Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Herbert Howells: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music. This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury’s contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 21 (“Kaddish”)

Mieczysław Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust firsthand. He survived, though millions didn’t, including his family. His Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish” (Op. 152) is a deeply personal statement. Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Kenshiro Sakairi and the Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic in Mahler’s Eighth

Although some works by a number of composers have had to wait uncommonly lengthy periods of time to receive Japanese premieres - one thinks of both Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Fifth (1918), Handel’s Messiah (1929), Wagner’s Parsifal (1967), Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1966) and even Bruckner’s Eighth (1959, given its premiere by Herbert von Karajan) - Mahler might be considered to have fared somewhat better.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Johan Botha as Radames [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
15 Oct 2009

Aida at the MET

Noblesse oblige: The Met feels it must present Aida — and Tosca — and La Bohème — and certain other gaudy spectacles — because it’s the Met and everyone expects the grandest of the grand.

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida

Aida: Violeta Urmana; Amneris: Dolora Zajick; Radames: Johan Botha; Amonasro: Carlo Guelfi; Ramfis: Roberto Scandiuzzi; Pharaoh: Stefan Kocán. Conducted by Daniele Gatti. Metropolitan Opera, performance of October 12.

Above: Johan Botha as Radames

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

The dearth of grand Verdi sopranos and tenors from the current opera scene does not deter. This has led to some somnambulistic Aidas in recent years, but the current revival, spiffed up and to an extent restaged by Stephen Pickover with new choreography by ABT’s Alexei Ratmansky plus a new conductor, Daniele Gatti, makes it a more satisfying evening than many Aidas of recent years. To top it off — this should be basic, but in fact it’s rare — five good singers with great big voices perform the leading roles. How often does that happen?

One detail may indicate how rethinking little things can improve a whole performance. Act IV, scene 1, the Judgment Scene of Aida: Amneris sits stage front, all headdress and nerves — the man she loves, Radames, is just offstage, on trial by the priests for having betrayed Egypt. Not coincidentally, he has also betrayed Amneris, his fiancée, for love of the slave girl Aida, secretly daughter to the Ethiopian king. Three times, high priest Ramfis reads the charges … and Radames refuses to reply. “He does not answer,” Ramfis says, and the priests cry, “Traitor!” — to which Amneris responds with rising hysteria, ever more desperate to save the man she still loves — who is condemned to burial alive. A brief drum roll crescendo covers the space between each of Ramfis’s questions and the bald statement: “He does not answer.” Verdi assumed conductors would understand the excitement of the moment … and hold onto it as long as they could. James Levine used to drive me crazy at this point, always jumping the gun as if, knowing Radames isn’t going to answer, he saw no reason to wait for it. The reason to wait is because it’s drama — tension in the theater is gold, never something to toss heedlessly away.

In the current run, Daniele Gatti sits on those brief pauses over low timpani rolls for several jittery seconds, giving us time to sit up and chew our nails. Dolora Zajick, the Amneris, clutches an idol and twists her jewels, and we get the little jolt just as Verdi planned. Sweet.

AIDA_scene_Urmana_and_Guelfi_2463.pngVioleta Urmana as Aida and Carlo Guelfi as Amonasro

This makes up for some scrappy work from Gatti and the orchestra elsewhere, ill-balanced horns blaring in the prelude, a flute coming in a bar too early in the ballet — is the Met bored with this opera? They’ve given it over eleven hundred times and last Columbus Day (or Verdi Day, as William Berger has suggested it be renamed, to honor the composer’s birthday on the tenth) the Met was playing to a packed house. There was, however, a sense — on the third Aida of the run! — that Maestro Gatti had not settled matters of tempo with his singers or was still changing his mind. Phrases were sometimes rushed when the singers seemed to wish to linger, or held back while they barreled ahead. Johan Botha’s Radames did not find the music waiting for his voice on his Act III entrance and had to hurry along to catch it up. Also, though this is not Gatti’s fault but director Pickover’s, during the triumphal procession of Act II, the many squadrons of soldiery marathoned past Pharaoh at such a pace that there is no time to pause to bow to their sovereign on the reviewing stand. Were I the king, I’d send the whole lot off to the papyrus mines.

Despite these lapses, it was about as solid an Aida as may be heard on these shores nowadays, the sets monumental as ever, the enormous Met forces appearing even more numerous than they were (two horses lead the procession, plus another to pull the chariot), the five leading roles sung by big voices, each well able to fill the enormous room.

AIDA_Urmana_0127.pngVioleta Urmana as Aida

Violeta Urmana, the night’s Aida, has a sumptuous soprano with a warm glow to it — she doesn’t have to push to flood the house with sound, and she glides into lovely piano phrases of nostalgia for Ethiopia or when fading to death in the tomb. These perfect, purling phrases are not always to be depended upon, however — a line or two of “O patria mia” peeled paint and elsewhere she dipped into flatness, and she sometimes ran out of breath on a high note. Then, just as you thought she’s simply a soprano with a “short top,” she launches a flawless legato over the very roof of her range. Aida is a long role with a lot of high floating notes alternated with deep descent, and the leaps in dynamics from one emotion or range to a contrasting one, and these abrupt alterations appear to trouble her. Still, for long stretches of the night, she was the big, beautiful Aida the world yearns for.

AIDA_Zajick_1615A.pngDolora Zajick as Amneris

Dolora Zajick has sung seventy Amnerises at the Met — if the company still went on tour (and didn’t the provinces always demand Aida?) she’d be neck and neck with the champ, Louise Homer, who sang it ninety-seven times from her debut in 1900. Zajick’s clarion mezzo still soars, wobble-free, and in the Act II concertato she is louder than the massed populations of Egypt and Ethiopia. One wishes she could change costume to suit the change in mood between Acts III (wedding night) and IV (crisis), but the production now subsists on two intermissions instead of three, and probability must be sacrificed.

Johan Botha has both the voice and the girth to keep his ladies in their places. His fresh, stalwart, graceful singing is just a bit unvaried for some tastes, but I can’t remember when I last heard “Celeste Aida” sung or phrased so beautifully — that is, until the final fading pianissimo, which concluded in a bobble that, one fears, defused an impending ovation. As mentioned above, he began his love duet a measure or two late, but otherwise sang it persuasively if lacking dramatic fire. Verdi’s music may require a more throbbing emotional urge, and may not be quite as ideal for Botha as Wagner’s Walther or Strauss’s Apollo. Still, in so big and vocal an opera as Aida, it’s a pleasure to hear a tenor so well matched with his soprano and mezzo. His acting, however, is minimal and stiff, his instincts less than sure — do we need that basketballer’s upraised double-fisted “Yessss” when he is named to command Egypt’s armies?

Carlo Guelfi makes a sturdy Amonasro, if a bit rough and ready — but this is not a suave part. Roberto Scandiuzzi makes a dignified if not ideally sonorous Ramfis. Stefan Kocán, a debutante Pharaoh, sounds out of place and weak among these five mature voices. Adam Laurence Herskowitz sings an admirable Messenger.

Alexei Ratmansky has devised new dances for the ballets of Act II. The dance for Amneris is a well-played classic pas de deux that might surprise those used to girls in this lively bit, who thought men were barred from oriental harems — be generous: the boy might simply be a eunuch. The ballet for the triumphal scene fell rather on the Russian side of a compromise between traditional ballet moves — which do seem odd in a monumental Egyptian setting — and any attempt to be “faux Egyptian” or “faux African.” Both dances made much of Verdi’s striking rhythms, and the corps de ballet (as in last year’s La Gioconda) showed what a little attention from a genuine ballet master will produce.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):