Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

Carmen in Orange

Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.

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):