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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Guido Jentjens (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Ildiko Komlosi (mezzo); Radames, captain of the guards - Marco Berti (ten); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Mark Doss (bass-bar); Aida, his daughter - Norma Fantini (sop); Ramfis, High priest - Orlin Anastassov (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the La Monnaie-De Mont/Kazushi Ono
rec. live, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie-De Mont, Brussels, 15 October 2004
Stage director, Set and Lighting Designer: Robert Wilson
Television Director: Benoît Vlietinck
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic. Recorded in High Definition
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch
OPUS ARTE DVD VIDEO OA 0954 D [2 DVDs: 159:00]
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After Giuseppe Verdiís three great middle period operas, Rigoletto (1852), Il Trovatore (1853) and La Traviata (1853), his pre-eminence as the foremost opera composer of the day was assured. Now a rich man, his pace of composition slackened; he was happy working and expanding his farm at Santí Agata, or following the unification of Italy, serving in the first Italian Parliament to which he was elected in 1861. However, if the price was right, also the conditions of production and his required singers were available, then Verdi answered the call. He went to St Petersburg where La Forza del Destino was premiered in November 1862. He later wrote that the subsequent honours from the state were no compensation for the cold! His preferred foreign clime was Paris and 1867 saw his longest opera, Don Carlos for that city.

In the summer of 1870 Verdi wrote to his publisher Ricordi ĎTowards the end of last year I was invited to write an opera for a distant country. I refusedí. His friend, Camille Du Locle raised the matter again and Verdi continued ĎI was offered a large sum of money. Again I refused. A month later he sent me a sketch. I found it first rate and agreed to write the musicí. The distant country was Egypt, where the Khedive was anxious to have an opera on an Egyptian subject for the new Opera House built in Cairo to celebrate the opening in the Suez Canal in November 1869. Aida was ready for premiere in January 1871, but the designs and costumes were held up in Paris by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and it didnít reach the stage until 24 December 1871. A production at La Scala soon followed on 8 February 1872. The first UK performance was at Covent Garden on 22 June 1876.

Aida is one of Verdiís most popular of operas with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression. The libretto is by Antonio Ghislanzoni on a subject by Auguste Mariette developed by Verdi and Camille Du Locle. This opera is a work of pageant with its Grand March (Gloria allíEgitto Ch. 15) and ballet interludes. It is also a work involving various personal relationships. Of these relationships, the rivalry between Aida, daughter of the King of Ethiopia working incognito as a captured slave of Amneris daughter of the King of Egypt, is intense. Both love Radames, victorious leader of the Egyptian army. He loves Aida but is given the hand of Amneris in reward for his exploits as commander. Even more complex is the relationship of Aida with her father who arrives as an unrecognised prisoner. The many and various complex possibilities of the father-daughter relationship occur throughout Verdiís 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. This betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers.

In some productions the grandeur of the setting and pageantry overwhelms the dramatic interactions and relationships of the individuals. This minimalist production by cult producer Robert Wilson would seem to set out to achieve the contrary effect. There are no sets and no great pageantry for the Grand March. At the back of the stage moving verticals give blank picture frame spaces that are lit, predominantly in blue. Across the back silhouetted figures pass very slowly from time to time, as does a woman in a scarlet dress who is clearly visible. The soloists enter and leave at a snailís pace, sometimes walking backward, but never, never looking at each other. All expression is by slow hand and arm movements. There is a brief indication on the box that this manner is influenced by Robert Wilsonís view of Noh Theatre. I have seen, and heard, hand-ballet performances where the movements were clearly aesthetically and emotionally related. This form has common usage in Asia. In this performance there was no relationship that I could discern between Verdiís melody, the nature of the dramatic situation and the speed or nature of the hand, arm and body movements of the singers. Not that they are required to move around the stage very much and certainly never at speed. Even after a second viewing I am none the wiser as to why one singer moves slowly around another from time to time and on occasions backwards, slowly moving their arms and hands as they do so. Regrettably, Wilsonís approach not only loses the grandeur of the opera but also fails to illuminate anything of the relationships of its characters. This is particularly evident in the duet when Amneris taunts Aida and tricks her into confession of love by announcing Radamesí death (Ch. 14) and the coercion by Amonasro (Chs. 23-24).

As far as the visual element of this production, I could only find two positives. The first is the evocative backdrop setting and lighting of the Nile and desert in act 3 (Chs. 20-25). The second is the lighting and split screen use for the last scene as the lovers die in the tomb and Amneris laments above ground (Ch. 30). But even here there was incongruity. Surely the music, words and dramaturgy demand the loversí die in each otherís arms, not apart. During the Gerard Mortier regime as Intendant at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie the house audiences got used to avant-garde productions and they greet this Aida with polite rather than enthusiastic applause. When this production was played at Londonís Covent Garden, in the November prior to this filming, it was reported that the reception in some quarters of the house bordered on revolution.

Of the singing and orchestral playing there are more positives. The conductor plays the music very straight and does his best to bring out the contrasting moods of the work. The singers are variable. Both the Aida of Norma Fantini and Amneris of Ildiko Komlosiat at least have the right weight of voice. In Ritorna vincitor (Ch. 8) and Oh patria mia (Ch. 21) Norma Fantini phrased well although she could have used more sotto voce and her climactic note in the latter aria was not good. Ildiko Komlosi sings with full dramatic tone in the trial scene (Chs. 26-29) although her voice is not ideally steady under pressure. As Radames Marco Berti managed to look even more wooden than the rest; some achievement. Now a firm favourite at Verona his voice is best at forte. He didnít attempt the written diminuendo art the end of Celeste Aida (Ch. 3) but does manage to soften his tone and volume for the final scene (Ch. 30) to the benefit of his phrasing and the pathos of the action. The fact that the Amonasro of Mark Doss looks Ethiopian owes more to genetics than make-up and in contrast with his daughter who is pure white-skinned to match her dress. Dossís voice is rather low for a Verdi baritone, but it is a dramatic instrument. He does manage to inflect some passion into his vocal characterisation. His vocal coercion of Aida by the Nile and the revelation of himself to Radames have conviction (Ch. 25). Orlin Anastassov as the High Priest has the strongest and steadiest voice on stage. Neither his costume or make-up reflected his status in the plot; he looks far too young.

If the Tate Modern Gallery in London, where unmade beds and dissected animals count as art, are your cup of tea then this Robert Wilson approach may appeal. To me Verdiís great masterpiece is much, much more than this staging portrays. Nor is the singing of the top rank. More traditional productions are available on DVD. If you want Pavarotti as Radames, not his best role, then there is the choice of a 1982 La Scala performance with Maria Chiara as Aida on Arthaus (review) or with Margaret Price on Warner.(review). My own favourite, for a grand setting and magnificent singing, is the 1991 recording from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, with Domingo and Aprille Millo in good voice and Dolores Zajick a magnificent Amneris (DG).

Robert J. Farr

see also review by Goran Forsling


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