16 August 2009

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Once More to the Pyramid – A Vindication of Verdi’s AIDA

Aida_Cover_Ricordi Central to the repertory of every middling and greater opera house in the world, and especially to that of the Arena di Verona, Aida is one of the pillars upon which Verdi’s legacy rests and has proved perennially popular with audiences since its first performance in Cairo on 24 December 1871. The principal roles – Aida, Amneris, Radamès, and Amonasro – have attracted all the greatest singers with voices to do them justice (and more than a few who lacked appropriate voices), and Ramfis and the King are gift-roles for basses young and old.

In essence, the plot of Aida is typical of nineteenth-century Italian Grand Opera, meaning that there will (or should) be big voices in full cry, foot-stomping choruses, overlapping love interests, melodramatic conflicts enacted in the respective singers’ upper registers, and the death of at least one of the principal players. Easy as these conventions are to parody and ridicule, particularly from a post-Wozzeck, post-Death in Venice perspective, Aida presents big-boned, red-blooded Grand Opera at its least ridiculous, with genuine dramatic tension (and it is important to note in this regard that the story, despite claims to the contrary by Sir Elton John and his Aida lyricist Tim Rice, originated with Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni) integrated with musical refinement. The Prelude to Aida is as delicate and ethereally melodic as that to Traviata and indeed anticipates the Richard Strauss of Capriccio and Intermezzo. Throughout the score, Verdi composed with attention to the opportunities for each of the principals to express ideas both grandiose and intensely personal in contrasting declamatory and lyrical music. With Radamès’ ‘Celeste Aida’ and Aida’s ‘Ritorna vincitor’ and ‘O patria mia’ Verdi created three of Italian operas most enduring ‘hit tunes,’ but as with Azucena in Trovatore almost two decades earlier Verdi devoted his greatest care on his music for Amneris, who he recognized as the most interesting and important character in the opera.

In my own opera-going and –hearing experience, it has been on Amneris that my appreciation of Aida has centered. The first scene of the final act contains in the increasingly heated interview between Amneris and Radamès the finest music in the score, in my view, and one of the greatest scenes in the Verdi canon. The Judgment Scene which follows can too easily be a ‘star turn’ for an ambitious Amneris (as it was when I attended a performance of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007), but an insightful mezzo-soprano who avoids (or, at least, avoids overdoing) histrionics can legitimately steal the performance from even a very fine Aida and Radamès. Despite an honest appreciation for the music and rather more than that for the aforementioned scene for Amneris and Radamès, I nonetheless have consistently failed to see through the highly-adorned, Amazonian body of Aida in order to perceive the heart of the piece. The appeal of a well-rendered story involving an ultimately fatal love triangle is understandable, but I have thought La Forza del Destino more emotionally intense, Don Carlo more profound in its juxtaposition of public and private conflicts, Otello more resolutely passionate and moving, and Falstaff more direct and honest. A pervasive and longstanding admiration for Verdi’s music notwithstanding, Aida has somehow remained just beyond the span of my operatic peripheral affections.

Prejudices, even when based on personal convictions derived from careful study and hours of listening, are dangerously sharp arrows in the quivers of opera lovers. Such an arrow it is that I have long aimed at the considerable bulk of Aida, a legitimate target in my sights as a merely good opera masquerading as a great one. One of the most profound delights to be had from opera is encountering in some medium an impetus to reconsider one’s prejudices, whether it is exposure to a previously unknown score, re-acquaintance after a period of abstinence with a particular work or performance, or discovery of an inspired performer or performance. Having been wrong is never an admission that is easily made, but a vital aspect of the evolution of opera is the alteration of one’s perceptions. After all, Francesca Cuzzoni and Giuditta Pasta initially rejected, respectively, arias as sublime as ‘Falsa immagine’ (in Händel’s Ottone) and ‘Casta diva’ (in Bellini’s Norma): it can be safely stated that operatic posterity collectively applaud their changes of heart.

In October 1961, the Japanese broadcaster NHK recorded for broadcast on Japanese television a production of Aida conducted by Franco Capuana at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan concert hall (where again next month Aida will be performed, in a touring production from La Scala). The production assembled a cast that boasted native Italian singers in all of the principal roles, a relative rarity even in 1961. Long available in various audio-only releases on compact discs, as well as in video format on VHS and DVD, I recently heard for the first time the performance of 16 October, and in a real sense it was as though I was hearing Aida anew.

