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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Robert J Farr
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