by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The Met’s most recent Aïda came from a matinee on October 24, 2009 and featured Violeta Urmana as Aïda, Johan Botha (the white South African tenor who’s garnered good reviews as a potential Heldentenor; he didn’t sound to me like he had the weight and heft for Wagner but his voice suited this role just fine) as Radamès, Dolora Zajick as Amneris and Carlo Guelfi as Amonasro (rather oddly made up to resemble Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz). The production by Sonja Frisell was impressive — perhaps a little too impressive; the Triumphal Scene featured live horses (though not the live elephants you get at the Arena di Verona in Italy) and the main set was clearly based on the famous tomb of Ramses II at Abu Simbel and looked enviably solid and substantial on stage.
Aïda is a peculiar opera because Verdi was writing it largely to the old formula of the French grand opera — the original librettist, Mariette Bey, was a French Egyptologist (who had taken “Bey” as a last name to indicate his love for Egyptian culture, though he apparently saw it in the alternately sympathetic and patronizing way of what’s been called “Orientalism”), and the librettist of record was Antonio Ghislanzoni, a hack Verdi hired to turn Bey’s French prose into Italian verse (and for Aïda’s “O patria mia” in act three and the final duet in act four, Verdi found Ghislanzoni’s verses inadequate and wrote the texts himself) — and yet a lot of it is surprisingly quiet and intimate.
The second scene of act one, in which Radamès receives his commission to lead the Egyptian army against the Ethiopians in the temple of Ptah (the only god in the Egyptian pantheon mentioned in the text), isn’t the big, bombastic slice of De Mille-anticipating cheese it would have been if Meyerbeer were writing this; it’s a marvelous piece of mood setting with the famous part for the unseen high priestess (sung by Ilona Massey in a 1937 Hungarian performance which Louis B. Mayer attended and decided that, if the voice’s body was as beautiful as the voice itself, he would sign her to a movie contract; and later sung by the then-unknown Joan Sutherland in the 1953 Covent Garden production that starred Maria Callas as Aïda — though it’s a common career progression in the movie business it’s rare in opera for someone to rise from minor roles to a star career the way Sutherland did) and only when the choristers cry out “Immenso Ptah!” at the end does it get loud — and the third and fourth acts are surprisingly character-driven and spectacle-free: Aïda worms out of Radamès the secret of which route the Egyptian army is going to take when it marches into Ethiopia, Radamès is condemned as a traitor, Amneris tries to get him off the hook, he refuses to mount a defense at his trial, he’s sentenced to be buried alive and Aïda joins him in the tomb for a final duet that’s one of the most gorgeous pieces in all opera.
Aïda is one of the most popular operas of all time — it’s been said that the bread and butter operas for any company in the world are “A-B-C,” Aïda, La Bohème and Carmen — and yet it’s also one of the oddest. It’s got glorious spectacle but its most powerful scenes are intimate. Radamès gets one of the most famous tenor arias in the repertoire — and he has to sing it in his first five minutes on stage, which has driven several generations of tenors (most recently Roberto Alagna) nuts. Aïda is billed as a showy dramatic part, yet through much of the action she’s subordinate to Amneris and her big arias are wildly contrasted; “Ritorna vincitor!” is a dramatic scena of shifting moods that begins in visceral anger and ends in a quiet plea to the gods, while “O patria mia” is a quiet, reflective meditation on the joys and beauties of her homeland.
It’s also a problematic opera for the reasons Joseph Kerman noted in his book Opera as Drama; the libretto is a good one in that it makes dramatic sense, the conflicts (love vs. filial duty, love vs. patriotism and national pride) are effective and well drawn, and yet the characters are cardboard and only Amneris even approaches multidimensionality. Radamès in particular is awfully close to the usual operatic tenor idiot, somehow convinced that his girlfriend Aïda is going to be impressed when he conquers, occupies and lays waste to her country; all too easily tricked into giving up Egypt’s big military secret and not one whit bitter at Aïda for having tricked him and sent him plummeting from heir apparent to the Egyptian throne to traitor condemned to death. It’s a well-made opera and yet Verdi created better ones both earlier (La Traviata and Don Carlos) and later (Otello and Falstaff, both based on Shakespeare plays and with Arrigo Boïto as adapter and librettist).
The Met mostly did it honor with this production — Frisell’s sets are spectacular and the camerawork on this project aimed at making the most of them, often shooting from overhead and practically turning the dance of the slave girls into a Busby Berkeley number (it seemed unusual, to say the least, for a live telecast of an opera to be venturing into this sort of territory and giving us vistas the audience in the house couldn’t possibly see) — and the voices are well cast even though Urmana, Botha and Zajick are all “people of size,” filling out Verdi’s romantic roles with large, chunky frames that are the stuff of which thousands of nasty jokes about opera by people who don’t like it (as opposed to the brilliant jokes about opera by the likes of Anna Russell and Ira Siff, who did like it) have been made. I remember an Opera Quarterly review of a video of a Met Aïda in the 1980’s that starred Luciano Pavarotti and dressed him in a costume that “makes him look even bigger than he is — like an office building with a singing head,” and though I don’t know if that was the same production as this one the same could be said of Botha here.
Botha’s singing as Radamès is solid without being especially powerful; the women were better — Urmana seemed a bit low-keyed during the first scene but delivered a riveting “Ritorna vincitor!” and an atmospheric “O patria mia” (though she’s definitely a dramatic Olivero-Callas style Aïda rather than a musical Milanov-Tebaldi-Caballé one), and Zajick, despite her bulk and (like the other principals) singularly unattractive costuming that overemphasized it, managed to make Amneris’s different faces credible as a unified character. If this Aïda wasn’t as stirring as it could have been, the blame lies on the shoulders of the conductor, Daniele Gatti — who took this opera v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, stretching out Aïda’s big arias so much that I feared for Urmana’s breath control and plodding through the opera in nearly 2 1/2 hours (Toscanini nailed it in less than two, and as Gatti creeped along through “Ritorna vincitor!” I couldn’t help but think of Maria Callas’s recollection that when she was first coached in the role by her mentor, conductor Tullio Serafin, he “wanted so much agitation I could barely get the words out”) to the point that much of Aïda sounded like Gatti were re-inventing it as lounge music. Overall, the Met Aïda is a decent performance of a standard repertory opera, vividly staged, professionally sung but, alas, all too lackadaisically conducted and therefore far less exciting or moving than this opera can be.