First a confession. When this Aïda was broadcast on BBC television, I couldn’t make it to the end: I found the production so annoying that I failed to last the course. I had been expecting something controversial from the producer - please see MusicWeb International Seen and Heard’s Bettina Mara in interview with him, entitled ‘Deep issues of the heart: A conversation with unconventional and charismatic opera director Graham Vick’ - here. So annoying did I find it that I resolved to recommend something better - much better - in my July 2010 Download Roundup. In the end, though I’m not normally a great fan of Maria Callas, it was to the Callas-Barbieri-Gobbi-La Scala/Serafin version of the opera that I turned: EMI CLASSICS 5563162 (mono, 1955).
In the spirit of fairness, I wanted to see if the Blu-ray version could persuade me that it was better than I first thought. There are some advantages. Though the picture on television was good, the Blu-ray disc is noticeably better. With plenty of spectacle on offer, not least from the setting itself on the Bodensee (Lake Constance), the new format comes very much into its own, though you would need something much grander than any domestic setting to do it justice. The sound, too, offers a significant improvement: not so noticeable via television speakers, but, heard via my audio system, this is as good as any live opera recording on CD or SACD.
Otherwise the superior format changes little. Remaining with the pros, I have to admit that the set is spectacular: I’m sure that being there was an unforgettable experience, with ships on the lake gradually fading out of view as darkness descends. If you relish great spectacle in Aïda, the set will probably appeal to you, though with the proviso above about the limitations of one’s own living room. Of course, if ever an opera was made for spectacle, this is it, inspired by the spectacle of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, though not, as often supposed, designed to commemorate that event.
Seeing the dead lovers hauled dripping from the water at the opening is a spectacular plus, though it also alerts us to one of the many unconventional aspects of the production, in that they are not buried alive. To quote the booklet, “in the present production [Radamès] is ... seen on an Egyptian funeral barge on his way to the afterlife.” I’ll return to the set later, for matters which are decidedly among the cons.
The prime point of any opera recording must surely be the quality of the singing: I certainly have no major complaints on this score, but on the other hand I didn’t think that there were any great glories. With the singers compelled to wear pop-star style face microphones in this vast open auditorium, and often giving their all in contorted positions, the miracle is that the singing is generally so satisfactory. I’m sure that Rubens Pelizzari’s singing, in particular, was not assisted by the various postures which he had to maintain. In the Trio with Aïda and Amonasro, his voice is almost drowned by those of Serjan and Paterson and acrobatic positions can hardly be blamed here.
Of the remaining principals, Iain Paterson gives a strong account of Aïda’s father, but Tatiana Serjan as Aïda is less effective: at times I felt that, with her pleasant but light-toned voice, she was outsung by Iano Tamar’s Amneris. At other times I felt that Tamar was trying too hard. I’m not sure whether she is a very light mezzo, which is usual for the role, or a soprano - the booklet omits to state any of the singers’ voice ranges. Kevin Short as the King also makes a good impression, as does Tigran Martirossian as Ramphis the High Priest.
The three choruses acquit themselves well: the Camerata Silesia under their Chorus Master Anna Szostak, the Polish Radio Choir Kraków under Wlodzimierz Siedlik, and the Bregenzer Festspielchor under Benjamin Lack. Why bother with such large forces, though, when their role here is abridged? The dancers and stunt performers also deserve an honourable mention - too numerous to list here, but they are all credited in the booklet. Full marks to them for disporting in the water - it can’t have been fun, though we’re told that they enjoyed cooling down after a hot day - even if I did think the whole idea rather pointless. At the end most of the high priests and even Amneris have to squat in the water.
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra may be no match for their more distinguished rivals, the Vienna Philharmonic, but they too acquit themselves well enough here for there to be no real complaint. Orchestra and singers are not always perfectly in sync, which is hardly surprising as the players and conductor don’t seem to have been anywhere near the set - at least, they are never visible, which may just be the effect of clever camera work.
The new recording is abridged - compare the timing for the EMI Serafin above and you’ll see that it offers over ten minutes more music, others more still. Unitel’s statement that the ‘total running time’ is 135 minutes presumably includes the opening material: elsewhere they state 131 minutes, which I think is more accurate, though even that includes the applause and closing sequence. The opera itself plays for just over two hours. I understand that productions at Bregenz are limited to two hours, so there was no option but to omit much of the ballet music and the Triumphal Scene in particular. If the abridgement is mentioned on the Blu-ray cover or booklet, I didn’t see it, though it is mentioned in parentheses on the Unitel website. Whether you regard that as a pro or a con will depend on your attitude to the performance and production as a whole. Most will surely lament the loss of so much well-known music.
To return to the production and the set. The main action takes place on a series of monumental steps, topped at first by a pair of blue feet with star-spangling. Later these will be seen to be the wreck of the Statue of Liberty, with other segments of the statue joining them, as shown on the cover. If there is a message here, perhaps, it is that is that the USA now possesses the hegemony that Egypt once did but that its days are numbered in the manner of Shelley’s comment on the faded glories of Egypt in Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear -
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
All this, however clever it may be, I must say that I found most disconcerting: it distracted me from the music. Far be it from me to claim that music can never be political - Handel’s Judas Maccabæus is a pretty blatant bit of tub-thumping for the Hanoverian put-down of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion - but when we have the Ethiopian slaves hooded, paraded around like dogs on leashes, then stoned to death, the message is just too blatant.
Worse still, various parts of the action take place in the water or on various metallic projections jutting out over it. I won’t say too much about all the paraphernalia: if you have been reading my recent reviews of opera on DVD you will probably be tired of hearing my complaints about bizarre productions - and I’m saving my ammunition for Dynamic’s DVD of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (33645), the world premiere DVD version but spoiled for me by the purposeless doubling of the major roles by actors who ‘emote’ what is being sung. So sorry, but we get the point from the words that are being sung: there are subtitles for those who need them.
The costumes are spectacular, but I found the blend of old and new rather perplexing. The military and courtiers wear an odd blend of sphinx-like head-dresses and masks with modern costume, while the effect of the priests’ elaborate and flowing robes is rather spoiled by the high priest’s wearing workmen’s trousers supported by braces underneath; Transatlantic readers substitute pants supported by suspenders. I certainly never realised that the ancient Ethiopians wore high-visibility orange jackets. Radamès as prisoner, hanging in a wicker cage, also has to sport one of these.
The Unitel recording is amazingly good, given all the problems that the venue must have presented, but the presentation leaves something to be desired. It’s too much to expect a libretto in a DVD or Blu-ray set, but less than half a page each of synopsis, in English, French and German, really is very skimpy. I’d have sacrificed some of the inadequate monochrome photographs and the blurb on ‘Aïda on Water’ for more detail. Where is the information for the uninformed about how and when Aïda came to be written? This is, after all, one of the operas to which beginners are most likely to try out.
At the end of the opera, it’s the production rather than the musical contribution which remains memorable, which is surely the wrong way round. The ‘entombment’ of the lovers in a small boat is undeniably visually effective, especially as the boat is slowly and dramatically raised and the soloists’ voices fade away. The effect, however, is achieved at the expense of the intentions of Verdi and his librettist: Radamès singing about trying to raise the tombstone becomes absurd when there is no stone. Sadly, this is all too typical of the production, which must preclude a recommendation. As I close the review, I’m pleased to see that I’m not a grumpy old man in a minority: two other reviewers have written in similar terms.
Spectacle rules at the expense of the music