Giuseppe Verdi - Aida (2007) [DVD9 NTSC] (Riccardo Chailly)
Orchestra e coro del Teatro alla Scala
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Int. Release 27 Aug. 2007
2 DVDs 074 3209 dx2 Decca
This is the DVD that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Roberto Alagna’s now infamous walkout on the second night of this production. Trouble appeared to have been brewing with Alagna even before the prima , but opening night went well enough for him. Then, during the second performance, on December 10, Alagna received a negative reaction from certain members of the audience for his performance of “Celeste Aida.” He walked off stage and could not be persuaded to return, leaving Antonello Palombi (still in street clothes) to take over the performance for him. The Italian press and opera blogs had a field day with this incident. What it meant for Decca is that they would now be unable to use several performances—several of Alagna’s performances, anyway—to create an “ideal” performance for DVD release. For all I know, what we are seeing and hearing here is, in fact, a composite performance, but we can be pretty sure that when Alagna is on stage, we are watching the performance from December 7, warts and all.
It is both a pleasure and a surprise, then, to report that this Aida is the very best I’ve seen on DVD. For me, it is an even greater surprise, because two of the most positive contributors to this production are conductor Riccardo Chailly and director Franco Zeffirelli. Regular readers know I generally dislike Zeffirelli’s overly busy productions, and I’ve never understood what others heard in Chailly’s conducting. Aida is just about the right vessel in which to pour Zeffirelli’s talents, however, and my 10-year hiatus from Chailly has led to a change either in my hearing or in his conducting, for I’ve never been so gripped by Aida as a musical totality as I have been here.
True to form, Zeffirelli crams every inch of the La Scala stage with eye candy, but what candy! This is a traditional staging, but one in which every conceivable Egyptian accessory, authentic or not, contributes to the spectacular whole. Even the dancing, which is such an embarrassment in so many productions, is welcome here, so kudos as well to choreographer Vladimir Vassiliev, and to the members, old and young, of the La Scala ballet. The little kids dancing in Amneris’s bedroom are adorable, and Roberto Bolle’s memorable solo turn in the Triumphal Scene well justifies his appearance during final curtain calls.
Chailly’s conducting, full of nuance and drama, is the very opposite of routine. There are times when I wish he would have lingered a little more (the end of Judgment Scene, for example), but his tempos never feel rushed, and he leaves enough time to bring out telling orchestral colors, such as the groaning double basses as Radamès is led away to trial.
The singing is never unworthy of Chailly’s and Zeffirelli’s work, although it is the women, Urmana and Komlosi, who are this production’s stars. They have large voices, but they both use them with sensitivity, although I suppose one could cite Komlosi for over-reliance on chest tones. (Still, it’s pretty darn exciting!) Urmana’s bright voice maintains its steadiness up to a gleaming top, and if there’s one thing that’s missing from her singing—and from Komlosi’s too, to a lesser extent—it’s variety of color. In other words, don’t look for keenly insightful singing, but if you’re looking for a healthy sound and temperament, Urmana and Komlosi will satisfy. There’s a lot of standard operatic gesturing in their acting, but they try, and that counts for something.
As Radamès, Alagna certainly is not a disaster, although he feels a size too small for the role. “Celeste Aida” starts off too loudly and only gets louder, and there is no diminuendo on the final B?. He’s at his best when he isn’t trying to puff himself up; the Tomb Scene is touching, despite Alagna’s lachrymose inflections. There’s not much acting here either, but at least Alagna is manly in his stoicism. Guelfi’s old-fashioned Amonasro is rough, with a tendency to shout and to wobble. The Ramfis, Giorgio Giuseppini, sings well but is forgettable. Marco Spotti’s King, on the other hand, stands out; here’s a ruler who can make his subjects listen! The chorus and orchestra are on top form throughout.
What’s a little disappointing about this DVD has nothing to do with the musicianship or the dramaturgy, but with the direction for television and video. Someone has decided that brief, slightly off-focus clips of swirling costumes enhance home viewing, so these have been inserted every minute or two, sometimes superimposed on (or instead of) a singer. I think it’s supposed to be arty, but it absolutely does not work. Also, act III and (especially) act IV are very dark. I don’t imagine this was a problem in the auditorium, but I found it hard to tell exactly what was going on during much of the Tomb Scene. Aïda and Radamès were desperately in need of a Coleman lantern!
Apart from the aforementioned problems, this production has transferred very well to video. The sound is excellent too. In fact, I was moved to increase the volume to “live” levels—always a good sign—and I am sure the ringing in my ears will be gone by morning.
The controversy surrounding this production might scare potential buyers away from this DVD, but have no fear: this is a great Aida , even though it might prove to be a bittersweet souvenir for many who were associated with, or present at, the actual performances.