Grandest of the grand
Rossini said: “Nobody is capable of writing grand opera except Verdi”: and Aida is the grandest of the lot. Intended for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 it was eventually premiered in Cairo two years later. The triumph scene is just that, a miracle of organisation and inspiration. Aida, the Ethiopian slave girl, in love with the general of the army, Radames, but has a rival in Amneris, princess of Egypt and the two fathers, Amneris’ King of Egypt, an d Aida’s father, Amonasro, King of Ethiopia.
Act two scene two is the Triumph scene, celebrating the victory by Radames over the Ethiopians. Verdi juggles with three crowds, the Egyptian public, the priests and the defeated Ethiopians – it’s a sort of Three Choirs Festival, with climax after climax. By contrast Act Three is sung only by the four chief characters, it is the heart of the opera. Aida’s success rests mainly on these two peak scenes.
Verdi goes for your heart and your jugular. Never since has opera gone so straight forwardly, almost innocently, for the listener’s heart in terms that everybody can grasp immediately.
From Don Carlos onwards part of the secret construction is that Verdi concentrates on using, in technical terms, chords of the tonic key and its dominant, not often in root positions but in first or second inversion (unlike Berlioz who mostly uses chords in their root position). If you look at a few passages in the score you may see what I mean. And, of course, as well as the harmony, his use of counterpoint has in every line something meaningful and beautiful. Verdi keeps up a stream of inspired melody. A composer of genius in full flow is carried by some strange force, inspiration? Benjamin Britten once said to me that when he was prepared and in form he felt that the music came from somewhere else, as if he was connected to some grid of inspiration.
The new production which I saw on April 27 by Donald McVicar pulls together the many threads of this opera, so complex yet having the impetus of an arrow. The production is compelling if sometimes congested, as if McVicar is trying too hard. The sets designed by Jean-Marc Puissant are dark and gloomy, in contrast to the vision most of us have of Egypt, which is light and sunshine. The action is menaced by a large moveable wall whose prime object is to mask the coming and goings of the various crowds. The ballet is all wriggling, jerking and leap-frogging, effective if not inspired. Act three, the Nile scene looks like a slanted organ console with a big hole in the middle. No local colour or palm trees – too commonplace, perhaps?
Verdi said that his idea of Amneris was a bit of a devil aged twenty. At Covent Garden in this new production he got a singer looking more like a dowager. Admittedly the American mezzo, Marianna Cornetti, was a replacement but she did us no favours with her singing. Amneris is the most interesting character in the opera, dramatically and musically (Verdi seemed to love mezzos) and it is usually a gift to a singer. But this Amneris had a painful beat in her voice and she wob-bob-bob-bled. The Aida, Micaela Corsi, was not wobble-free either and she sang flat sometimes. Her oboeist in her act three aria, O patria mia played his obbligato solos exquisitely; if he had played like the two ladies sang, he would have had his cards (and I bet they were paid ten or twenty times more that he was). The Radames, Marcelo Alvarez, coped with his difficult part well without impressing with any great beauty of timbre. The best singing came from the two kings, Egypt sung by the company stalwart Robert Lloyd, Amonasro (Ethiopia) sung by Marco Vratogna.
The director in the pit, Nicola Luisotti, held things together but smouldered rather than flamed. The chorus did not sound as fresh as it usually does.
The previous production I saw at Covent Garden was Turco in Italia by Rossini and everything was first-class from beginning to end, cast, staging, orchestra, and chorus. This Aida was mediocre by comparison – win some, lose some – does it always have to be like that?