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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 - 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; Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, Arena di Verona, 23 June 2012
Sound format: PCM stereo, 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 [150:00]

Seeing Aïda at the Arena di Verona is one of the great spectacles in the world of opera and one that hundreds of thousands of tourists have experienced. For many it is possibly the first and only visit to an opera ‘house’.
I overheard more than 25 years ago during a coach ride from the little village Garda on Lake Garda down to Verona, a conversation - a one-way conversation actually - where the ‘expert’, on hearing the guide making a résumé of the plot, loudly declared that ‘nobody is interested in the story’ and, upon being timidly asked by a less knowledgeable co-passengers whether there were any good singers in the cast, dismissed the whole bunch with a supercilious ‘No, only unknown ones!’ Those unknown singers were: Dame Gwyneth Jones, Fiorenza Cossotto, Franco Bonisolli, Cornell MacNeil and Bonaldo Giaiotto. I hope they enjoyed the spectacle and could stand the singing of those ‘second-raters’.
Spectacular it certainly was. In fact it was the same production as on this DVD, first seen at the arena in 1982 and a recreation of the very first production at the arena in 1913, to celebrate Verdi’s 100th Anniversary. What was seen in 1913, in its turn, was based on the work of Auguste Mariette, the French archaeologist and Egyptologist, who oversaw the design of the costumes and sets. These were inspired by the art of ancient Egypt and were used at the premiere of Aïda in Cairo on 24 December 1871. This means that what we see in this production is as close as possible to the ur-Aïda. Read more about the genesis of Aïda in my colleague Robert Farr’s review (here).
There is always a special thrill to seeing a majestic production at Verona, preferably on site, with those thousands of candellini being lit as darkness falls. As a substitute, and possibly as an incentive to plan a visit to Verona next summer, this DVD will more than do.
Whether the self-appointed ‘expert’ mentioned above would recognize any of the ‘second-raters’ in this cast is another matter. One of them, Francesco Ellero d’Artegna, who sings Ramfis, is a true arena-veteran. He made his professional debut in 1981 at the Arena, singing Zaccaria in Nabucco. He still sounds well and makes an imposing stage-figure. The other bass, Roberto Tagliavini - a more than acceptable Farao - is a relative newcomer. He debuted as recently as 2004. Ambrogio Maestri’s Amonasro is imposing. ‘Italy’s answer to Bryn Terfel’ as a Gramophone publication wittily pet-named him. He is probably best known as an ebullient Falstaff but he has the measure of the Ethiopian king too. In the Nile scene he is formidable. Marco Berti’s Radamès is, in the line of Mario Del Monaco, stentorian and unwieldy. Initially he is also rather shaky and dry-voiced, but he recovers. He has a great deal of sap and brilliance in key passages, though rarely trying to sing below forte. Amneris is sung by the big-voiced Hungarian mezzo Andrea Ulbrich, a new acquaintance to me. Hers is a vibrant and sensual voice and she sings with great passion. Besides Amneris she has also sung Fenena in Nabucco and Azucena in Il trovatore - both at the Arena.
The chief reason to acquire this DVD is Hui He in the title role. This Chinese soprano, who lives in Verona, has during the last ten years become one of the foremost exponents of Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Aida; there is another DVD of Aïda from Florence 2011 with her and several others from the present production. ‘Hers is not the larger-than-life ear-splitting type of voice but a subtly sensitive and lyric. She couples this with the expansion of dynamics that allows her to ride the orchestra also at tutti. Her pianissimos in the Nile aria and later in the tomb scene are truly ravishing.’ This is what I wrote about the Florence performance and it is 100% valid here too. There are few better Aidas on the international circuit at the moment.
Daniel Oren is a vastly experienced arena conductor, who led his first Aïda there in 1985. I presume that he was more inspirational then than he was 27 years later. This is at best a routine reading. It’s comforting though that he has the first-class orchestral and choral forces of the Arena at his disposal. They all know the work inside-out.
Buy this set for the spectacular production and for the lovely singing of Hui He.
Göran Forsling  

Previous review: Robert J Farr

Masterwork Index: Aida