Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Verona Arena Chorus and Orchestra/Alain Lombard (Carmen), Daniel Oren (Tosca), Nello Santi (Aida)
ARTHAUS 107 520 DVD [6 DVDs: 415.00]
As is always the case with chunky boxed sets which contain collections of disparate performances, one wonders precisely what market issues such as these are aimed at. Possibly at those who have visited the Verona Arena, and want a souvenir of their visit? Possibly completists who want to own every copy of a particular opera? Be that as it may, this box contains an absolutely excellent Carmen, a very good Tosca and a complete dud of an Aida. The audiences clearly enjoy all the performances, and cheer them to the non-existent rafters.
The productions of Franco Zeffirelli have always divided, and continue to divide, critics. His stagings are invariably packed full of original insights and ideas but the results can be overloaded with detail. His fondness for the grand effect can result in a surfeit of irrelevant onstage movement which distracts from the principal centre of dramatic attention. However on the vast stage of the Verona arena there is no danger of this, and even the equine intruders who figure in three of the four Acts hardly seem over the top. And there are some nicely original ideas - in the First Act Micaela invites José to join her for a coffee while they discuss his mother’s health, for example, which is more realistic than having them standing about discussing the subject in a public square. Zeffirelli gets the singers to interact plausibly with each other, and despite the fact that close-ups reveal performers’ eyes straying to the conductor on occasions there is plenty of dramatic interchange as well.
With an entirely non-French cast, and in the Verona acoustic, it is probably just as well that Guiraud’s recitatives - which are really not as dreadful as received opinion would claim - are by and large employed instead of Bizet’s original spoken dialogue. In two places dialogue is however substituted for the recitative, once just before the Seguidilla and once after the Card Trio, for no very obvious reason; and in the final Act the Entr’acte is moved from the beginning of the Act to a new position after the opening chorus to provide a ballet interlude. This seems unnecessary, since Guiraud did prepare a full-length ballet for that Act if dancing was required (at the Paris Opéra, for example) which is nowadays invariably omitted (it includes a first draft for the Farandole from the second L’Arlésienne suite, which Guiraud also arranged). Otherwise we are given the standard early twentieth century text, with no additions from the controversial Oeser edition - which attempted to restore Bizet’s original including passages which may have been cut by the composer before the first performance - and this works well.
The mainly young cast give excellent performances musically as well as dramatically. Marina Domashenko is a very Slavonic mezzo, but she sounds well suited to her role and her singing is free from any suspicion of wobble even on the highest notes. Marco Berti looks rather gormless at the beginning, but he grows into the possessed fanaticism of the frustrated lover with an intensity that is consequently even more frightening; and he sings extremely well despite a (not uncommon) failure to give us a pianissimo at the end of the Flower Song. One can however see why Carmen would wish to throw him over for the extremely handsome Raymond Aceto, who also brings just the right degree of fatuous self-satisfaction to the part of the glamorous toreador. And Maya Dashuk is an excellent Micaela, for once a real rival to Carmen with a beautifully creamy voice and plenty of self-aware presence - a far cry from the milksop figure we sometimes encounter. The supporting roles, with the exception of a woolly-sounding Zuniga, are all excellently taken.
Alain Lombard, the only Frenchman involved in the whole enterprise, gets an outstanding performance from the orchestra with invariably well-judged speeds and plenty of expressive pointing; only the flute in the Third Act Entr’acte and the horns during Micaela’s aria could possibly be more emotionally engaging. The chorus acquit themselves excellently, with some very striking phrasing and plenty of body, and throw themselves with enthusiasm into Zeffirelli’s individual treatment of the various chorus members.
The production here by Hugo de Ana here does not take much advantage of the Verona space - the sets are generally confined and basic - but the dramatic direction is superb. The singers really interact with each other, and except when they move off microphone are well captured in sonic terms. There is plenty of subtlety here, although how much would have carried through into the vast arena is more debatable. The staging manages a real coup de théâtre with a spectacular entrance for Scarpia, and the Te Deum spreads grandiosely across the whole of the acting area. In the Second Act Scarpia is a real threat to Tosca, almost raping her before Vissi d’arte, to such an extent that one wonders why he feels the need to seek her consent. At the end Tosca disappears up a short flight of stairs into darkness, whereupon a stunt double appears at the very top of the set - but she does not jump, presumably because the rising stage area at Verona would not permit that, and the result is almost triumphant rather than tragic. The best solution to the problem I have seen comes in the otherwise generally indifferent recent production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where Tosca launches herself across the stage into mid-air to be caught by a blackout in mid-flight. Any conscientious Health and Safety Officer would have nightmares for weeks about this, but the result is spectacular in the extreme and I never want to see again the heroine plunge over the back of the stage to be caught on a mattress carefully positioned below - and usually hesitating to make sure the mattress is in its proper place before she does so.
