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64th Wexford Festival Opera

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Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

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The Magic Flute in San Francisco

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G. Verdi: Aida
01 Dec 2008

Verdi's Aida at La Scala

Can this truly be the production of Verdi's Aida that earned world-wide headlines in December 2007?

G. Verdi: Aida

Violeta Urmana, Roberto Alagna, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Riccardo Chailly.

Decca 074 3209 [2DVDs]

$39.98  Click to buy

The La Scala audience - or rather, members thereof - booed Roberto Alagna’s “lyrical” Radames after his use of an alternative, softer ending to “Celeste, Aida.” The outraged tenor stalked off the stage, and a stand-by tenor rushed on stage within a few moments to help the show go on. A little excitement such as that would make this DVD a lot more enjoyable.

Decca’s DVD packaging gives no information that your reviewer could find as to the exact source of this video, but since Alagna sings all the way through, it must mostly come from the premiere evening. The big news to that point had been the return to La Scala of Franco Zeffirelli as director/designer. The uncredited author of the booklet essay acknowledges the Hollywood attributes of Zeffirelli’s typically lavish traditional production, yet goes on to claim that it is “tastefully realized,” apparently because it “left enough room for chorus and principals.” How thoughtful of Zeffirelli!

Actually, the hugeness of the sets comes mostly in the height and width of the backdrops. Zeffirelli provides more than ample space. In the opening confrontation between Radames and Amneris, a herd of elephants could pass between them. A director concerned with the essential intimacy of the opera’s drama could still inspire the singers to give committed, natural performances. Zeffirelli apparently decided to let the sets and costumes do the work. Violeta Urmana in the title role, Roberto Alagna, Ildiko Komlosi as Amneris and Carlo Guelfi as Aida’s father all act as if from a manual of stock operatic gestures and poses. The singing, though unimaginative, is thoroughly professional (yes, even from Alagna), and Riccardo Chailly manages to evoke a fresh, invigorating reading of a score so familiar to the La Scala musicians. Yet the enormous cost of the production can’t dispel the feeling that this is a cheap substitute for an Aida that would really honor the complexity and majesty of Verdi’s masterpiece.

TV director Patrizia Carmine annoyingly inserts fuzzy close-ups of prop details, often at the oddest moments. But it is not Carmine’s fault that zooming in on a shield pattern here or a dusky hand clasp there can’t really pull the viewer into the action. After awhile, your reviewer began to search the three pages of credits in the booklet, to see who plastered all that bronzer on the singers (Oscar del Frate and Cristine Isac). Alagna looks orange in some scenes.

Some people go for this sort of thing, so those people should, well, go for it. But there is another Zeffirelli Aida worth checking out, with a cast of mostly unknown younger singers, staged in the relatively tiny Verdi theater in Busetto. There the famed director found a way to indulge his taste for old-fashioned trimmings while keeping a focus on doing the detailed work that makes a performance come to life.

Chris Mullins

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