No, it wasn’t written for the opening of the Suez Canal, though it makes for a great anecdote and has become one of those sticky legends that won’t go away. What am I talking about? “Aida,” one of the best known operas of all time, by Giuseppe Verdi. If anyone under 20 is reading, no, it’s not by Elton John.
Can you imagine a grand American opera by a living composer commissioned for the opening of, oh, Ground Zero? I don’t think so.
Grand opera is never grander than when all the details are seen to, which was almost the case on October 24 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I saw a middle of the run show of the current “Aida,” conducted by Daniele Gatti, whose work was the highlight of the day. The conductor can really make or break an opera, though we in the peanut gallery usually focus on the singers, who get nearly all the glory, or shame, depending.
Gatti somehow managed to bring out the intimacy in this usually bombastic score, stressing Verdi’s mastery of polyphony in the rapt account of the prelude, and the development of those themes later in the opera. Instead of a string of hit tunes, Verdi’s work emerged as a proto-symphony with its own logic and integrity of purely musical development.
The splendid Metropolitan Opera Chorus was in fine form, making one wish for perhaps a Verdi “Requiem” from them sometime soon.
Intimacy is not something one associates with “Aida,” which gave rise to a wonderful George Bernard Shaw anecdote: Shaw, an avid and cultured music critic, was at a very grand performance of “Aida” at the Baths of Caracalla (outside Rome), complete with elephants and other numerous livestock in the triumphal march scene. When one of the precious pachyderms did what animals will do on the stage, Shaw quipped to his neighbor “Messy beast, but GAD what a critic!”
For my taste, the triumphal march was actually a bit sparse, containing but five horses total, and numerous suspiciously light-skinned Ethiopians. Supernumeraries must be harder to come by these days.
The principals were: Violeta Urmana, soprano (Aida), Johan Botha, tenor (Radames), and Dolora Zajic, mexxo-soprano (Amneris). They all did their jobs respectably, though one could quibble with one thing or another, and lament that the “great” era, whenever that was, of Verdi singers is no longer with us.
Botha actually attempted to do Verdi’s decrescendo up to high B-Flats in the cruel first aria of the opera “Celeste Aida,” by artfully mixing head voice, a sort of falsetto, with his full voice. I respect his attempt at this often-ignored nuance.
Urmana had many lovely floated soft high notes, but otherwise sounded pinched or shrill, as though suffering the after-effects of a cold. I missed a certain warmth coupled with amplitude in her sound that to me equals Verdi.
And what can you say about Dolora Zajic, a vocal force of nature? No mere orchestra is ever going to drown her out! Though not known for vocal subtlety, she just plants her feet in the stage and delivers visceral vocal power.
The conflict between love and power/duty is a typical Verdi theme, as is the father/daughter tension. The universality of jealousy is what keeps this period-piece relevant. It isn’t really about the conquest of Ethiopia by Egypt. One might call it, from the point of view of the three principals, the Department of Homeland Insecurity. If Cairo had embedded reporters on its Ethiopian campaign, none of this plot would have ever happened. And by the way, the mezzo (shrew, witch, Amneris, Zajic) doesn’t get the guy.
The love-triangle found amidst all the spectacle doesn’t turn out well, it seems they never do, when two women love the same man. The man here winds up betrayed, and is sentenced to be entombed alive. Guess what? His true love, you know, the one the opera is named for, is awaiting him in the tomb to perish with him. But not before they sing over a quarter hour of the most passionate love music!
How’s the air in there folks?
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs