24 October 2009: Verdi, Aïda

Metropolitan Opera broadcast in HD. West Springfield Cinemaplex

A theater packed to the gills saw this magnificent production of Verdi’s Aïda. Renée Fleming, hosting the broadcast, commented that, with only four main characters, this opera could be thought of as a chamber piece; and yet it is a cast-of-thousands production with real horses and mules and dozens and dozens of spear carriers and other supers, magnificently costumed, as were of course the principals. Fleming also explained that this production goes back into the nineteen eighties. It has had a very long and showy life. And it shows the benefit of its long familiarity with the Metropolitan stage: the timing of everything was well-nigh perfect. And viewers in the multiplexes across the country and elsewhere have the added benefit of close-in camera work, which revealed nothing out of place and much that the audience in the Metropolitan auditorium itself would not have been able to see, or see closely.

What we could see and see clearly, most of all, were the singers, and what was truly wonderful was what we could hear them singing: these are truly wonderful voices, without exception. Johan Botha as Radamès, Violeta Urmana as Aïda, Dolora Zajick as Amneris (a role she says she has sung hundreds of times), and Carlo Guelfi as Amonasro, along with Roberto Scandiuzzi as Ramfis the High Priest — all were superlative. Not all of them were wonderful actors. Dolora Zagick did exactly what the director told her to do; as Dorothy Parker once said, she ran the gamut of emotions from A to B. But the South African Botha as Radamès was all he needed to be, as an actor and singer, with his clear, mellifluous tenor, fully equal to the high notes that come mercilessly from Verdi’s pen as the performance wears on to its melancholy conclusion.

The plot is, of course, among the most ridiculous in all of grand opera. Ludicrous plots are legendary in this medium; they exists to give maximum opportunity for the sustained emotion, developed beyond all reasonable expectation, within a given moment, a much expanded moment that has nothing to do with plausibility and everything to do with the opportunity for bravura singing. We tolerate and smile at the silly story, and meanwhile are totally taken in by the magnificence of the singing. That is just the way we want it.

The fact that this is an old production does not mean that there is nothing new about it. In addition to fresh if experienced singers, there is brand-new choreography as well. The new choreographer is Alexei Ratmansky, late of the Bolshoi ballet, and now artist in residence with the New York City Ballet. He was responsible for a new pas de deux and a later, larger ensemble piece. There was wonderful energy and constant graceful yet athletic movement in this dancing; it must have taken endless rehearsal leading to chronic exhaustion on the part of the dancers to get it right. But get it right they did, and it was an exhilarating joy to watch. Also a great wonder was the setting, or settings, laid out on the broad expanse of the Met stage. If these settings were reminiscent of what big production films aim at — what could be called the De Mille effect — they were nonetheless completely in character with the costuming and the tone overall, depicting an Egypt that never really existed except in the minds of nineteenth century scene designers, of whom the more modern designers are the happy heirs. Likewise the lighting, which was brilliant where it needed to be brilliant and crepuscular where darkness needed to reign.

All this for twenty dollars and involving a fifteen minute drive from where we live. It’s no wonder that the houses are full.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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