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, April 25, 2011

BBC: Royal Opera McVicar Aida - serious casting, podium upgrade from last season provides fine musico-dramatic focus. Fabio Luisi.

It turned out well for David McVicar’s production, new last season, of Verdi’s Aida to have received a second chance at Royal Opera, given how strapped it got with musically disastrous results last season. BBC annotation then more emphasized a kind of generalized smorgasbord of costuming styles, generations from ancient past to modern, something to please everybody, being thrust upon Convent Garden stage. This year their sound bite leaned much more on the garish, even graphic violence to depict of an at best vaguely located totalitarian war-mongering state – equally de-Egyptologized – no elephants, no pyramids – as how things appeared last year. Figures to represent shriveling up, rotting away corpses off the field of battle hung off meat hooks above Amneris’s richly marble enhanced boudoir.

More assured, confident to conduct this performance was Fabio Luisi. Most likely helpful too was the cancellation of Micaela Carosi - given how inadequate last year she proved for the title role – thereby Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made her Convent Garden debut. Dramatically, she provided cogent, well considered understanding of much at stake. Vulnerability of Aida’s plight, naivete with Amneris, toughness under stress, subtly and directly manipulative way of compromising Radames all evidenced themselves.

Good line, legato, coloration of the above adequately carried forth, albeit compromised by occasional cloudy tone, soggy diction, bluster toward pushing up the sound, artificially darkening it thereby; thickness around the break made this at times a real issue. Of concern also was tentative stab to get more lyrical acuti to float, sound less obviously detached, and thereby to keep intonation stable. For heroic utterances, such as closing Act Two, she clearly made herself heard, even while flat, and through Nile duet with Amonasro as well. Flexibility to lighten voice during ‘O patria mia’ and through much of ‘Fuggiam inospiti’’ later along the Nile was lovely. Grasp of how to float her sound waited several lines or so however to establish itself during tomb scene with Radames.
Roberto Alagna, largely assisted by deft, sensitive accompaniment from Fabio Luisi, revealed a more probing look at Radames through tendency to scale voice back and more subtly negotiated demands it makes than evident at La Scala several years ago – subject of the Roberto Alagna Milan Walkout, it turned out once. His sound was drier at Convent Garden than in Milan, but with considerably less of a constantly pushed up, projected quality than under a concise, more forthright Riccardo Chailly.

Some strain through ‘Celeste Aida’ was again apparent, its tessitura precariously centered around the break - as has occurred many times. Alagna still provided the smarts to define character – mix of sense of wonder and naivete innate to a good Radames – if all slightly weak at filling out heroic dimensions also characterizing the Egyptian captain. ‘Nel fiero anelito’ upon greeting Aida along the Nile Alagna provided good ring and purpose – and then shaded nuance his puzzlement at Aida’s imploring him to join her in fleeing south. Fabio Luisi proved his attentive best at not allowing Alagna to get precariously stuck for long on spinto required acuti to follow. (Radames murdering two guards during futile attempt at escape from the priests seems both indulgent, out of character). Despondency during scene with Amneris, despair with which to open the Tomb Scene and melos in head voice for final duet therein with Aida both got securely achieved. If not quite renascence of Carlo Bergonzi at lyrically essaying Radames, Alagna revealed an extra helping of nuance – beyond what may have in the Italianate repertoire been often likely during much of his past.

Olga Borodina was the regal, imposing Amneris. With years of experience at it, in fine voice sheobviated well the psychological complexity of the princess – also complexity of means by which Amneris gets her way, attempts doing so. With age, slight loss of certainty has crept in, in terms of keeping solid low notes, evenness between registers, but once past trio in Act One,, such uncertainty seemed to evaporate. Particularly moving during Act Four, an Amenris full of desperation and regret, Borodina overall made Amneris more the woman than avenging angel – stock interpretation that comes from singing the big Verdi leads three-fourths of the time. More than cantabile, melos for opening lines of Acts Two and Three, Borodina came across fully convincing as woman fully infatuated with Radames, then deeply uncomprehending of her passion going unrequited. Her feigning of concern even for Aida during Act Two, expression of empathy overall, was so good, it is still hard to believe it had not been real, albeit her ‘Trema, o schiava’s – as forceful, implacable as the best around - Borodina still insurpassable an Amneris.