Basses Silvano Pagliuca and Paolo Washington are impressive as the King and Ramfis, both singing with tonal assurance and warm, Italianate tone. The King’s music is not of tremendous importance to the opera as a whole, but it is very welcome to hear it sung by a voice that does not emanate from a superannuated singer. Ramfis’ role is significant, and Paolo Washington’s singing fully honors his part in the drama. Spared a wobbly Ramfis (as far too many performances are not), the course is set for an effective, idiomatic Aida.

Thus enters Radamès, opera’s archetypal lover-warrior, sung in Tokyo by Mario del Monaco. Radamès was a staple of del Monaco’s repertoire and a role in which his unique manner of bronzed trumpeting, produced by his employment of a controversial method of singing with an artificially lowered larynx, shone to maximum advantage, the exciting squillo extending to the top B-flats of ‘Celeste Aida.’ Subtlety was not among del Monaco’s greatest strengths, but the visceral power inherent in his singing could make an imposing effect in Aida. In this performance, del Monaco was somewhat off his best form: indeed, the absolute prime of his voice was just a few years past, and softer inflections and dynamics were fewer than they had been a few years earlier. This is nonetheless a representative performance by an important singer in one of his best roles, and not Mario del Monaco as Radamès, Teatro alla Scalaeven Franco Corelli sang Radamès with the dash and abandon del Monaco displays in this performance. There is stiffness in ‘Celeste Aida,’ but Verdi must surely accept some responsibility for that: the placement of a character’s only aria ( and, at that, one of the most famous arias in Italian opera) within moments of his first entrance has earned the composer countless curses from tenors. The hurdle of the aria successfully cleared, del Monaco settles into a trajectory of increasing dramatic intensity as he encounters first Amneris, then Aida, and finally Amonasro. In the final Tomb Scene it is possible to long for a somewhat less full-throated approach, but del Monaco avoids the roaring heard from some tenors – and also the falsetto purring of some tenors determined to ‘go gentle into that good night.’ In Radamès final-act encounter with Amneris, del Monaco’s singing exudes precisely the sort of clenched-fists, masculine exasperation demanded by the music. Though in a general sense this is not del Monaco at his best, this is unquestionably a very fine performance of Radamès.

Aldo Protti is a singer to whom his career was perhaps kinder than has been the skewed hindsight of posterity. A long-serving baritone valued in Italy for his consistency and reliability, Protti was a contemporary of Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Tito Gobbi, and Ettore Bastianini, these last being far more familiar names to twenty-first century opera lovers (and record buyers). Protti’s work was not overlooked by European opera companies and important record labels, though, and the notion that Protti was not an artist of the order of Gobbi or Warren should not suggest that his career was second-rate. In fact, Protti possessed a baritone voice of ample proportions, the tone steady and rounded in the manner required for successful assumption of Verdi’s towering baritone roles, especially Rigoletto, Amonasro, and Iago. Evidence suggests that what Protti lacked was the individuality brought to the task of singing by artists like Gobbi and Giuseppe Taddei. The Amonasro preserved in this Tokyo Aida nonetheless is the work of an excellent singer at the height of his powers. Aldo Protti as Rigoletto, Teatro alla ScalaEven baritones who are greater ‘artists’ than Protti often portray Amonasro as a frustratingly one-dimensional figure, with either tenderness or menace to the fore. In Protti’s performance, Amonasro is both a loving father, the moments of paternal concern for Aida being very beautifully done, and a fiercely proud king determined to have bloody revenge. Rarely among performances of the role, Amonasro’s moments of dramatic stress do not equate in Protti’s performance to stretches of vocal stress: Protti has the measure of the part within his grasp and is never caught out scrambling for notes or clutching at cheap effects. The formidable arcs of the Nile Scene are spanned with barrel-chested ease, and the gloating victor who ensnares Radamès in his treasonous trap is genuinely frightening without resorting to snarling or ugly tone. Those interested in operatic esoterica are fond of stating that this or that overlooked, underappreciated, or forgotten singer would be a great star were he or she singing now. To make such a statement about Protti would trivialize the success and significance of his four-decade career, but hearing this Amonasro gives cause to re-examine Protti’s work.

