07 Aug 2005


The director of this production, Robert Herzl, composed an impressively thoughtful and serious essay for the DVD booklet. He considers the historical context of both the opera-story and the opera's premiere, taking into consideration Verdi's staging demands as well as the composer's willingness to compromise for the greater benefit of the production.

Eventually, this statement appears:

In my view, those who plan to put a work on the stage should first of all take a look at it from the viewpoint of the age in which it was written, in order to be able to present it in a manner that meets the aesthetic requirements of our own time.

Herzl goes on to explain how that principle guided the creation of this production at this "open-air event" (basically, a quarry) at the Festival St. Margarethen festival.

Viewers of the lamentable result will have to reconcile Herzl's essay with his show. Your reviewer cannot do so.

Working in conjunction with Manfred Waba (stage design and special effects), Herzl has devised an Aida with over-the-top stage action which frequently swamps the story and dwarfs the characters. Examples: At the end of her confrontation with Aida, Amneris hops into a chariot, grabs a shield and sword, and goes flying off the stage, like a Valkyrie. For the victory procession, Radames (probably a double, as the singer's face is masked) laboriously rides an elephant down a hillside onto the stage area. In the final scene, each of the three principals is placed in vertically aligned openings carved high into the quarry wall, with visible restraining ropes to keep the singers from accidentally falling forward and down to a doom more certain that suffocation in such a "tomb" (why Amneris is placed in the same location goes unexplained).

One might also wish for an explanation as to how a Nordic blonde youth ended up in Egypt for the requisite farce of a dance sequence. And what would Verdi have thought of the lovingly filmed fireworks show at intermission? Perhaps best not to know.

Even when such outlandish malarkey isn't provoking either groans or guffaws (or both), Herzl has failed to get satisfactory performances from his singers, with the Aida of Eszter Sumegi being a notable exception. Cornelia Helfricht's Amneris needs a good slap, as she struts arrogantly round the stage, frequently displaying a tendency to throws cups and articles of clothing to the ground in a hissy fit. The voice is no fresher than her matronly appearance would suggest.

As for Kostadin Andreev's Radames, here is a plump, not especially masculine Egyptian war hero given to pouting and "dramatic" arm waving. Andreev doesn't have a satisfactory voice to compensate for his unfortunate acting, with most of the voice no more than a mezzo forte bleat, although he can reach the high notes.

Eszter Sumegi retains her dignity for most of the evening. The tight vibrato will evoke varying responses in listeners, but she has it in fair control, and most miraculously, manages to create and hold onto a believable character. The best scene of the evening takes place on a bare stage, as Amonasro (a decent Igor Morosow) confronts his daughter. Here Herzl shows what he can do when quarry-sized antics don't come first.

At the start and after intermission, the orchestra is glimpsed, but their exact location in relation to the stage remains a mystery, as the quarry setting allows for no pit. The sound throughout, unsurprisingly, comes from a generic source, and all the singers sport small microphones, tastefully taped to the center of their foreheads. The cast resembles an alien race of a Star Trek episode where the budget only allowed for a brow ridge to indicate their extra-terrestrial origins.

Almost any other Aida on DVD earns preference over this one, but if a viewer wants more of the intimacy of the opera captured, the Zefferelli-produced Busetto production deserves mention. For high-powered singing and stage excess, perhaps the La Scala production with a quarry-sized Pavarotti would fit the bill.

Just anything, anything, other than this Festival St. Margarethen production. The fireworks are nice though.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Harbor College