Fiorenza Cedolins as the heroine is quite simply superb, singing with variety of tone and absolute command of all her vocal registers, and her reactions to Cavaradossi and Scarpia are realistic. Marcelo Álvarez as her lover also produces plenty of volume when required, but can shade his voice down to produce singing of a subtlety that is sometime surprising and often enchanting. Ruggero Raimondi starts with great gusto after his triumphant entrance, showing no sign of age; but afterwards his voice begins to sound tired and he sometimes resorts to shouting instead of singing. The smaller parts are well taken, with a charming young soprano as the shepherd boy but who is his silent companion, and what is he doing there?
In the last Act there has been an increasing tendency in modern productions for Cavaradossi to show that he realises that his ‘fake’ execution will be all too real, endeavouring to conceal this fact from Tosca by a false show of bonhomie. Hugo de Ana and Álvarez will have none of this - he is as deceived as she is. The more subtle interpretation may be sustainable in dramatic terms, but Puccini’s music clearly shows that both believe in the idea of the fake execution, and the composer would surely have given an ironic twist to the music if he had intended otherwise. Moreover Cavaradossi is not really any more ‘street-wise’ than Tosca. He impulsively agrees to help Angelotti in the First Act without any conceived plan of how he is going to do this; he allows the fugitive to hide in the face of imminent arrest rather than getting him away to a safe distance; and worst of all he deliberately provokes his own sentence of death by taunting Scarpia after Napoleon’s victory is announced, when anybody with the slightest degree of intelligence would have maintained a discreet silence. If he had done this, the opera might well have finished half-way through the Second Act, with everybody (except Angelotti) living happily ever after. But then, Sardou’s play is a creaking melodrama and not even Puccini can really persuade us otherwise.
The orchestral playing under Daniel Oren is well-controlled and full of character; the chorus are a bit ragged - the children especially so - but the difficulties of maintaining co-ordination across the vast spaces of the Verona Arena must be formidable. There are some gripping effects, especially from the real cannon - some of which seem to fire more convincingly than others - towards the end of Act One. The first cannon shot brought my dog leaping to his feet with concern.
Aida is a work that has long been closely associated with presentations at Verona, and we are informed that the sets and costumes here are based on those for the first performances there in 1913. They are also about the best thing about this production, although one may take leave to doubt that some of the scanty costumes for the dancers would have been acceptable in that era. However the stage designs make any element of dramatic surprise at the end of the Third Act almost impossible - Aida and Radames must both be effectively blind not to notice Amonasro and Amneris listening in - and the producer has largely left his singers to their own devices, which in the case of nearly everyone except Aida and Amneris means very little indeed. It would appear that the video producer agreed with this assessment; the camera continually cuts away to pieces of variably interesting scenery, or to shots of the conductor (which are not interesting at all) even in the middle of vocal phrases - which ruins any sense of dramatic verisimilitude altogether.
In fact the conducting of Nello Santi effectively sinks this performance without trace. Even in the 1960s he was always a routine conductor at best, and by the time of this performance in 1992 he appears to have ossified totally. When he sets a tempo, he hardly ever sticks consistently to it for long; and it is clear that the singers, rapidly losing confidence in his ability to meaningfully direct the performance, have decided to set their own speeds leaving the orchestra to tail along in their wake as best they can. This leads to an absolute disaster at the end of the Temple Scene, where for the lack of a clear lead from the conductor Radames and Ramfis cannot even sing “Immenso Phthah!” together. The internal balances in the orchestra also leave a great deal to be desired; the scrawny strings at the beginning of Act Three, not even vaguely ethereal, still manage to relegate the flute solo which they are supposed to be accompanying to almost total inaudibility.
