The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, July 5, 2010

BBC: ROH Aida - Vocally erratic, inauspiciously conducted - Nicola Luisotti (ROH debut) - more off than for eccentric staging (McVicar). 27.4.10

Should Baz Luhrmann or James Cameron ever produce Aida, I would recommend that for a conductor to do nothing compelling to get in his way, look no further – Nicola Luisotti. The new David McVicar production of Aida at Convent Garden was to be one with something to offer everybody, with apparently mix of intergalactic space, ancient Chinese warriors strutting across, even perhaps as described, a touch of Addams Family. It all sounded ready to make light of several ancient civilizations – enough that perhaps several very great ones could or should have sputtered out after only just several decades. Sheer outright gore presented onstage was enough to give Royal Opera patrons and emcee pause – for what all sounded very bloodless underneath. For whatever universal meaning to be on display, we were to get an Aida, regardless how cartoon-ish it might look - short of real singers to get in the way - ‘de-saturated not only of its Egyptian-ness, but ultimately also excessively of Verdi.

For early phrases, momentarily, Micaela Carosi – not to be confused with Margharita Carosio - with warm tone, manner of phrasing, sustained interest as Aida. Soon thereafter, the wobbly top distracted, then through ‘Ritorna vincitor’ gulped low notes, and for strain she was under, the tendency to bulge the line and break it up into small pieces. She tended often to bear down for some of the most lyrical passages of Aida that a dramatic soprano will tend to sing softly, but not often Carosi. Hooty tone and flat acuti made ‘O patria mia’ go for naught – loud for final ‘(non piu) ti rivedrai’ – with sobs ending it.

Cabaletta to Nile scene duet with Radames (Marcelo Alvarez) hardly had anything to resemble either heroic sound or persona with which to match; it mattered little that Carosi was no more than just vocally adequate for this. After some good acting, subtly working Aida’s wiles on Radames, “Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti” got so heavily worked, colored variety of ways, one might think that Cathy Berberian could have once taken the part on herself, as example to follow. Much hooty, also flat tone proceeded from there to replace line, anything resembling real poetry to the end of this section of the duet. Not helping matters was Luisotti’s waltz-y, debonair treatment of the refrain therein. Russ McDonald for Opera (British) noted Carosi’s inability to float, make anything buoyant.

The hard swells, lunges, low rent verismo effects, as though Cilea or Giordano badly done, Carosi inculcated into ‘O terra addio’, with Alvarez in lockstep behind her, making it all quite unattractive. Marcelo Alvarez was notably the semi-heroic Radames. He started out at once sounding the eager warrior, dreamer of a Radames. Except for turning choppy toward its conclusion, ‘Celeste Aida’ went reasonably well, with fine sense of wonder and naivete to infuse the lyricism Alvarez can still muster for it. He also began the Tomb Scene well, but before long joined Carosi as equally vulgar partner, for the lyrical to exquisite lines Verdi wrote to close both their parts.

Incisive lines, including Pavarotti-esque shouted ‘Aida’ near opening of the Tomb Scene, frequently started Alvarez pouting in place of sounding heroic. One thinks back to how previous lyrics have handled Radames. With Bergonzi for Karajan and elsewhere, one had (nearly) sufficient heft for more dramatic outbursts, but as comfortably couched within a very well sung lyric line, letting what musical and dramatic imagination do the rest for his not being quite a spinto for it. If ever ran around a class-act Radames, Carlo Bergonzi was it. With Pavarotti, as for Lorin Maazel, we get a mere coasting through it, with hollow middle register, almost no dramatic or musical insight, except for his ability to maintain secure line. Alvarez, close to how Pavarotti handled things, layered on further attempt at histrionics, that at end of the day made one think better had he just settled for singing this.

Once almost all (in place of some, reckoning Pavarotti) poise leaves Radames, the game is up. ‘Pur ti riveggo’ got off to anti-heroic start and to a nearly derailed finish, with ending syllables of pouted ‘Io vi difendo’ - right before weak ‘Fuggire’ - breaking apart into a wild chain of diphthongs. He then lightly clipped, weakly bellowed his way through “Io son disonorato,” helping Amonasro and maestro for brief trio near end of Nile Scene make an indecipherable royal mess of it. Alvarez recovered poise for opening scene of Act Four, but too late and for not long enough lasting a spell.

Ji-Min Park provided the lyric, but wrong-headed, misguided Messenger on this outing. His voice is almost too sweet for even this brief, but important part. It was insightful into the McVicar production however how very wobbly mostly at knees alone this Messenger sounded. As in employ of the Radames of Marcelo Alvarez, it became clear why. Put before an entire Egyptian army made up of such men twelve or thirteen savage Ethiopians (McVicar could have decked out as Japanese sumo wrestlers?) and whole Egyptian army could have en masse capitulated before our very eyes.

The Amneris of Marianne Cornetti, decked out as Queen Elisabeth, in interaction with Alvarez, could have helped explain why. It is hard to recall a more spinster-esque sounding Amneris than this. Other than having Alvarez (or worse, Bocelli) in the part, what claims could have such an Amneris had on Radames? Understandable however the loud yawn with which Cornetti on her ‘Ah! vieni’s opened Act Two, given who sang her beau here - singularly unattractive all the same. Following comfortable feel for conversational, opening lines with Radames and then Aida in the next act, “Trema, vil schiava’ emerged with scoop up to it and uncontrollable beat on its opening F, to come across hardly threatening at all. Declamation at (lower) end of this line was first broken from what issued right before, above it, and lightly barked. Cornetti made almost credible enough case for Act Four duet alone - with Radames.

Amneris’s last plea for mercy to the priests got entirely derailed by closing at-break D that went almost entire whole tone sharp. And then how was Cornetti’s risible notion of a Fata Morgana laugh at them at end of her penultimate line supposed to shake anyone up? More than enough fuss was made over the costuming of Amneris here. Far preferable an Amneris in concert or office attire and much more fuss made over what Verdi wrote, as for instance, where Luisotti undercut Amneris’s pre-trial brief monologue by entirely clipping the rests therein. How Oedipal a situation had arisen here also has to be risible, perhaps along lines of the new McVicar production to show with what ease even ancient cultures could cross boundaries.

Marco Vratogna was the still weaker Amonasro, and in stormiest passage of duet with Aida sounded like taking skip, hop and jump down pathway of hot coals instead of fully enunciated pitches. Several got entirely lost, inaudible during obbligato to ending chorus of the Triumphal Scene. Tone briefly filled out here and there to expand upon still a non legato lyric line. It simply was not enough, except to break Carosi’s well sung reprise of “Ma, tu Re” with a loudly bellowed high F. Giacomo Prestia was hardly stronger as Ramfis, including during trial scene, with very quavery sense of intonation.

If there ever was occasion for ‘flip the ticket’, it was not McCain/Palin, but instead Ramfis and King here in this cast. Luisotti’s cut, heavy clip of between two and not quite three beats of rest before start of the trial of Radames certainly did not help Prestia. Elisabeth Meister, of comparable vocal weight to Carosi, shaped the Priestess’s lines with fine ease and legato line. Finest member of this cast was definitely the oldest –seen before on video of the former, I strongly suspect better Moshinsky production as Ramfis - Robert Lloyd as the King. Though the voice is not what it was seventeen years ago, it still filled the King – part Verdi reckoned less important than High Priest – with fine sense of authority, and still much solid tone, resonance.

Following along behind the rest of what transpired was the conducting of Nicola Luisotti, deft, light for most of the dances during the first two acts and for opening prelude to Act One, and with mostly secure enough ensemble and sound from the Royal Opera orchestra, albeit along with the chorus sounding confused by Luisotti’s flaccid accenting of so much of what Verdi wrote. For at how low voltage so much of this Aida ran on, from Royal Opera forces, it all should have been absolutely together. There was also an incipient tendency to encourage sotto voce reading of numerous lines from his singers, as he has learned from so many years of vocal coaching - late-career von Karajan example as well. It was seldom convincing thirty years ago; with so little character Freni, Carreras, Baltsa gave us, it is definitely not convincing now.

Supposedly tailored, accommodated to singers’ needs, there were a number of places where necessary firm support or underpinning to vocal lines went for naught -.for what diaphanous, then unwittingly shallow sonority Luisotti had in mind. Tempos were frequently mildly slow, but more than that being the case, inner vitality to even volatile accompaniment went for naught. Take for instance the Allegro giusto marking for surging accompaniment to ‘I sacri Numi’ during ‘Ritorna vincitor’ or ascending, descending viola, cello lines in unison under ‘Del Nilo I cupi vortici’ right before ‘O patria mia’. Take also the shallow gilding of brass chords underneath the King in recitative directly leading into opening scene ‘Sul del Nilo’ chorus and flat-line accompaniment to the Temple Scene duet soon thereafter. In effect, so much fuss tepidly left several members of Luisotti’s cast, at one point or another, regardless where, high and dry - nothing any of this cast could afford less than that. Same held true for Luisotti’s flaccid support for Verdi’s choral writing - as an aside his Ketelbey feel for the ‘Immenso Phtha’ business during the Tomb Scene.

Had Verdi been able to write Aida as neatly couched array of diaphanous colors, textures, it might have suited Luisotti, even late-career Karajan just fine. Harp for opening of the Temple Scene sounded tinny enough to have been mistaken for a ukulele - to accompany priestesses imported from plantation off the Mississippi. Boosted accelerandi to close excitable passages came across - instead of forceful - light, cheaply scherzo-esque. Such exemplified here close of both ‘Sul del Nilo’ chorus and Act Three. This turned out indeed a most inauspicious conducting debut for Convent Garden.

Much abetted lunge into ‘O terra addio’ from both protagonists showed wholesome confidence of the afterlife to follow. Breaking into it was, most likely unintentional, what one could construe as someone on stage having kicked over something. And yet the singing carried on. For realistic fear of meeting one composer on the other side, what then should be their, even our own take on approaching what life there is for the hereafter?

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