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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - Opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Roberto Tagliavini (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Luciana D'Intino (mezzo); Radamès, captain of the guards - Marco Berti (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Ambrogio Maestri (baritone); Aida, his daughter - Hui He (soprano); Ramfis, High Priest - Giacomo Prestia (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, 74th Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival (Florence) 2011
Stage Direction: by Ferzan Ozpetek Set Design: Dante Ferretti
Television Director: Benoît Vlietinck
Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1. Picture: 16:9, 1080i full HD. Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108 040 [151:00]

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After Verdi’s 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 Sant’ 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, and more particularly the conditions of production and his required singers were available, then Verdi answered the call. He even 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, premiered in that city.
In the summer of 1870 he wrote to his publisher, Ricordi: “towards the end of last year I was invited to write an opera for a distant country. I refused.” His friend, Camille Du Locle, raised the matter again and Verdi continued “I 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 music.” Verdi also knew that if he did not accept, then the invitation would go elsewhere, even to Wagner and maybe Gounod. 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 of the Suez Canal in November 1869. The Opera House had featured Rigoletto at its opening on 6 November, eleven days before the canal itself.
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. It didn’t reach the stage until 24 December of that year. As to the price being right, 150,000 gold francs for the Egyptian performing rights alone, with the composer retaining the rights for all other performances. A production at La Scala followed on 8 February 1872 with the first UK performance being at Covent Garden on 22 June 1876. Aida rose to box office status in the international repertoire more rapidly even than the middle period trio mentioned.
Aida is one of Verdi’s most popular of operas with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression. It is a work of pageant with its Grand March (Gloria all’Egitto, CH.21) and ballet interludes. It is also a work involving various personal relationships. Of these, the rivalry between Aida, daughter of the King of Ethiopia, working incognito as a captured slave of Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, and the lady herself, is intense. Both love Radamès, 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, King of Ethiopia, who arrives as an unrecognised prisoner. Many and varied complex possibilities 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.33-43 and 39). This betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers.

What bedevils many productions of Aida is the sheer cost of representing an Egyptian type locale, often with pyramids and the like. In this production, from the seventy-fourth Maggio Musicale Festival in Florence in 2011, the cost is perhaps more limited by designer Dante Ferretti’s ubiquitous use of large statues and heads. The production is the opera debut of Turkish film producer Ferzan Ozpetek who plays it very straight, no oddball concepts from him. He strays from a wholly traditional presentation only in a couple of respects. First as the slaves dance during Amneris’ levee, they do so holding up mirrors to her, perhaps feeding her already oversized ego as daughter of the King (CH.16). More contentious is the appearance of a bloodied barefoot child who collapses, bleeding, during the triumphal scene (CH.22). Another bloodied body is that of Radamès as he is brought to his trial, limping and obviously having been gone over before the hands of proper justice assess his behaviour (CHs.40-41). The mise-en-scène of the finale as Radamès is entombed and finds Aida joining him is very good indeed.
It has seemed at times in the last couple of decades as if Verdi singing was in decline. A shortage of spinto-sized voices, and particularly those whose first language is Italian, has bedevilled many an effort. Somehow or other, that is not a problem here. Whilst the Radamès of Marco Berti may not have the ideal figure du part to excite a young woman, his tenor rings out with a free top. He even sings softly from time to time and his phrasing is generous and sensitive too in Celeste Aida (CH. 5). As his would-be lover, far eastern soprano Hui He is a revelation. She encompasses the demands of Ritorna Vincitor (CH.10) with pleasing warm tone, expression and variation of dynamics. The high note in O patria mia (CH.32) is taken with absolute security. As her royal adversary for Radamès’ love, Luciana D'Intino’s lustrous mezzo is sonorous, even and powerful in the trial scene as she prowls outside the venue, pleads with the priests and then Radamès and nearly tears her hair out as they call on him to plead his cause before condemning him (CHs.40-44). This scene is music-theatre as it is rarely seen today.
Of the lower male voices, Roberto Tagliavini as the King is adequate whilst Giacomo Prestia as the implacable priest Ramfis is sonorous and steady. The physically large Ambrogio Maestri as Amonasro looks rather silly in a stupid beard, but sings strongly in the Nile Scene duet with his daughter as he bullies her into persuading Radamès into betraying the secret of the Egyptian armies’ route (CHs.33-34). Regrettably, technical failings destroy his vocal impact as he arrives, incognito, along with the Ethiopian prisoners in the Triumphal Scene (CH.26-28). This ending of the act seems to defeat the sound engineers who appear to have turned the microphones down from the high volume created by the very large chorus during the preceding chorus and march and forgotten to turn them up again; there are seven sound engineers named!
The very large chorus sing with that vibrancy and squilla that seems to define Italian opera-house choruses, whatever the nationality of those taking part. What they fail to do, and this film director omits to make them do, is to get them physically involved. They are far too static in the great scene. The musical performance in the orchestral pit, under the vastly experienced Zubin Mehta, fondly remembered for his contribution to that memorable Three Tenors from the Roman Baths at Caracala those years ago, is outstanding. He matures musically like good wine on the palate. It seems that this evening was his 75th anniversary and the cast sing the usual song - a happy moment.
Robert J Farr