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spacer He, D'Intino; Berti, Maestri, Prestia, R. Tagliavini; Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Mehta. 
Production: Ozpetek. Arthaus Musik 108 040 (Blu-ray) or 101 598 (DVD), 151 mins., subtitled


Conductor Zubin Mehta celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday last year in Florence with a new production of Aida at the Maggio Musicale. There was a high-powered cast led by Chinese soprano Hui He in the title role and Luciana D'Intino as Amneris, and additional interest centered on the opera debut of Turkish-born film director Ferzan Ozpetek. Mehta's history with Aida goes back at least to 1966, when he recorded it on LP with Birgit Nilsson and Rome Opera forces. That earlier version showed the young Mehta as forceful and not very subtle. Forty-five years later, his conducting retains the energy, but now with more attention to color and details.

Aida is "grand opera" only in the triumph scene and a few segments of Act I. Much of the rest is intimate and delicate, and Mehta brings this out, notably in the Nile scene, where instrumental solos and splashes of interacting orchestral colors have the intimacy of chamber music. Ozpetek, too, is at his best in showing niceties of character and individual reaction, though he does not cheat us out of the big pageants either. Dante Ferretti's sets are simple, almost cartoonish, dominated by bright colors and large simulated stone statues.

This is a traditional staging, but we read clearly in He's very expressive face and body language the conflicts that Aida experiences. The soprano's communicative abilities are especially evident in "Ritorna vincitor!," with its constantly changing emotions. Her Aida is small of stature but large in personality. She has a juicy spinto that rides the big moments but allows for gorgeous pianissimos when called for. Her high C in "O patria mia," begun softly and expanded, is memorable.

D'Intino's Amneris, big and blustery in the manner of old-time divas, manages to convey the heartbreak of being scorned along with the arrogance of royalty. This is a major voice that opens up in the lows and the highs: she is daunting right from her opening "Quale insolita gioia" and a powerhouse in the judgment scene, where she never flags.

Marco Berti is also something of a powerhouse. His spinto sound is the right weight for Radamès, but it's monochromatic and dull. Moreover, he is a distinctly unromantic hero, lacking chemistry with either of the two women who are supposed to be in love with him. Ambrogio Maestri, the Amonasro, is also a rough-hewn singer, but his voice has the requisite brawn and the sustained high notes of a genuine Verdi baritone. His Act III scene with Aida is forceful and thrilling, one of the set's best moments. 

Giacomo Prestia makes an impression as Ramfis with his solid, deep bass. His opening lines in the Nile scene, going down solidly to low F-sharp, are particularly striking, with the melting response of D'Intino's Amneris — a lovely passage that is hardly ever noticed. 

Roberto Tagliavini's King and Caterina di Tonno's Priestess are adequate but no more. Choreographer Franceso Ventriglia finds an imaginative twist in a mirror dance for the Moorish slaves, but his prominent insertion of a scared young girl in the triumph scene ballet is distracting and extraneous. Quite touching, however, is the full company singing "Happy Birthday" to the maestro — "Tanti auguri a te!" — after the final bows. spacer


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