Hearing Giulietta Simionato as Amneris is the musical equivalent of viewing canvases by Velázquez at the Prado: there is the indescribable validation of encountering the work of a great artist in precisely the setting in which it is most radiant. Simionato was only five years away from curtailing her career at the time of this Tokyo Aida, but her years of service are audible only in the complete authority she brings to the performance. With a plethora of recorded performances available, Simionato’s Amneris is a known quantity, the quality of which was extraordinarily unchanging throughout her career. Simionato’s Amneris in this performance finds the great singer at the summit of her art, fully revealing both the regal demeanor of the jiltGiulietta Simionato as Amnerised daughter of Pharaoh and the vulnerability of a woman very much in love. Power is the means by which Simionato’s Amneris reacts to her thwarted affections rather than the target at which she aims: this Amneris is a lioness thirsty for blood, but her rage is born of a perilously deep wound made palpable to the listener by Simionato’s singing in the final act. In the crucial Judgment Scene, Simionato rises to tragic grandeur by singing with anguished poise, the voice very beautiful despite the intensity of the music. It is easy to sense beneath the evenness of Simionato’s singing the heart of Amneris beating wildly, her emotions collapsing on themselves as she perceives the inevitability of Radamès’ condemnation. The full weight of the woman whose lover must go to his death crashes down on Amneris at once, and in Simionato’s performance the listener too endures this agony. Thrilling and moving in equal measures, Simionato’s performance is a remarkable example of the artistry of one of the twentieth century’s finest singers and an Amneris that rewards Verdi’s faith in the impact of the role.

Aida has been sung by many of the finest and most celebrated sopranos in the years since the opera’s creation: Arangi-Lombardi and Milanov, Callas and Tebaldi, Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo, and Dame Gwyneth Jones and Rita Hunter. Each of these singers brought special qualities to Aida, and lovers of Aida and of individual singers debate at infinite length and with oversized passions the matter of which of these (and countless others) was the finest Aida. In many ways, Aida is the quintessential soprano role in that she requires emotional involvement, an uncompromised gift for ensemble singing, and the full two octaves of the soprano range extending to a mercilessly exposed top C in ‘O patria mia.’ Aida is also a role in which merely great singing is not a guarantee of success. It must be stated, however, that great singing in Aida’s music is a sadly rare commodity, especially in twenty-first century performances. Perhaps the most glowing – and least expected – success of this Tokyo Aida is the performance of the title role by Gabriella Tucci, a soprano remembered as a largely utilitarian singer with a pair of much-discussed recordings to her credit. Tucci was a versatile singer with an upper register extending to E-flat in alt for Gabriella Tuccibel canto roles such as Elvira in Bellini’s Puritani and Verdi’s Gilda. As captured by studio microphones, the voice seems expansive but not particularly large, with a slightly fluttery vibrato that brings to mind several famous Spanish singers. NHK’s microphones reveal the full richness and vibrancy of Tucci’s voice, however, the security of her tone and technique expanding into every bar of Aida’s music. Simply put, Tucci is a magnificent – and, for me, revelatory – Aida. From her first entrance, Tucci’s Aida displays the same ambiguity Simionato brought to Amneris, both a royal personage and a woman wholly in the throes of love. Vocally, the accuracy and attractiveness of Tucci’s singing are astonishing considering the circumstances of a staged performance. Dramatically, Tucci suffers nothing from comparisons with her more famous rivals and improves upon the work of most of them owing simply to her innate understanding of the organic progressions of the vocal lines and idiomatic sincerity. This is an Aida who wears her heart on her sleeve, so to speak, without condescending to the notion of expressing the most delicate emotions in music of grand proportions. As such, Tucci proves the rare Aida who completely earns the distinction of being the opera’s name-part, a woman who is the center of the drama rather than a guileless victim of it. Tucci’s Aida is a performance that cannot have been oft equaled before or since.

A central theme of Aida explored by Verdi is the dichotomy that exists with Aida and Amneris. The conflict that seizes them and alters the course of Aida’s destiny stems not from their differences but from their similarities, a fact that Verdi understood completely. It is not merely a matter of two women loving the same man, for that is common enough as much in everyday life as in opera. Amneris is an heiress of the royal house whose love is oppressed by circumstance: Aida is a woman in love whose royalty is undermined by misfortune. It has been a lack of audible comprehension of the significance of this ambiguity that has impeded my surrender to the power of Aida. Singers committed to their art and to the roles at hand, Simionato and Tucci understood that complex feats of acting were not required in order to make Aida relevant. As with all the greatest operas, everything that must be said is in the music. Simionato’s Amneris and Tucci’s Aida sing as though their lives depend upon every utterance. Simple as it seems but elusive as it is, this is the poignant epicenter of Aida. Hearing Simionato’s spent, broken Amneris praying for peace as the voice of Tucci’s martyred Aida soars to heaven, I finally sensed in a long-delayed catharsis why so many tears have blurred views of painted pyramids.