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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida, opera in four acts (1871) [140.25]
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live October 2015 Teatro Regio Torino, Italy
C MAJOR 737004 Blu-ray [148.00]

With several different productions in its catalogue the C Major label is clearly attracted to Verdi’s Egyptian opera Aida. In 2015 it released Peter Stein’s 2015 production from Teatro alla Scala and now following close on its heels is William Friedkin’s 2015 revival from Teatro Regio Torino. Celebrated veteran film director Friedkin is best known for the Academy Award winning The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) and created this Teatro Regio production back in 2005. To open the season at Regio Teatro this revival of Aida is intended as a tribute to the reopening of the Egyptian Museum in Torino.

Verdi’s opera Aida to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni has an enduring popularity which shows little sign of relenting. It was the Khedive of Egypt who commissioned the score to mark the opening of the Khedivial Opera House and not to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal as the popular myth proclaims. Aida received its première at Cairo in 1871 although the first time Verdi himself saw a production of his opera was just over a month later at Teatro alla Scala. Recently I recall Sir Anthony Pappano stating that Verdi’s Aida cannot be defined or labelled “It’s a one-off in every sense. It’s not an intimate opera neither is it a grand opera.” Interviewed for a rehearsal video clip for this Teatro Regio Torino production stage director William Friedkin stated that “Aida is about jealousy, it’s about love and it’s about patriotism. I believe Verdi was writing just as much about the spirit of Italy as he was writing of Ancient Egypt; about which he know nothing. Verdi knew nothing of Ancient Egypt, he basically invented Egyptian music.”

What we have here is a traditional vision from Friedkin and his set designer Carlo Diappi, a production that is reasonably lavish by today’s standards but moderate when say compared to the luxuriant revivals at Teatro alla Scala of Franco Zeffirelli’s historical 1963 production. The production feels ideal, rather more intimate and with far fewer over the top distractions, so to keep the eye focused on the proceedings. In general the set excellently conveys a lucid depiction of Ancient Egypt. Most of the action takes place in a hall of the King’s Palace and Temple of Isis constructed with a geometrically shaped concept of stone block walls and large stone statues. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols are employed convincingly and are especially successful and easily recognisable when presented in the cartouche form. Especially effective is the Chamber of Amneris displayed as a rectangular cut-out of the stage. The very large bath (looking rather like a small swimming pool) can just be seen and the walls are lavishly decorated from top to bottom with hieroglyphic symbols. Diappi also designs the period costumes which are ideal, maintaining the traditional values of the staging without being as lavish as some productions. Successfully standing out, as intended, are the costumes of Aida wearing a stunning burnt orange dress and the robes worn by Amneris with her long braided locks.

Greatly appreciated, as demonstrated by the weight of audience applause, Marc Ribaud’s choreography of the two large dance episodes is marvellously accomplished full of vivacious energy and generating plenty of excitement. Inside the Temple of Vulcan for the ballet (act one, scene two) the shaven headed dancers are dressed in long white robes. Marking the return from battle of Radamès and his troops for the victorious procession at the gates of Thebes (act two, scene two) the dancers are made up as native Africans, wearing net loincloths. In opera the practice of blacking up of cast as Africans is alive and well. Here it’s not just the native dancers there is also group of Nubian prisoners blacked-up with wigs.

Kristin Lewis recently sang the title role for Peter Stein’s production of Aida in 2015 at Teatro alla Scala also on C Major. At ease in the title role of the Ethiopian Princess captured as a slave girl, Lewis sings her romanzas ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ and O patria Mia’ with considerable assurance, displaying commitment and dramatic strength. Gliding smoothly with fluidity through her range the American lyrico-spinto communicates a tender expression. I have seen more emotionally charged performances in the title role but Lewis acts well here, if in a rather understated way. The treasurable role of Radamès has attracted heart-throb tenors of the calibre of Jonas Kaufmann and Roberto Alagna in recent years. Maybe not a heart-throb tenor and rather older I guess than most people’s idea of the love struck Egyptian army captain, Marco Berti is certainly an experienced Radamès. Gifted with one of the most famous of all opera arias, ‘Celeste Aida’, which appears early in the opera, the Italian tenor copes well, giving a moving rendition, masculine and full of sincerity with a voice full of vocal colour.

Anita Rachvelishvili, also appeared in Peter Stein’s 2015 production of Aida at Teatro alla Scala on C Major; here she gives a stand-out performance as the cunning Princess Amneris the daughter of the Egyptian King. ‘L'abborrita rivale a me sfuggia’, the Georgian mezzo’s challenging aria receives a sterling performance, firm, dark hued and highly expressive, if sometimes at the expense of steadiness. Heavily passionate, the duet with Radamès ‘Già i sacerdoti adunansi’ sees Rachvelishvili generating an abundance of emotional drama combined with her convincing acting. Demonstrating a consistent level of self-assurance, bass-baritone Mark S. Doss as Amonasro the Ethiopian King and stentorian bass Giacomo Prestia as Ramfis the high priest, both acquit themselves commendably. As the Egyptian King bass In-Sung Sim does all that is asked of him and Kate Fruchterman as the High Priestess sounds fine too, in her voice only part. Fiercely committed, the assured Gianandrea Noseda conducts his Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio di Torino who perform splendidly throughout in music they must know so well. Especially rewarding are Noseda’s chosen dynamics, which feel ideal, adding to the on stage drama. In particular, the ‘Triumphal March’ is brilliantly done providing plenty of splendour.

Filmed in Ultra HD/4K, the colour of the costumes and the big celebratory scenes are vivid. Video director Tiziano Mancini provides an exemplary viewing experience; the camera work provides just the right mix of close-ups and distance shots. Footage of the audience taking their seats in the house and shots of Maestro Noseda and his players in the pit before each act and some of the scenes all contribute to convey the atmosphere of a live production. In the accompanying booklet there is a helpful track listing, an essay ‘Aida – Monumental yet still intimate’ and a brief but clear synopsis both by Jan-Eric Dörr. Those wanting to read the fascinating history of the opera will have to look elsewhere and I suggest that the Aida ENO Opera Guide with its libretto and English translation published by John Calder is the place to visit. There are no bonus features, only trailers for several operas in the C Major catalogue. Interviews with the director and his team and one or two of the main cast are always welcome and really enhance the appeal of a release.

On film the main competition in Aida comes from Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant 2006 production from Teatro alla Scala under Riccardo Chailly featuring Violeta Urmana and Roberto Alagna on Decca. Also worthy, I admire the thrilling 1989 production from the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb/Brian Large production conducted by James Levine featuring Placido Domino as Radamès on Deutsche Grammophon. This William Friedkin production of Aida is a dramatically satisfying one which can stand alongside the finest.

Michael Cookson

Performance details
Aida – Kristin Lewis (soprano)
Amneris – Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo)
Radamès – Marco Berti (tenor)
Amonasro – Mark S. Doss (bass-baritone)
Ramfis – Giacomo Prestia (bass);
King of Egypt – In-Sung Sim (bass)
Messenger – Dario Prola (tenor)
The High Priestess – Kate Fruchterman (soprano)
Stage Director – William Friedkin
Set and Costume Designer – Carlo Diappi
Choreography – Marc Ribaud
Lighting Designer – Andrea Anfossi
Chorus Master – Claudio Fenoglio
Video Director – Tiziano Mancini
Filmed in Ultra High Definition/4K – Mastered from a HD source
Picture format: 1080i – 16:9
Sound formats:
a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
Subtitles in Italian (original language), German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese