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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Carlo Striuli (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Dolora Zajick (mezzo); Radames, captain of the guards - Kristján Jóhannsson (ten); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Juan Pons (bass-bar); Aida, his daughter - Maria Chiara (sop); Ramfis, High priest - Nicola Ghiuselev (bass);
Chorus and Orchestra dell'Arena di Verona/Nello Santi
rec. live, Arena di Verona, 1992.
Stage director: Gianfranco De Bosio; Set Design: Rinaldo Olivieti after Ettore Fagiouli’s design for the 1913 Verona premiere. Costume Design, as at the 1913 Verona premiere: Auguste Marriete
TV and Video Director: Gianni Casalino
Sound format, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1. LPCM stereo. Picture format 4:3
Introductory essay in English, German and French
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Italian and Spanish
TDK DVWW-OPAIDV [146:00]
 


This production by Gianfranco De Bosio was first seen at Verona in 1982 with Pavarotti as Radames and Maria Chiara, as here, Aida (see review). It has sets and costumes in the really grand manner and can be seen as the antithesis of Robert Wilson’s minimalist staging  (see review). The costumes are based on those of the 1913 production at Verona, mounted to celebrate the centenary of Verdi’s birth. Most importantly those original designs were made to the instructions of Auguste Mariette, an eminent Egyptologist who had been sent to Egypt by the Louvre in 1850 to buy manuscripts. Mariette also made important archaeological discoveries on his visit and returned to Egypt in 1857 as the conservator of monuments under the Khedive (Viceroy), an enthusiastic opera-lover. Mariette’s place in the writing of Aida is worth recounting.
 
In the summer of 1869 Verdi was first approached to write an opera for the new theatre to be opened in Cairo to celebrate the construction of the Suez Canal, which was officially opened on 17 November. Verdi’s French agent and translator, Du Locle, visited the composer in Genoa the following month and told the composer that the Khedive wanted him to write an opera on an Egyptian theme for performance at the new opera house. Verdi turned the request down, repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a synopsis by Mariette. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, that Du Locle had been authorised to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting out his terms. These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto, and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. Marriette on behalf of the Khedive accepted these terms in al letter to Du Locle on 10 June. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever.
 
Verdi and Du Locle thrashed out a prose outline of the opera based on Mariette’s synopsis. The poet Ghislanzoni was commissioned to put this into Italian verse. Throughout the composition Verdi was keen to achieve the greatest historical accuracy. For example, he asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. Verdi was intent on a creating a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for the Paris Opéra. The Khedive had stipulated that the new opera was to be performed in January 1871. However, with Verdi’s composition completed, the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 ensured the scenery constructed there could not be got out and shipped to Cairo. As a consequence Aida was not premiered until Christmas Eve 1871. This delay also caused the postponement of the Italian premiere at La Scala as the contract stipulated that the first performances of the opera would be given in the Cairo Opera House.
 
Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular of operas with its blend of musical invention, dramatic expression in the personal relationships. Above all it is a work of pageant with its Triumphal Scene, Grand March (CHs.20-27) and ballet interludes. Of the various personal relationships, the rivalry between Aida, daughter of Amonasro King of Ethiopia working incognito as a captured slave of Amneris daughter of the King of Egypt, is intense (CHs. 17-19).  Both love Radames, victorious leader of the Egyptian army. He loves Aida but is given the hand of Amneris in reward for his exploits. But even more complex is the relationship of Aida with her father who arrives as an unrecognised prisoner of war (Ch.25). Many complex varieties of the father-daughter relationship occur throughout Verdi’s operas, but nowhere more starkly than in this opera where the father puts tremendous emotional pressure on his daughter to cajole her lover into betraying a state secret (CHs. 32-33). This betrayal costs the lives of the two lovers.
 
The opera is set on the grand scale and there is no grander or larger stage for opera than that of Verona. The sets in this production are quite resplendent and colourful. Grand hieroglyphic pillars sit alongside sphinx-like statues with the set going back and above into the long, wide-tiered rows. There is a tendency for such vastness to overwhelm the solo singers. It is a significant weakness in this performance. I do not know if Gianfranco De Bosio returned to rehearse his original production, but far too often the singers seem left to their own devices when firm direction is required. Amonasro’s return, in the wonderfully evocative staging of the Nile Scene (CH.38), is a good example of a dramatic situation that is overt in the music having no impact and being lost as drama by the inadequacy of the acted portrayal. There are similar instances elsewhere, not least in the personal interactions that go alongside the grandeur. The video director does a fair job with medium and close-ups but could gainfully have given a wider perspective elsewhere when the vast stage was well populated.
 
By the time of the composition of Aida, Verdi’s writing for the voice was more demanding than in his early and middle period works except for Il Trovatore, which is the first of his operas that really demanded spinto vocal strength of the soloists. The creator of Radames at Verona in 1913 was the tenor Giovanni Zanotello. Before agreeing to sing Radames he checked out the acoustics of the large arena. Singing into large open spaces presents its own problems. As I can personally verify, having tested the acoustics at Orange and Nimes among others, the Romans had mastered the matter of sound in their arenas and theatres; a whisper from the stage can be heard at a considerable distance up the tiered seats. In Zanotello’s time there was no such thing as electronic enhancement and I do not know if such technology was used for the performance under review. However, I could not fail to notice the harsh nature of the recorded sound, particularly in the treble, as heard through my reference speakers. I had to make considerable adjustment in that region of the sound spectrum on my big amp to make the sound even tolerable. Of the singers, the most affected by this harshness is Kristján Jóhannsson as Radames. His monochromic tenor, lacking any Italianata and used with more force than sensitivity, is something of a trial. His wooden acting and lack of stage sense are additional disadvantages to his portrayal.

Maria Chiara, as his beloved Aida, appeared at the premiere of this production in 1982 and reprised the role throughout the 1980s. She first appeared at Verona as Liu in Puccini’s Turandot, very much a lyric soprano role whereas Aida is very much a lyrico-spinto role. Some sopranos such as Tebaldi made the transition but needed vocal heft and vocal colour to do so. As heard at this 1992 stage of her career, Chiara’s vocal resources are not up to the task. She cannot sustain any pressure on the voice without spread and near wobble and she completely lacks smoothness in legato. The best singing comes from a strong-voiced Juan Pons as Amonasro and particularly Dolora Zajick as Amneris. Whilst she is not one of nature’s actors, she at least attempts to raise the dramatic temperature when on stage. This is particularly evident in the trial scene as Amneris agonises outside the resplendent temple where Radames is on trial, accused by the priests of being a traitor (CHs.41-43). As I have already noted, grandeur and dramatic impetus are the name of the game in this opera. Nello Santi’s conducting hardly rises above flaccid routine. Any virtue in this performance is all owed to the spectacle of the sets and costumes and the chorus singing alongside Dolora Zajick’s Amneris. Her portrayal matches that of a long list of distinguished Italian dramatic mezzos who have sung Amneris at Verona.
 
Before deciding on the purchase of a DVD of Aida look carefully at the review of the 1982 Verona performance given above and also that of the one given at San Francisco featuring Pavarotti and a gleaming-voiced Margaret Price as Aida; she is not a spinto but her tone cuts through the textures (see review). Also worthy of note and consideration is the 1989 Metropolitan Opera performance with Placido Domingo and Aprile Millo as the lovers, Dolora Zajick as Amneris and Sherrill Milnes as Amonasro. James Levine whips up a fair temperature from the orchestra. The sets are sumptuous if not quite up to those at Verona but the singers are properly directed and involved.
 
Robert J Farr

 

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