He, Ulbrich; Berti, Maestri, Ellero d'Artegna, Tagliavini; Chorus and Orchestra of the Verona Arena, Oren.
Production: De Basio. Opus Arte OA 1107D, 150 mins., subtitled
Arena di Verona's 2012 Aida for Verdi's bicentennial looks so reassuringly traditional, so cozily Egyptian, or "Egyptian," that it could have come straight out of the comic-book frames of Hergé's Tintin. The retro look is deliberate, an attempt to recreate Verona's historic 1913 production of the same opera, which honored Verdi's centennial and helped launch regular seasons in the vast arena.
Lotus-topped pillars, hieroglyphs and obelisks stand out in warm, sandy colors, and director Gianfranco De Basio's fleet, efficient crowd-control compensates for a certain sameness in what is essentially the world's biggest unit set. The triumph scene starts a bit tamely, without any panoramic revelation, without the sudden multiplying of space and light that sparks some productions at this point. But there's visual interest in the towering banners and insignia, lavish costumes, innumerable extras and four well-behaved horses.
The production claims to be duplicating not just the designs from 1913 but the century-old staging, too, and nothing here suggests otherwise; basically the principals reach center stage after a long, sometimes stealthy approach, stand facing the conductor (rarely one another) and sing. Aida gets down on the floor at the customary moment in her Act III duet with Amonasro, but without much help from him. A pivot to left or right by a character ranks as an event.
Still, this revival is, in many ways, worthy of the Verdi year. As the cameras catch the play of twilight and artificial sun on the arena's ancient arches, the musical elements gradually come together. Tenor Marco Berti's heroic gleam and the vivid, sultry Amneris of Hungarian mezzo Andrea Ulbrich anchor the singing. Chinese soprano Hui He is a lyrical Aida, a little wan in the first acts. Graceful lines and secure placement lend charm to her soft, high passages in the Nile scene, though she tends to lose tone quality at stronger volume. The world's reigning Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri seems miscast as Amonasro; he is slightly stiff, despite some vivid, explosive effects. Ulbrich and Berti are solid rather than fiery in their Act IV confrontation, but the Italian tenor steadily loosens up throughout the evening, with especially winning lyricism in the final scene.
Some lyrical landmarks — Amneris's voluptuous "Ah! Vieni, amor mio, m'inebria," the subtleties of the Nile scene — lack customary breadth, but in a billowy, ardent "O terra addio," conductor Daniel Oren finally relaxes the reins after enforcing an unusually taut, headlong pace for three acts. If the conductor had seemed eager to get through the repeating, overfamiliar Nile-ism of the opera's choruses and ballets, the effect, to this listener, was bracing. The insistent agitation, recalling the thrust of early Verdi, acted like delayed gratification to give the tomb scene a uniquely privileged glow.
After negligible scenic effects in the Nile and judgment scenes, the vertical split stage closes the opera with an arresting picture, combining the intimate and the monumental in an effective penumbra.
DAVID J. BAKER
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