Grand opera done intimately- and it works very well
This production, of not just one of my Verdi operas but also one of my favourite operas overall, immediately got me interested in seeing it, being directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
Admittedly, there were some initial worries. Primarily whether an opera so grand and big in spectacle as 'Aida' would work in an intimate setting/staging, as well as whether singers as young and relatively inexperienced (at the time, Kate Aldrich is doing very well for herself in an international career with roles ranging from Mozart to Richard Strauss) could cope with the vocal demands. The good news is that 'Aida' does work when done intimately and the singers do a very good to great job in the roles, though they never erase memories of legendary singers from the past (neither was this reviewer expecting them to).
Really, there is not really much to complain about with this 'Aida'. Opera purists may not be happy that there are cuts to the score, some regrettable and it makes for a couple of slightly awkward transitions and some that didn't bother me all that much, actually found myself not missing the ballet that much. Amonasro is also a little over-directed at the end of Act 2, he should have this regal bearing and authority but also a sense that he is defeated and bitter but this production saw him doing rather too much movement at times. Otherwise, while this Busetto 'Aida' is not the very best 'Aida' available (few opera houses do 'Aida' better than the Metropolitan Opera), but along with the 2003 Liceu DVD performance it is the best since that 1989 Met production available and vastly superior to the Parma, St Margarethan and Bregenz productions (remember disliking the Robert Wilson-directed production too).
Visually, as to be expected from Zeffirelli it is superbly opulent, with grand Ancient Egypt sets, authentically Egyptian (no mish-mash of styles here) and elaborate costumes and effective heavy make-up. Lighting is highly atmospheric too, especially in Act 3. Zeffirelli's staging, even when toned down from his usual standard and more intimate and slightly less grand than most 'Aidas' makes for one of the better-directed productions available on DVD. Zeffirelli is known for visually exquisite and big in spectacle productions (see his Met 'Turandot'), though he has been criticised more than once for overblown excess.
But he has proved with his film version of 'La Traviata' (my favourite 'La Traviata' and one of the best opera films of all time) that he can direct intimately and let the emotion and intensity of storytelling do the talking. He does that incredibly well here, the last two acts being especially good, but he also doesn't forget the grandeur and spectacle one expects in Act 2 with the "Triumphal scene" (which has always been a mixed bag choreographically on DVD, can't count the number of times the ballet is badly done) and not only do the visuals dazzle in this scene but the drama rouses and thrills without swamping any of the characters. There is also a prominence on religion, and it worked creating an unsettling atmosphere when needed.
Musically, there is not much to fault. The orchestra play with such a beautiful tone and the power, intensity, poetry and nuances of Verdi's magnificent music all comes through in their playing. The chorus is incredibly well balanced and sound terrific, and they act with involvement, showing that they were not neglected when directing the production. Massimiliano Stefanelli'S conducting is both lively and sensitive. This 'Aida' looks great on DVD, with the picture quality never blurred, the sound quality resonant and balances the orchestra and singers very well and the video directing doesn't make the mistake of being choppy or intrusive.
Kate Aldrich, when it comes to the principals, steals the show as Amneris, incidentally the opera's most interesting character. She has a rich, creamy tone, a remarkably mature sound for someone in her late 20s taking on one of Verdi's most taxing and dramatically meaty mezzo soprano roles. Not only that but she is a very compelling actress, there is the sense that Amneris is the spoilt princess, but there is a compassion and intense passion which makes Amneris very interesting as a character here as she should be. Adina Aaron sings extremely well in the title role, very dramatic and nuanced, and while she starts off ever so slightly bland she quickly blossoms into a very poignant actress with real sincerity and genuine warmth (along with a blazing intensity in the "Nile scene"), which I think has a lot to do with the character of Aida herself.
Scott Piper's voice may be smaller in size than most in the role of Radames, but the voice itself is of very pleasant quality and used with such intelligence and musicianship, none of the one-note, one-dynamic, one-colour singing that eludes a lot of the tenors singing the role, Domingo and Pavarotti being notable exceptions. And he actually copes very well with the challenges of "Celeste Aida" which is a killer as an aria and even harder when it's practically the first thing Radames sings. When it comes to the acting, Piper acquits himself better than most DVD Radames, which is saying a lot seeing as most in the role are non-demonstrative (Domingo is by far the best acted Radames on DVD, and while he was no great shakes as an actor Pavarotti at least had a personality). Piper is heroic yet sincere in the role, blending beautifully with Aaron in the final scene.
Giuseppe Garra sings resonantly as Amonasro and cuts an authoritative father figure. If there were more moments of stillness, he would have been even better than he was. Enrico Giuseppe Iori sings and acts Ramfis with dignity, and Paolo Pecchioli does well as the King.
Overall, very good production, even when done differently. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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