Although without quite the natural bite in diction of an Italian baritone singing Verdi, Michael Volle made, secure across the range, ideal casting as Amonasro. Guelfi, Vratogna, heard at the Met, Convent Garden, Munich, La Scala, other places lack sufficient tone for ability to sustain it. Evenness of tone, assurance this way, by comparison, was here in spades. Along with fully humanizing the part, Amonasro’s plight, Volle frequently incisive with text whether using full voice or sotto voce, became all-encompassing. Volle’s catching the very circumspect and equally subtle conniving qualities of the beleagured king was all spot-on. The twenty minutes in which Amonasro must dramatically make an impression were such upon which Volle capitalized in full.

Not quite evil black ball of sound I found - as described to me by long time friend of mine who actually saw Kowaljow in London during the same run sing this. A relatively lean, still dark toned Vitalij Kowaljow, baritonal on top, mostly made convincing the both overtly firm and implacable aspects of high priest Ramfis. In providing solidity at bottom to cast overall, Kowaljow hardly ever came up short. Grasp of the solemnity of priestly character, simplicity of addressing Radames at trial directly both brought out the visionary reach typical of any good Ramfis - though vision being toxic - necessary to avoid resorting to stock villainy. Brindley Sherratt was tonally lean, all business as King of Egypt, imparting through ‘Su del Nilo’ sense of outrage out of supposedly being forced into (new) campaign against the Ethiopians. The smoky sensuous toned Preistess of Madeleine Pierard sounded probably soon worthy of larger assignments.

Several contemporary productions of Aida, probably good handful by now, offer setting generic as to specific time or location, or in case of Chris Alden’s in Berlin, updating and bringing action close to home altogether. Along with this arrives a new musical sensitivity - working toward eschewing making any characteristic pointing to much anything religious, political, social too specific. Repartee on replayed episode of PBS syndicated drama New Tricks however got me wondering about the good old legendary ancient Egyptians. From momentarily a much peeved ever headstrong Sandra Pullman to one of her detective co-workers - I paraphrase – ‘Say that again (and) I will make myself earrings out of your testicles.’ Ouch! McVicar already has accomplished near as much, as to how to suggest ancient Egypt - thus maybe not so good to provide him any further ideas.

Fabio Luisi opted for approach predominantly flowing, lyrical, mildly Teutonic in specificity over how to weigh, voice especially choral and brass sonorities. Having said that, Luisi steered mostly clear of replacing supportive line in the orchestral part with amorphous profile thereof, into which his singers should blend – as frequently occurred under Luisotti last year. Limning of string, then string-accompanied lines for flute made limpid magic out of preludes to both odd-numbered acts. Stark simplicity in building both Brahmsian stretti during Act One prelude was also insightful, as was measured pacing, attentive to getting rhythm precisely right and rests within line their full value to frame opening of the Tomb scene, infused throughout with limpid support for the condemned lovers, supple calibration of all else. Passages for brass, timpani, especially referring to priests, their asceticism Luisi replaced coming across (potentially) loudly violent or aggressive with bringing out dry sonorities strongly implied instead.

Attention to overall line and also dramatic interaction between singers, especially during the Nile Scene and last act – also during audience between Aida and Amneris and ‘Ma tu, Re’ during Act Two - was apt, mostly concise. Positive qualities to the scrupulous leadership from the pit also became evident throughout the rest, but most of the way until the opera’s second half, one had perhaps to grope around for being able to perceive any really specific point of view about Verdi’s Aida overall. This included streamlining of more forceful cabalettas - toward end of the Nile Scene and then during Act Four between Radames and Amneris. Alongside incisively minute attentiveness of Luisi to singers’ needs, while facing numerous potentially precarious moments, came some fussiness, thereby intermittently flaccidity as well, notably during the Triumphal Scene and for dances during earlier scenes.

Through the graphic violence of the staging, one could grasp issue of how any ‘lower depths’ regardless of time, ethnicity, nationality can get ‘marginated’ – word I learned this evening from repeat of PBS interview of Helen Prejean. I think word Sister Prejean wanted instead was ‘marginalized’ – during anecdotally wise citing of having temporarily resided in notorious St Thomas projects in New Orleans – concerning residents’ overall plight there. Or perhaps the word she intended might have been ‘margarinated;’ handful or two of mostly guys (Baker 13) at one fairly elite varsity, ‘Harvard of the South’ nearby opts for shaving cream instead.

Nevertheless good sense of purpose, resolve in mind here got Aida performed responsibly well, at last bringing dignity to bear upon David McVicar’s still relatively new production.

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