 165 ‘supers’ involved because there seemed too little time for them to run behind the set and return on the other side carrying a different banner - something I once saw happen at Covent Garden.

The Met chorus - splendidly drilled by their chorus master Donald Palumbo- impressed with both their stentorian power and quiet a cappella singing. New for this revival was some hectic choreography for the dance numbers by Alexei Ratmansky, formerly of the Bolshoi and now with American Ballet Theatre. There was a duet at the start of Act II which was followed by a group dance in the ‘Triumphal Scene’: while the ballet steps were lively and intricate, they did not seem especially appropriate for this opera; they lacked the muscularity to match either the physical surroundings or the story that was unfolding. This is a heavyweight production designed to showcase equally vocally weighty performers although in many of those on stage (apart from the ballet dancers) did appear to be in need of Weight Watchers!

Johan Botha and Violeta Urmana were well-matched as Radames and Aida; each has great lung power available but can reduce their sound to spectacular effect if necessary. Both singers were strong and lyrical and could float hovering pianissimos with assurance. Occasionally, the top of Ms Urmana’s voice betrayed that she was a mezzo at the start of her career and had started by singing Amneris in this opera before taking on the role of Aida. Basically they both just moved to their mark on the stage, stood there and sang, relying on their impeccable phrasing for dramatic truth or to hint at their passion for their respective countries and each other. Aida’s nemesis as the King’s daughter in this performance, was Dolora Zajick a stalwart of about 200 Met performances with 67 as Amneris. Not apparently the greatest of actresses she had two expressions – a blank one and a frown – and in Act I her voice seemed to be suffering from the wear and tear of all her nights at the opera. In Act III however, her cursing of the priests who would condemn Radames and her prayer to Isis soared gloriously over the orchestra, so that at the end all could be forgiven. Carlo Guelfi’s gruff yet sonorous singing seemed entirely appropriate for Aida’s father Amonasro. The High Priest, Ramfis, was solidly sung by Roberto Scandiuzzi, Stefan Kocán looked imposing as the King and had some of the appropriate low notes but not quite the gravitas this role demands.

Daniele Gatti was back at The Met for the first time in more than a decade and he conducted an expressively beautiful sounding account of the score drawing nuanced virtuosity and exquisite colours from the excellent orchestra. If there is a quibble it is because it all seemed rather restrained and unhurried and this was probably imposed on him by the need to give the big voices and huge numbers involved the time and space to sing and move across the vast Met stage.

The backstage interviews are integral to the enjoyment of these broadcasts and are usually very informative; once again Renée Fleming was mistress of ceremonies. Johan Botha (seemingly wearing Pavarotti’s former wig) spoke well about how he sings roles such as Radames to keep his voice high for the Wagner he does, because a ‘bel canto’ voice is what Wagner wanted. He talked about singing ‘Celeste Aida’ the first time to his teacher in Berlin and her saying to him ‘Why are you screaming at me?’ because he wasn’t respecting the three pianissimos in the aria. Elsewhere, a bit more accurate research might have been useful such as when Renée Fleming baffled Violeta Urmana by asking about her interest in Lithuanian politics, somthing that appeared to be news to her. Then to cap it all, there was an interview with the very dour (to put it politely), and virtually monosyllabic Dolora Zajick, which if not already on You Tube will be there soon. It could be used as a training lesson in how not to prolong an interview that is not going anywhere but - with great respect to Ms Fleming and Ms Zajick (who despite her name was born in Oregon) - was full of unintentional humour that had many in the cinema laughing.

My final ‘thought for the day’ is that, and I repeat, a production like this would never be seen in this country – not only because none of our opera houses could afford it but also that it might not be allowed by the PC-brigade: Aida and Amonasro were white singers darkly browned-up as were almost all of the Egyptians and the only coloured performers used were mainly type-cast as Ethiopian captives. Even I felt slightly uncomfortable about this, at times.

Jim Pritchard

The Barbican Met Opera Live series continues on 7 November with Puccini’s Turandot: for further details visit or check the listings of your local cinemas.

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