Splendid singers make Aida a glorius operatic triumph
By Giuseppe Verdi.
The Opera Company of Boston.
Directed and conducted by Sarah
The Opera House, March 2, 5, and 12.
By MARK ROBERTS
VERDI'S OPERAS ARE RICH concoctions of swollen emotions and wonderful tunes, and they demand to be served up on a lavish scale. This is especially true for Aida, with its exotic Egyptian setting, and the Opera Company of Boston's production meets the requirements splendidly. Cast, orchestra, and director combine to create a performance that is both musically rewarding and a magnificent spectacle.
Even before the opera has begun, the glittering tone is set by the decoration which extends across the proscenium, framing the stage in a patterned border that is like an art nouveau version of an Egyptian frieze. It serves as an interface between the nineteenth century glitter of the auditorium and the ancient pageantry on stage, and it is crowned by a starry canopy suspended from the ceiling.
The production was distinguished by the performances of Shirley Verrett and Markella Hatziano as Aida and her mistress, Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt, and by the remarkable playing of the orchestra both as an ensemble and on the part of individual instruments. From the start, they produced a stirring, rounded sound when playing together over which the singers' voices could sail as if on a sea of sound.
Verrett, as the slave woman fated to die for love, was the most accomplished of all the singers, continually varying the texture and color of her singing so as to convey the full range of emotions she feels. She acted with her voice as well as with her face and gestures, matching her phrasing to the words and mood. Her lament to the misery of two opposed hopes, as the prince she loves goes off to lead the Egyptian army in battle against the Ethiopian army led by her father, was poignant. Still more beautiful is her hymn to her native land "O Patria Mia" with which Act Three begins. Here the exquisite clarity of her voice was answered by the call, as if from the distant spirit of Ethiopia, of a simple descending arpeggio on a solo oboe. Verdi uses the purity of tone of the oboe on several occasions to interweave Aida's arias, and each time the combination was heart stirring.
While Aida has our sympathy from the start, Amneris only gradually grows from jealous rival to the tragic figure pleading softly for forgiveness from the gods. Similarly, Hatziano's performance grew in power throughout the opera. Her voice had tragic depths from which the single line, `I wish I could die,' emerged with a terrible precision. Its power was all the greater for the steeliness that had preceded it. When Amneris first announces her intention to make Aida suffer for her rivalry, Hatziano played the scene crisply, putting on along with the regalia she dons a resolve to be pitiless to her slave. The duet they sang was beautiful, the princess' icy cruelty ringing above a seething, dangerous swirl of strings, while Aida's heart-rending pleas for pieta shone from the mournful lowing of a bassoon.
As played by Franco Bonanome, the object of these two women's affections, Radames, the Egyptian warrior, seemed disappointingly undeserving of such devotion. In contrast to the variety of Verrett's performance, his was uniform in style. Perhaps he was straining too hard for power at the expense of subtlety, for top notes seemed sometimes to be wrenched away from him rather than driven out from a source deep inside. Verrett's singing always gave the impression of welling from some reserve in which still more was waiting. As a result, Radames never achieved the vitality of a character whose fate engaged us as did that of the women. His finest moments were those when he is caught in an act of betraying his country's army, when his scorched cries of despair seemed realistic.
Aida's father, Amonasro, who appears incognito (he is the King of the Ethiopians) amongst the prisoners whom Radames brings home in triumph from the war, was played by David Arnold, who both looked and sang well. His voice had a crisper, drier quality that bespoke his cunning. When the time came to work on his daughter's emotions to persuade her to trick her lover into revealing strategic information, he suddenly swelled to fearsome power in threatening her with the curse of her dead mother.
Another well-cast part was Barseg Tumanyan as Ramfis, the Egyptian High Priest. His voice flowed smoothly, its deep legato a turbid river of mystery and threat. His demeanor and implacable stare were perfect for the leader of the dark Egyptian cult of Phtha. The music sung by the chorus of priests that accompanies the temple scenes is low and chantlike, evocative of monks and the orthodox churches of the east, and in accompanying it the orchestra seemed itself to take on a new sound, creating effects beyond those of the familiar combinations of instruments. A harp was present, but one listened with amazement to its sound, which was new and beautiful. The flute, too, seemed particularly magical.
As well as the impressive individual performances, one of the delights of this production was its crowd scene at the end of the second act. Throughout the opera, both set and costumes were splendid (by Herbert Senn and Helen Pond and by Ray Diffen respectively), but here we were treated to a feast of color and movement. Flouting theatrical tradition, Sarah Caldwell, the director, started the scene in which the triumphant Radames returns to Memphis with the spoils of war with a flurry of excited little children rushing on stage to partake of the fun. Their scurrying gave life to the crowd that gathered to watch the parade. They were offered a succession of choreographed displays of trophies captured from the Ethiopians preceded by a slightly comical marching maneuver by the stalwart Boston Crusaders as the Egyptian army. Children also appeared to charming effect in the scene in Amneris' dressing room, in which, led by a dancer, a troupe skipped on to present six different pairs of shoes for the regal choice.
It was fitting that the director of such a fine company performance as this should be called to the stage at the end by her marvelous leading lady. It was then a delightful surprise for the leading lady to break into song once more -- in an impromptu performance of "Happy Birthday" to Ms. Caldwell. She had given us a wonderful present in this Aida, and the audience was glad to join the song in gratitude.