Friday, November 23, 2007

Whistling The Scenery

Many people like to refer beginners to the ABC's of the operatic repertoire (Aida, Boheme and Carmen) because, as three of the most frequently performed works, these operas have become audience favorites. The musical accessibility, tight construction and exotic appeal of the setting for each of these operas have proven to be effective tools for box office sales. Of these three masterpieces, however, Aida takes top honors for sparking the operagoer's mind with curious thoughts about a long-lost culture. Why? Because, along with such cinematic epics as Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and The Egyptian, Verdi's opera evokes intense musical and dramatic images of one of the greatest civilizations ever to exist on the face of this earth.

Since most productions of Aida are judged on the basis of their physical strength (sets, costumes and overall spectacle), attempts at recreating the grandeur of ancient Egypt range from painted drops to massive columns. During the Act II Triumphal Scene an impressive parade of supernumeraries, goats, falcons, horses, lions, elephants and any other large animals that promise to behave is guaranteed to win an audience's favor.

Having recently spent several weeks in Egypt exploring the ruins at Saqqara, Giza, Luxor, Thebes and Abu Simbel (in addition to examining the treasures within the Egyptian Museum) it's interesting to look back on two of this season's productions of Aida which, for differing reasons, demand to be judged on the basis of their scenery. Let me explain why.


Several years ago, when the Lyric Opera of Chicago unveiled its new production of Aida, Pet Halmen's sets and costumes received rave reviews from many critics. Since I was unable to travel to Chicago to catch a performance of Aida that year, I had to wait until this January, when Lyric revived Halmen's production, to check it out. Without a doubt, this particular staging offers exquisite visuals. The Temple, Triumphal and Judgment scenes have been handsomely staged by Nicolas Joel. Even the Act IV tomb scene is handled with great dignity and credibility. The eerie tropical atmosphere Halmen has created for Act III (in which the moon's silver reflection on the Nile is almost palpable) is a triumph of set design.

Yet, with the first four scenes of the opera crammed into one act, the dramatic impact and musical momentum of Verdi's opera is totally sabotaged by Lyric's inability to effect quick set changes. Whenever a smooth transition between scenes should take place, the audience is left hanging for several calamitous minutes at a time. This is quite different from Douglas Schmidt's massive (yet effective) designs for the San Francisco Opera's Aida or Pier Luigi Pizzi's sets for the Houston Grand Opera's production of Verdi's masterpiece.

Of the principals I heard, only Dolora Zajick scored strongly, with her usual rock-solid performance as Amneris. Makvala Kasrashvili was severely overparted as Aida, had some problems with pitch and offered a rather lame rendition of "O Patria Mia," which left a lot to be desired. Giorgio Lamberti's Radames was more serviceable than impressive; Siegmund Nimsgern's Amonasro was pretty much stock stuff. Veteran basso Bonaldo Giaiotti boomed his way through Ramfis's music and, although conductor Richard Buckley did his best to hold things together, this was not what one would call a great performance of Aida.


Alas, the performance of Aida which I attended at the Metropolitan Opera several nights later proved to be even more alarming. Sonja Frisell's stage direction was, at best, appallingly uninspired and, despite Christian Badea's animated conducting, the Met's new production -- barely six weeks old --had the kind of tired energy which could make someone think it had been in the repertory for ten or fifteen years. Top honors for vocalism at this performance went to Paul Plishka's sonorous Ramfis (I have yet to hear this artist give a bad performance) and Alain Fondary's surprisingly lyrical Amonasro.

Otherwise, Leona Mitchell's Aida (which was so thrilling in Orange County last year) seemed excessively mannered and was distinguished by more scooping than occurs on a daily basis at most Baskin-Robbins outlets. Stefania Toczyska's Amneris and Vladimir Popov's Radames were anything but musical (lately, all thoughts of subtlety continue to elude these artists) and their performances seem to have been based on the premise that "Anything you can sing, I can sing louder."

That left me studying the look of Gianni Quaranta's sets and Dada Saligeri's costumes. While other critics have scoffed at the tackiness of Quaranta's sets, having recently visited Egypt, I have to admit that they do a damned good job of evoking a legitimate sense of Pharoanic architecture. The breadth and grandeur of the public square in which the Triumphal Scene takes place inspires the same kind of awe one feels upon visiting the temples at Abu Simbel and, only after having visited the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut can one appreciate the dark elegance of Quaranta's set for the Nile scene.

The underlying problem is that, when scenic values so totally dominate a production of Aida, there is little room left for an appreciation of Verdi's music. Granted, the ruins of its ancient civilization make modern Egypt look like shit. But Aida is an opera with some pretty strong musical assets. If these cannot receive their fair share of attention, something is dangerously out of whack.

The surest indicator of such an artistic imbalance came at the moment when, in a brilliant coup of backstage technology, the Met's gigantic stage elevator was lowered to reveal Quaranta's massive set for the Triumphal Scene. As magnificently theatrical a moment as this is in the theatre (the Met's audience went absolutely bonkers) this is one situation where I find myself having to play devil's advocate. I have no problem with the concept of opera being a circus for, as director Peter Mark Schifter reminds me, the operatic art form is an arena for monsters. But when the stage elevator gets the biggest round of applause during a performance of Aida, it either means that the Met's musical values are completely bankrupt or that something is rotten in the state of Thebes.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 8, 1989.

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