Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
- Opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Roberto Tagliavini (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Andrea Ulbrich (mezzo); Radamès, captain of the guards - Marco Berti (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Ambrogio Maestri (bass-baritone); Aida, his daughter - Hui He (soprano); Ramfis, High priest - Francesco Ellero d’Artegna (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Arena Verona/Daniel Oren
Stage director: Gianfranco De Bosio Set Design and Costume Design: Rinaldo Olivieti after Ettore Fagiouli’s design for the 1913 Verona premiere based on those by Auguste Mariette
TV and Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, Arena di Verona, 23 June 2012
Sound format: LPCM2. dts HD Master Audio
Picture format: 16:9. 2D HD and Sky 3D
Introductory note and act synopsis in English, German and French
Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian and Japanese
OPUS ARTE OABD7122D
This production by Gianfranco De Bosio was first seen at Verona in 1982 with Pavarotti as Radamès and Maria Chiara, as Aida. The costumes and sets are based on those of the 1913 production at Verona, mounted to celebrate the centenary of Verdi’s birth. That event also launched the Verona Arena as the base for an opera festival.
Aida has been a regular feature since with several video films featuring different casts (see review 1, review 2 and review 3). Most importantly, the set and costume designs for this Verona production were influenced by those for the actual premiere in Cairo on Christmas Eve 1871. These in turn were conceived in an effort to be historically accurate. Below, in Appendix 1, I recount in detail the story of how the original sets were conceived and realised. In Appendix 2, I provide details of the Chapters (tracks) relevant to each of the four acts of the opera; they are not provided in Opus Arte’s accompanying leaflet, a serious omission.
Three of the principals here are the same as those involved in the recording from the 74th Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival, Florence, in 2011 conducted by Zubin Mehta and also issued as a Blu-Ray (see review). Those concerned are the Chinese soprano Hui He in the title role, Marco Berti as her lover Radamès and the baritone Ambrogio Maestri as her father, both men having the advantage of being Italians. In my review of that performance I described Hui He as a revelation. A year on, she is quite magnificent, her silvery-toned soprano soaring above the orchestra. Add her involved and expressive acting and excellent vocal characterisation to a smooth legato line and I was bowled over. Both her big arias, Ritorna vincitor (CH.9) and O patria Mia (CH.26) gleam, the former ending with a lovely controlled and floated final note. As her competitor for Radamès’ love, the Hungarian mezzo Andrea Ulbrich is new to me although she has been around for some time. Looking rather matronly, her voice is big enough for the role and although not particularly subtle in characterisation she has the vocal heft and bite to come over in the large Verona Arena whilst her committed acting was also welcome.
Both principal men are physically large, with Maestri in particular towering over Hui He in the Nile scene as Amonasro bullies Aida into inveigling Radamès into revealing the passage of the Egyptian army. As in Florence he looks ridiculous in the beard he is wearing. He is an involved actor as is seen in his many filmed portrayals of Falstaff. His tone is a little dry at the top at one point in the Triumphal Scene (CH.23) but he recovers to give a subtly acted and sung realisation. As in Florence Marco Berti’s singing is adequate and clear when at full volume. He softens his tone and volume in the final scene, but he then has to strain to reach the higher tessitura (CH.38) and legato suffers. His acting is rather wooden throughout and his lack of emotional involvement all too evident. Neither of the two basses, Roberto Tagliavini as the King and Francesco Ellero d’Artegna as the Priest Ramfis, have much vocal allure.
On the rostrum Israeli Daniel Oren’s brightly-patterned yamulka could be clearly seen in the darkened orchestral area. It was the only bright aspect of his routine conducting; it lacked vitality and variation in modulation. Even he couldn’t fail in the Triumphal Scene with a multitude of extras and horses that bowed to the King on entry. The chorus, like the ballet dancers, were outstanding as was the sheer spectacle in this most glamorous and renowned operatic scene in this mighty arena. It is what the tourists flock to see. In this venue, in these sets and costumes they get their money’s worth. For the purchaser of this issue, whilst the sound is slightly recessed the picture is excellent on Blu-Ray and spectacular in 3D.
Robert J Farr
Masterwork Index: Aida
Appendix 1 - The genesis of Aida and the sets and costumes at the premiere.
