Considering the current deterioration of the epidemiologic situation, one would have never dreamed of being able to enjoy an opera alongside 15,000 other opera lovers in an almost sold-out Arena di Verona. However, due to the newest regulations by the Italian State, that allowed access to such events to everyone in possession of a so-called Green-Pass (a sort of vaccination certificate), such an escape into a different reality suddenly became possible again at the Arena di Verona’s 98th Opera Festival. With white FFP2 masks as far as the eye can see and under the rigorous observation of the efficient auditorium staff, Aida was performed and staged in the same fashion that this masterpiece (with a total of 715 performances, the festival’s absolute signature piece) has traditionally been staged and performed. But does thickly applied pharaoh makeup and a lot of palm fronds really have a place in the future of opera?
Contrary to the popular belief, that within Aida you’ll find an accurate representation of ancient Egypt, the piece, written in 1871 is a typical child of its time. Originally commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the piece is a prime example of the western perception of the newly colonialized world, resulting in then very fashionable exoticism. Since at that time it was very much en vogue to host tableau vivant dinner parties, where the western upper class, posing as Cleopatra or Julius Cesar, reenacted Orientalist paintings in their living room, the story of the captured Ethiopian slave princess Aida, desperately in love with the Egyptian commander Radames, moved the societies of many colonial powers. Yet it never had much to do with a historically accurate depiction of ancient Egypt.
What however is very accurate is Giuseppe Verdi’s understanding of transmitting emotion through amazing compositional skills. What we have here is a very mature Verdi, not yet on that level of pathos that he later sets free in Otello, but harmonically already very advanced. Compared to the operas of the trilogia poplare like Il Trovatore, where the folkloristic elements (eg. the gypsy chorus) are clearly distinguishable from the otherwise very Italian character of Verdi’s composition, the harmonious character of Egypt is so subtly embedded in Aida that this new sound experience forms an amazing overall experience. An embracing experience that so wonderfully corresponds with the ambiance in the 2000-year-old Arena as well as with the staging. For in-house performances, such an effect-focused, conventional form of theatre, would seem outdated and I always welcome critical analysis of this opera’s colonialist heritage. This however only works in intellectual discourse and if one thinks of the unique ambiance of the Verona Arena as the prime reason why people come to the Arena, such a critical analysis wouldn’t make much sense here. Yes, opera as an art form must constantly renew itself and it would be absolutely lethal for its further existence if directors everywhere decided to emulate a tradition from the last century.
However, this night in Verona has proven to me once again, how essential it is, that festivals like these exist, to keep a certain balance between viewers who seek more of an intellectual challenge and those who simply want to enjoy a nice evening and focus entirely on the music. Because of all these considerations, devices in Michele Olcese’s staging that would normally bother me as a viewer, such as the reduction of an actual mise en scene between the protagonists to a few exclamatory gestures, became completely secondary.
What counted here was the overall effect, collaborating wonderfully with Arena expert Daniel Oren’s insightful conducting. The Israeli conductor is undoubtedly one of the specialists who understand the Arena’s acoustics and wicked dimensions. For this reason, he professionally managed his way through some rhythmical misunderstandings between stage and pit (that were solely due to the large distance between the orchestra and the chorus, which for Covid reason was placed on the left tribune) and used a wonderfully rich sound palette.
The success of the ensemble of singers on this night was carried by a dynamic duo of two magnificent female artists. The Uruguayan soprano Maria Josè Siri has already made herself quite a name, especially in Italy. This summer she could not only be seen as Aida but also alongside Placido Domingo in a Gala and in the horrendously difficult role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. While for a Santuzza in the Arena a singer must have amazing power and a well-grounded voice, the part of Aida includes some tricky high notes and enormously difficult pianissimi. Ms. Siri was convincing with a fascinating versatility and a phenomenal vocal technique. In O patria mia she showed us a beautiful tenderness, without for second seeming to drown in the Arena’s huge dimensions. The maturity in her middle range, gained from roles like Santuzza, is an ideal addition to the more dramatic outbreaks in her scenes with Amneris or Amonasro. Another good casting decision is hiring the young Romanian/Hungarian mezzo-soprano Judit Kutasi as Amneris. Her young voice is already so developed in the lower register, that she effortlessly reached the last rows of the big auditorium. In her 2nd act calls “Ah! Vieni, amor mio, m’inebria, fammi beato il cor!” she managed a powerful approach to tricky G5 as well as maintaining a crystal-clear intonation, a highlight of this evening! Jorge de Leòn sang Radames with a charming Verdian voice, Ambrogio Maestri a beautifully resonating Amonasro, and Rafal Siwek an imposing Ramfis with his mighty bass.