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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Aida (1871)
Norma Fantini (soprano) – Aida; Marco Berti (tenor) – Radames; Ildoko Komlosi (mezzo-soprano) – Amneris; Mark Doss (baritone) – Amonasro; Orlin Anastassov (bass) – Ramfis; Guido Jentjens (bass) – Il Re; Michela Remor (soprano) – Una sacerdotessa; André Grégoire (tenor) – Un messaggero
Symphony Orchestra and Choir of La Monnaie-De Munt/Kazushi Ono
Stage Director, Set and Lighting Designer: Robert Wilson
rec. live, Theatre Royal de La Monnaie, 15 October 2004
OPUS ARTE OA 0954 D [2 DVDs: 159:00]
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What is Aida really about? Is it a story of love and jealousy, involving Aida, Amneris and Radames? Is it a political drama about the war between Egypt and Ethiopia - if so the sly realist politician Amonasro’s scheming becomes all-important and the third act becomes the centre-point of the drama? Is it a religious drama, verging on oratorio - the priests and the religious rites are also central? Or is it just a flamboyant spectacular with trumpets and parades and that famous march - hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Arena di Verona would definitely vote for this last option? In fact it is all of this and the circumstances about the coming into being of this work give the clue. The opera was commissioned for the inauguration of the Suez canal and Verdi and his librettist Ghislanzoni probably reasoned like this: since it is in Egypt, one of the oldest high-cultures, we should refer to the religion of the times of the Pharaohs; since the building of the canal was an important financial and political project it wouldn’t be wrong to refer to a history filled with wars and conflicts; since it was a gala performance there should be some pomp and circumstance; and since they wanted an opera, there had to be a love story! So there we are: the two wizards put all these ingredients in their kettle, stirred and out came Aida – the opera in four acts divided in seven scenes with, in some productions, horses, even elephants, soldiers, priests, ordinary people, filling even the vastest stage and with those blazing Aida-trumpets, sung and acted heart-on-the-sleeve and with big gestures. I have seen it in Verona with 20,000 other on-lookers and it has the tingle-factor.

This production from La Monnaie in Brussels is different. Directed and with set and lighting design by Robert Wilson we are in for a scaled down, stylised, almost abstract reading. It is indeed a very beautiful performance, colourful in a peeled-off way, sophisticated, ingenuous. Much of the action is against a black back-drop or with a midnight-blue sky (?) seen even further back, through openings in the black back-drop. Often a person in contrasting colours passes slowly, seen in profile, behind the main actors, at other times actors not actually doing anything are seen as black silhouettes in the background. During the public scenes, the triumphal scene among them, the stage is crowded but there is very little festivity, more like a funeral ceremony – until the dancers appear. Aida as an oratorio? No, not quite.

However, the private scenes, when for instance Aida or Amneris meets Radames, are also abstract. First they almost constantly move in a somnambulistic fashion, they never face each other - Amneris says to Aida: "Look into my eyes!" but turns her back to Aida! Is this psychology?. The gestures are also stylised, formulae-ridden and as far as I know hardly applicable to what a Belgian audience would recognise as body-language. The box cover talks about "a Zen-like tranquillity" and that the production is "reminiscent at times of Japanese Noh theatre". Be that as it may at least one viewer felt, after 2½ hours of un-interpreted sign-language, that he was distanced, even cut off from the central conflicts. The third act, the Nile scene, saved the day, much thanks to Mark Doss’s very alive and intense Amonasro. He also had his formulae but his face and his vocal inflexions made him a real person. Amneris and, at times, Aida also showed human feelings, Aida mainly though sadness and sorrow. As for Radames he was stone-faced most of the time and so was Ramfis. It was still the "thought-provoking experience" the box cover talked about but I may not always have got the right thoughts.

The singing has to be admired for the care and obedience to the score. There was no bawling from the tenor, no glass-shattering fortissimos from the soprano – I have rarely heard a more lyrical Aida. On the other hand the pure quality of the singing was not always on the highest level: Aida could be shrieky, Amonasro, for all his dramatic conviction, lacked the volume and the sonority of the big names and Ildiko Komlosi for all her intensity, has lost the steadiness she had in the 1990s when I heard her in Budapest and Vienna. The healthiest voices were to be found in the bass-ment – both Guido Jentjens and Orlin Anastassov were quite impressive.

Kazushi Ono conducting was somewhat low-key, in line with the production, the orchestra and chorus were excellent and the audience was enthusiastic.

If you’re looking for a "traditional" Aida, then look elsewhere; but if you are into Zen philosophy and prepared for an evening with no eye-contact between the characters, then this is your version. And the beauty of the sets is really ravishing!

Göran Forsling



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