Of the singers, Dolora Zajick is the only one who seems to evince any more than the slightest interest in her fellow performers; she brings the house down - as any good Amneris should - in the trial scene, and it is not her fault that the orchestra is bumpy and frequently out of time both with her and each other. Maria Chiara, a very good Aida in her day, was past her best in 1992. Her top notes are sadly worn and her attempts at pianissimo are vitiated by an obstinate vibrato; and one cannot blame her for showing a decided lack of interest in her Radames. In this role Kristján Jóhansson hardly cuts a heroic stage presence, persistently refusing to look at anyone else on it and instead delivering a blasting and unremitting stream of fortissimo straight out to the audience; when entombed he actually manages to trim back to mezzo forte once or twice, but the dramatic situation seems to concern him not one iota. Juan Pons copes with Santi’s persistent refusal to set a steady speed by setting his own tempo at maximum volume and keeping to it despite everything else going on around him, and he too is reluctant to lower his voice. Nicola Ghiuselev is good and solid as Ramfis, but the rest of the cast is nothing special. The chorus, which looks massive in the Triumphal Scene, are curiously underpowered; indeed it sounds as if only half of them are actually singing. The corps de ballet are fine, but their costumes in the Dance of the Priestesses are noisy and the swishing of them actually drowns out the music.
The undiscriminating audience applaud enthusiastically at every possible opportunity, sometimes drowning out the orchestra and once - at the beginning of the Temple Scene - drowning out the voice of the Priestess, although when we do actually get the chance to hear her we do not feel we have missed much. There have been two other recordings of Aida from Verona available at various times. One of these from 1966 with Leyla Gencer was in black-and-white; but a 1981 recording - with a younger and much fresher Maria Chiara - is generally very much better cast, Anton Guadagno is an infinitely better conductor than Santi, and for anyone specifically wanting a Verona performance it can be strongly recommended. But this DVD is a real dud, and anyone who purchases this rather oddly assorted box must be prepared to treat it as such.
Incidentally it seems to me that Verona’s choice of repertory, restricted as it is to the most popular of the Italian and French repertoire, must more or less have exhausted the possibilities of the spectacular venue. There are a great many other operas which would benefit from the grandiose opportunities that could be provided for stagings - Meyerbeer or Spontini, for example, or some of the Russian operas, or even Lohengrin. One realises that the repertoire must be such as would attract a substantial paying public, but surely a greater degree of adventurousness would be welcome.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A rather oddly assorted box.
see also review of the Aida performance on TDK by Robert Farr
Masterwork Index: Aida
Carmen: Marina Domashenko (mezzo: Carmen), Marco Berti (tenor: Don José), Raymond Aceto (baritone: Escamillo), Maya Dashuk (soprano: Micaela), Cristina Pastorello (soprano: Frasquita), Milena Josipovic (soprano: Mercédès), Marco Camastra (tenor: Dancaire), Antonio Feltracco (baritone: Remendado), Dario Benini (bass: Zuniga), Roberto Accurso (baritone: Moralès), Benjamin Britten Children’s Choir, Verona Arena Chorus and Orchestra/ Alain Lombard, dir. Franco Zeffirelli, video direction George Blume
rec. Verona Arena, 2003 [2 DVDs: 150.00]
Available separately as Arthaus 107 019
Tosca: Fiorenza Cedolins (soprano: Tosca), Marcelo Álvarez (tenor: Cavaradossi), Ruggero Raimondi (bass: Scarpia), Marco Spotti (bass: Angelotti), Fabio Previtali (baritone: Sacristan), Enrico Facini (tenor: Spoletta), Giuliano Pelizon (bass: Sciarrone), Angelo Nardinocchi (bass: Gaoler), Ottavia Dorrucci (girl soprano: Shepherd boy), A.Li.Ve Children’s Choir, Verona Arena Chorus and Orchestra/Daniel Oren, dir. Hugo de Ana, video direction Loreena Kaufmann
rec. Verona Arena, 2006 [2 DVDs: 119.00]
Available separately as Arthaus 107 195
Aida: Maria Chiara (soprano: Aida), Kristján Jóhanssen (tenor: Radames), Dolora Zajick (mezzo: Amneris), Juan Pons (baritone: Amonasro), Nicola Ghiuselev (bass: Ramfis), Carlo Striull (bass: King), Anna Schiatti (soprano: Priestess), Angelo Casertano (tenor: Messenger), Verona Arena Chorus and Orchestra/Nello Santi, dir. Gianfranco de Bostio, video direction Gianni Casalino rec. Verona Arena, 1992 [2 DVDs: 146.00]
Available separately as Arthaus 107 253