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There are not a great many film versions of Aida, considering that it
is such a popular and spectacular opera. There is the notorious 1953
version, starring Sophia Loren, which was largely responsible for the
disreputable idea that you could film opera with beautiful people
mouthing the words and not-so-beautiful people on the soundtrack. Then
there is the so-called Cecile B DeMille version from San Francisco
opera in 1981. I have a soft spot for this spectacular production
although I feared for the fabric of the theatre whenever Luciano
Pavarotti and Margaret Price stood on the same side of the stage. There
is also a recent version from Busseto, directed by Zeffirelli, which is
worth tracking down because it uses young and beautiful performers who
can also sing. Filmed in the Busseto opera house, this version is
relatively low on spectacle and even cuts part of the Grand March.
Living in Birmingham, I have to take live performances whenever I get the opportunity. The only production of Aida to come to Birmingham in recent memory was a touring production from Wroclaw in Poland. There was a cast of more than 100 but the demands of this opera are such that, even within such a generous budget, the production could only run to three soldiers and three dancing girls. Throughout the Grand March these six pranced across the stage from right to left then ran around the back of the scenery to reappear on the right to give the impression of an endless procession.
Which brings me to this production of Aida from Covent Garden in 1994. It strongly reminds me of a touring production from an impoverished eastern European state. The sets are practically non-existent, usually just a backcloth. The costumes look like a mishmash from previous productions: soldiers dressed as samurai, Egyptian monks dressed as Buddhists, the king in doublet and hose and the rest of the performers wearing cast-offs from Flash Gordon the Opera. The choreography is risible making the six dancers from Wroclaw seem state of the art.
As Ramades, Dennis O'Neill struggles during "Celeste Aida", which is always a bit of a challenge coming right at the beginning of the opera, but is quite effective thereafter. Cheryl Studer as Aida achieves an effortless grace in "O Patria Mia". The restrained Covent Garden audience do not applaud her because Verdi did not leave a gap for applause. At the Met she would have brought the house down. Lucina D'Intino is uncomfortable with the tessitura of Amneris although she copes well with her long solo in the final act. Most of the lower male roles are better performed with Alexandro Agache as an effective Amonasro and Robert Lloyd as an impressive High Priest. The bass Mark Beesley is literally out of his depth as the Egyptian King and looks uncomfortable in his silly costume.
I like the way Denis O'Neill's wig changes from black to white for the final scene where he is sentenced to be buried alive. I was entranced by this and also by the fact that Cheryl Studer's St Tropez has started to run by the time that she is buried with him. This is a difficult scene to stage but they manage to pull it off in this production. Aida and Ramades have to expire gracefully in the space of about 20 minutes. Often, the burial chamber is so big that you imagine that they could survive a nuclear winter; but in this production the chamber, on a split stage, is convincingly dark and poky with Amneris weeping on the brightly lit stage above. She was not the only one weeping, tears were rolling down my cheeks faster than Cheryl Studer's fake tan.
So far of all the Aidas I've seen, the 1989 Met production is my
favourite, while Sherrill Milnes's vocally fatigued Amonasro is rather
disappointing(considering how good this baritone was in his prime) it
does have the grandest sets, was sheer perfection musically, the most
heroic Rhadames in the name of Placido Domingo and the best Aida(in my
opinion) of the past twenty-five years or so in Aprile Millo.
This 1994 production is not the worst either, that goes to the 1953 film/production. In fact, this Aida is quite good. What was it I wasn't completely crazy about? Well, while the picture quality, sound and video directing are fine, the costumes and sets are unspectacular. The sets are rather drab and deserving of much more majesty, and the costumes, with the soldiers looking like samurai and Aida and Amneris wearing garments reminiscent I agree of Flash Gordon, like the 1985 La Scala production(which I did like mostly for Ghena Dimitrova's Amneris and Nicolai Ghiaurov's Ramfis) took me out of the setting.
The staging was mostly very effective. Celeste Aida and O Patria Mia are nicely understated, and the duet between Aida and Amonasro in Act 3 has a very powerful impact as does the final scene. The Grand March was disappointing however, it is not the most ineptly choreographed Grand March, that's still the 1985 La Scala production, however while the dancers dance with efficiency, the choreography in general is lacking in grandeur and looks rather dull in the movements.
Singing and acting was also very good, but there is one performer I didn't like very much. That was Mark Beesley as the King, good voice but the way he acts on stage made me feel very uncomfortable for him.
That said, musically this Aida can't be faulted. The orchestra are superb, playing with style and vigour as well as pathos, and the conducting is precise and very musical bringing much out of this magnificent score. The chorus sing with glorious sound in their big Act 2 chorus, which is certainly very stirring.
Dennis O'Neill is a little strained and uncomfortable with the long phrases in Celeste Aida, but he has a beautiful tone and as an actor he is suitably noble and heroic. Luciana D'Intino is excellent as Amneris, Alexandru Augache has a stately presence as Amonasro and has a "voice of a sturdy oak" and Robert Lloyd is a memorable Ramfis. Best of all is Cheryl Studer, who is wonderful as Aida, wonderful voice and very dramatically committed.
Finally, the final scene. In a long time, I have not been moved so much by this long but very emotional final scene as I was here. All in all, a good Aida. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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