The sets and costumes for the premiere of Verdi’s Aida were designed and made with the involvement of Auguste Mariette, the eminent French Egyptologist who had been sent to Egypt by the Louvre in 1850 to buy manuscripts. Mariette also made important archaeological discoveries during his visit. He returned to Egypt in 1857 at the instigation of the Khedive (Viceroy), as the conservator of monuments. He was later elevated to the rank of Bey and then Pasha. The importance of history in the visual spectacle of the Verona production means that I need to explain something of the background to the composition of the music and the problems encountered in getting it to the stage.
The Viceroy himself was something of an opera enthusiast. In Paris for the International Exhibition of 1867 he saw Verdi’s monumental Don Carlos. In rebuilding Cairo, in something of the style that Baron Haussmann was carrying out in Paris, and perhaps influenced by another Frenchman in charge of the building of the Suez Canal, he stipulated the building of an opera house as well. This opened on 17 November 1869 with a performance of Rigoletto and contemporaneously with the Suez Canal. As well as an opera house the Khedive also coveted an opera on an Egyptian theme. With this in mind he delegated du Locle, Verdi’s representative in Paris who had been travelling in Egypt, to approach Verdi. In late 1869, du Locle visited Verdi at his winter home in Genoa. Verdi at first turned down the request repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a twenty-four page detailed synopsis by Mariette. Stimulated by it, and also, perhaps, the fact 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 were a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. He also stipulated that he would have the right to have Aida performed at opera houses outside Egypt following the Cairo premiere. These terms were accepted, making Verdi the highest paid composer ever. Arrangements were made to schedule performances at La Scala in February 1871.
The Khedive stipulated that the opera was to be “a purely ancient Egypt with the sets to be based on historical accounts and costumes to be designed after the archaological bas reliefs of upper Egypt” (see account). Mariette knew what the Khedive wanted and said “No effort will be spared in this respect, and the mise-en-scène will be as splendid as one can imagine. You know the viceroy does things in a grand style.”
Mariette travelled to Paris to supervise the construction of the set and making of the costumes ready for the premiere scheduled for January 1871. The La Scala performances were scheduled for the following month. 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. In fact Verdi was intent on creating a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for the Paris Opéra.
However, there’s many a slip between cup and lip. Mariette followed the Khedive's instructions to the letter. The Giza pyramids were featured in one act; the Temple of Karnak in another. The archaeologist also made detailed sketches of the costumes, finishing them in brilliant watercolour. With the sets and costumes near completion in Paris, on 19 July 1870 Emperor Napoleon, almost without warning, declared war on Prussia. Most Parisians thought the French would crush the Germans in a week or two. However, on 1 September, the Prussians defeated the French at Sedan, captured the bulk of the French army, and took the Emperor himself prisoner. By mid-September the Prussians had reached Versailles, and on 20 September they surrounded and blockaded the capital. The siege of Paris had begun whilst inside were the sets and costumes for the premiere of Aida in Cairo; a minor matter as perceived by the Prussians.
For a time all communication was severed from Paris to the outside world. Ever resourceful, the Parisians sent outward mail via hot-air balloon so that Verdi and Cairo knew that the premiere, and the La Scala performances, would have to be put back. The opera was eventually premiered in Cairo on Christmas Eve 1871 to great enthusiasm for it and for the Khedive. It was a success that would be repeated on 8 February 1872, when Aida opened at La Scala. Verdi was there to enjoy the seemingly endless applause and 32 curtain-calls. On 20 April that year Verdi conducted Aida in Parma, then in Naples. By 1878, Aida had been performed in more than 130 opera houses around the world, from Buenos Aires to Vienna. It continues to be a standard in the repertory of most opera houses today.
Whilst this, the ultimate traditional production continues its life, Aida has not survived all the vicissitudes of regietheater or producer concept (see review). One unusual view of it is presented in Robert Wilson’s minimalist staging albeit the set represents the Egyptian setting (see review). Elsewhere a big budget is a starter for any staging. That at the Metropolitan Opera is a typical example: DG DVD 073 001-9 from 1989 with Domingo and Aprille Millo and Decca DVD074 3428 from 2009 with Johan Botha and Violetta Urmana. Cut down efforts are often less successful (see review).
Despite often marketing their film products at premium price, Opus Arte is minimalist in the supporting documentation. There is no list of Chapters (Tracks) let alone their contents or timings. For the aid of purchasers I give details of the acts below.
Scene 1. Chapters 2 to 9
Scene 2. Chapters 10 to 12
Scene 1. Chapters 13 to 17
Scene 2. Chapters 18 to 24 (Triumphal scene)
Act 3 Chapters 25 to 32
Scene 1. Chapters 33 to 37
Scene 2. Chapter 38