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A Beautiful Production of 'Aïda' from Barcelona
, 20 July 2004
This review is from: Verdi: Aida [DVD]  (DVD)
It's been years since I've seen 'Aïda,' but my first production goes back over fifty years and I've seen it too many times to count. My first Aïda was Zinka Milanov; that tells you how long ago it was. And in the movie theater I fell in love with my first sight of Sophia Loren in the Italian filmed version made in the 1950s. She lip-synched to the singing of Renata Tebaldi. I came to this DVD not expecting a lot, but I was, frankly, overwhelmed. I suppose part of that is because it had been so long since I'd seen the opera; it IS one of the great dramas of the opera stage, and like 'Bohème' and 'Carmen' (the other two of the ABC triumvirate) it never fails to move an audience (and me).
I've always sniffed at opera-goers who tell about their opera-going experiences by talking about the scenery. C'mon, opera is about the music, right? Well, yes, right. But this production from Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, one of the world's great opera houses, is a spectacular one, and what's more, it's a revival of a mise-en-scène that goes back to 1945. Here's the story: For many years the head scenery designer of the Liceu was Joseph Mestres Cabanes, the last of the so-called 'Catalan school' of set design. What he and his predecessors had perfected was the art of painting scenes on paper, that's right PAPER, using incredible skill at trompe l'oeil and perspective to make the scenery look, from the auditorium, ultra-realistic. Mestres Cabanes went a step further--his richly detailed sets were painstakingly painted, yes, but they also included fantastic, even surrealistic details that repaid close attention by the audience, and his use of color was uniquely gorgeous. His 1945 production of 'Aïda,' his last for the house, was probably the pinnacle of his achievement (along with an almost equally spectacular 'Meistersinger' of the year before). The production played for a number of years, but the paper sets (which onstage were mounted on elaborate wooden frames) had long since been removed from their frames, folded, and put away. Miraculously, when the Liceu burnt to the ground in 1995, they survived. Set designer Jordi Castellis had the idea of repairing the wear-and-tear flaws in the 60 year old sets and remounting Mentres Cabanes's production. This was done in July 2003 to huge acclaim, and rightly so. The sets for the four acts, using as many as 120 different planes and layers of paper, are, in a word, astonishingly beautiful and effective. But, enough about scenery ... what about the musical and dramatic values here?
This is a conservative production in that there is none of that Eurotrash rewriting of the plot, the setting, the era, or the psychological gist of the piece. The Liceu orchestra and chorus are excellent; I particularly liked the rich voices of the Priests in their scenes. The ballet is expert, although I did wonder why the so-called 'Sacred Dance of the Priestesses' in Act I, Scene 2 was danced by male dancers, however effective it was. Ah, the singers. Verdi is hard to cast these days; we all long for the days of 'real' Verdi baritones, real spinto sopranos, real ringing-voiced tenors. The Liceu measures up pretty well in this regard. It had been years since I'd heard Juan Pons sing, but his trombone-voiced Amonasro is one of the best I've ever heard. Robert Scandiuzzi's Ramfis is a suitably sonorous black basso. The Priestess (my first, would believe, was Lucine Amara when she was VERY young and long before she graduated to leading roles) is nicely done by Ana Nebot. Radamès is sung by a tenor only vaguely known to me, Fabio Armiliato, a fairly young man who is now singing in all the biggest houses. His tenor is just one notch below that of the best, but he manages it well, his acting is excellent and his appearance (he's tall and trim, and has devilish good looks) helps the effect. This is a video of a live performance and he, like many tenors, isn't at his peak for his big aria at the very beginning, 'Celeste Aïda,' but he warms up nicely and by the time of the Nile scene and the Dungeon scene the voice is ringing out heroically; he is also capable of nuanced soft singing. Daniela Dessì is a known quantity. She has been a leading Verdi soprano for years, and she shines here. Again, like Armiliato, she warms up after Act I and by Act II and beyond the singing is thrilling. Both the duet with Amonasro in the Nile scene and the aria and duet in Act IV are scrumptious, delicately shaded and featuring some pianissimi that gave me goose-bumps.
But the big surprise to me, since I'd never heard of her, is the Amneris of Elisabetta Fiorillo. Wow! In Act I there is evidence of a huge voice, but also some control problems. But by Act II and beyond she is simply magnificent. This is a dramatic voice with heft, flexibility, control. By Act IV she is simply stunning, and the audience certainly agrees with me on that. After her scena in Act IV, Scene 1, the audience went nuts.
In summary, then, this is the record of a wonderful performance enhanced by the restoration of 60-year-old sets that are themselves real works of art. This may not be Nilsson, Tebaldi, Price, Domingo, Bergonzi, whoever, but it is still thrilling theater.
There are subtitles in English, French, German and Catalan. There are an illustrated synopsis on DVD 1 (of 2) and a short documentary on Mestres Cabanes's sets and their restoration. There is no libretto, but the subtitles (in English, at least) are accurate and well-synchronized.
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