Verdi had been commissioned to write a Grand Opera to celebrate the Paris Great Exhibition in 1867. It was his twenty-fifth title and it fitted the specification of five acts including a ballet to perfection, and then some, to the extent that twenty minutes of music had to be excised to ensure the audience did not miss their trains home. The Exhibition drew the great and the good from all over the world. Among those who saw the opera, Don Carlos
, was the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt. A cultured and highly intelligent man Khedive Ismail Pasha was intent on bringing his country into the nineteenth century whilst always being proud of its past greatness and heritage. The Khedive had set about the modernisation of Cairo including the construction of a new opera house modelled on La Scala. In this way he believed and intended his new Cairo would stand alongside the great capitals of Europe. Contemporaneously, he also commissioned the building of the Suez Canal under the supervision of a French engineer.
The opening of the new Cairo Opera House featured Verdi’s Rigoletto
. To celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal the Khedive was intent on an opera by Verdi in the grand style of Don Carlos
, albeit not having to be in five acts. As his intermediary he asked Verdi’s friend, and Paris representative, Camille Du Locle, Director of the Opéra Comique, to act for him with Verdi. Du Locle wrote to the composer from Thebes extolling the wonders of Egypt where he was travelling, and later told him of the Khedive’s wishes. Verdi was not interested, being busy with other projects, but was persuaded to review the situation by a combination of the fee, that the commission might otherwise go to Wagner or Gounod, but also being intrigued by the synopsis prepared by Auguste Mariette, a French Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. The synopsis was full of scenic detail.
The Khedive stipulated that the opera was to be purely ancient Egypt with the sets to be based on historical accounts and costumes to be designed after the archaeological bas-reliefs of upper Egypt. 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 from Egypt to supervise the construction of the set and costumes ready for the premiere in Cairo scheduled for January 1871; the La Scala performances were to follow a few weeks later. The Khedive did not merely want the theme to reflect Egyptian history but to be accurate in all details of scenery. To this effect, and keen to obey the Khedive, Mariette provided these to Verdi along with detailed sketches of the costumes, finishing them in brilliant watercolour.
Verdi commissioned the construction of the sets in Paris, with the premiere scheduled for December 1870. Really bitten, and so as to achieve the greatest historical accuracy in his music, the composer asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. Because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, and the siege of Paris, the sets and costumes were marooned in the city and the premiere had to be put back one year. However the Khedive’s specifications remained the same.
A couple of days before writing this review I had seen a performance of Puccini’s Turandot
transmitted from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Dating from 1987 the production by the Italian Zeffirelli had been refurbished for the season. His productions had all tended to be traditional and on the grand scale as was the Turandot
I saw: visually magnificent. This Peter Stein production of Aida
at La Scala replaced such a traditional production by Zeffirelli. It opened the season in December 2006 and made the news when the tenor, Roberto Alagna was booed after a cracked note. It was in similar vein, grand and realistic and may well have met the Khedive’s specifications. It seems the great producer, now well into his eighties, was more than a bit miffed that it had bitten the dust at La Scala after such a short life.
In this production, Director Peter Stein eschews the grandeur of traditional productions and concentrates on the interactions of the roles so as to bring out their intimate relationships that underpin the opera. To this end the sets are more simple and representational than realistic. This approach puts much greater pressure on the singers and not all those in this cast are up to it in terms of their acting or vocal characterisation. As the tenor hero, Radames, Fabio Sartori is unsubtle vocally and hardly has the physique du part
of the ardent young lover. As his lover, Aida herself, the American Kristin Lewis acts well, looks the part but has, as yet, a voice half a size too small. Nonetheless her singing has beauty and her phrasing, if not her diction, is admirable. As her father, Amonasro, the unrecognized King of Ethiopia, George Gagnidze makes what he can whilst persuading Aida to tempt her lover to divulge state secrets. I would be interested to hear him as Rigoletto for example to make a better judgement. As the High Priest Ramfis, Matti Salminen looks old and sounds it for this Verdi role. His underpowered priest seemingly influences the King of fellow bass Carlo Colombara far too easily in a role that seems not to suit the latter's vocal strengths either.
Can one singer save a performance of this opera with all its challenges? As Amneris, the Georgian mezzo, Anita Rachvelishvili, a sometime La Scala academy trainee, just about does that. She acts superbly and sings with an evenness of tone, vocal characterisation and elegance of phrasing that portends a great professional future in the Verdi mezzo territory. It's a region where the cupboard has been rather bare since the great days of the Italian mezzos Stignani, Barbieri and Cossotto, which is not to forget the Americans Bumbry and Verrett in their mezzo days.
On the rostrum the vastly experienced Zubin Mehta, who has recordings of this opera in the catalogue (see review
), is variable, one minute driving the drama, but over-languorous minutes later. He substituted for Lorin Maazel, originally carded, after the American’s untimely death. I do not know how he viewed the excision of so much of the traditional ballet sequence in the triumphal scene. I am aware that the premiere had a shorter ballet than we are nowadays used to; Verdi having added extra music for performances in Paris in 1880. The great composer never changed his compositions without cause and improvement, particularly in his later works. Its significant reduction from both that heard at the premiere, let alone the omission of the 1880 additions, takes a lot away from the performance of that normally magnificent scene. Stein’s overall sparse staging does not improve things with its excessively dark or backlit scenes especially in acts three and four which are often far too dark.
The whole left me feeling short-changed, even underwhelmed. The triumphal return of the Egyptian army under the direction of Radames, with its trumpets, ballet and colour is renowned as being one of the most famous scenes in opera. A corpulent Radames entering waving a large red flag is hardly the stuff of triumph.
Many will relate to the theatre’s future production strategy as Riccardo Chailly assumes the music directorship after some variable years under Barenboim. As for this recording Rachvelishvili’s performance stands out but the spartan staging, idiosyncratic lighting, combined with mediocre singing and the omission of music leaves this staging of Verdi’s spectacular late work in question. Hardly recommendable.
Robert J Farr