, November 2009
Verdi: Aida (La Scala, 1985) (NTSC) 100059
Puccini: Madama Butterfly (La Scala, 1986) (NTSC) 100111
In the mid-1980s (just before the Riccardo Muti era began), Lorin Maazel often ruled the conductor’s roost at La Scala.
His meticulous technique produces a big, smooth sound, with the occasional odd tempo or excessively highlighted detail to keep things interesting, or at least mildy so. At home in the opera house, he manages to maintain his conductor’s profile and yet support the singers. Your reviewer couldn’t begin to define Maazel’s interpretation of Verdi’s Aida or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but both scores are exceedingly well-played in these performances, which return to the DVD format on the ArtHaus Musik label.
The two productions do make for an interesting contrast. Luca Ronconi directed the 1986 Aida, which boasts gi-normous sets by Mauro Pagano and costumes (also gi-normous in the case of Luciano Pavarotti’s Radames) by Vera Marzot. With all the subtlety of a Cecil B. De Mille technicolor spectacular, the essentially intimate story of love and betrayal that Verdi and librettist Anotnio Ghislanzoni conceived gets rolled over and squashed flat by ambulatory monuments and acres of fake stone and boulders (which also produce much audible stage noise whem moved). The Madama Butterfly, also from 1986, goes for a restrained approach, employing an authentic Japanese aesthetic of spare beauty. In the opening supers, dressed as Ninjas, construct the home Pinkerton and Cio-cio-san will briefly share; the wide space and raked rock garden effect of act one even suggest a precursor to Robert Wilson’s production, many years in the future. This handsome authenticity springs from the work of director Keita Asari and set designer Ichiro Takada, with costumes by the renowned Hanae Mori. Their staging manages an effective balance between stylization and realism, until the final image, an audacious but not entirely effective switch to a purely decorative portraya—Butterfly’s suicide consists of her opening a white fan which turns blood-red, as supers unroll a red cloth beneath her.
Fans of grand opera spectacle can revel in the tacky pleasures of the Ronconi Aida, as cans fans of, frankly, tackiness. The ballets will provoke tittering in many, whether due to the female acolytes of Ptah appearing in blue caftans and turbans for a sort of morning stretching exercise, or the mostly nude bevy of pre-pubescent youth who bathe, for no clear reason, in the apartment of Amneris. Then there is the monumental splendor of Pavarotti as Radames, especially impressive as he stands astride a wheeled platform for the triumphal march, pulled by a very hard-working group of supers. Director Ronconi seems to have spent most of his time managing the movements of the singers so that they don’t get lost in the crowds or squashed by some errant, enormous prop. As Aida, Maria Chiara spends most of the performance with her arms awkwardly outstretched beseechingly. Ghena Dimitrova couldn’t be a more nefarious Amneris if she had a thin moustache scribbled on her upper lip. And Pavarotti is Pavarotti. The La Scala audience eats all this up, and why shouldn’t they, as the singing of the principals actually has much to offer. Pavarotti sings a beautiful Radames, lighter than many of his predecessors in the role but authoritative enough. Of course, some viewers may be distracted not only by his girth but also by his fascinating eyebrows, one of which continually rides higher than the other. Maria Chiara’s soprano may lack an individual profile, but she gives a strong, consistent reading of a difficult role. With her Afro and numerous jangly bracelets, she looks as if she is hosting a 1980s Halloween party—“Walk Like an Egyptian.” Although Dimitrova doesn’t sing with any more subtlety than she acts, when it comes to her big scene in act four, she delivers some excitement. The lower voices provide firm support, with Paata Burchuladze, near the beginning of his career, quite strong as the King, and Juan Pons an unlikely but impressive father to Chiara’s Aida. The great Nicolai Ghiaurov takes on Ramfis, and his voice shows his veteran status in ways both commendable (technique) and not so commendable (tone).
As a piece of dramatic music theater, Asari’s Madama Butterfly has it all over the Ronconi Aida. The portrayals are sharper, the visual element fresher, the impact stronger. The singing, however, doesn’t quite reach the same high level. A specialist of those years as Cio-Cio-san, Yasuko Hayashi has a surprisingly strong voice, though far from a beautiful one. She is a Butterfly who actually does better in the big moments at the end of the opera than she does with “Un bel di.” There isn’t much chemistry between her and her Pinkerton, Peter Dvorsky. He has a beefy sound, which is good enough for the strutting peacock of his early scenes, though not as pleasant in the long love duet or “Addio, fiorito asil.” Giorgio Zancanaro is a negligible Sharpless, while the effectiveness of an Asian Suzuki (a fine Hak-Nam Kim) is somewhat dimmed by having Italians play Goro and Yamadori (respectively, Ernesto Gavazzi and Arturo Testa).
The Aida set comes with a lugubrious “Making of” documentary, with a smattering of interesting background spread thin among 45 minutes of talking heads limiting themselves to mostly predictable and/or inane comments. It might have been nice to have some more information on the Asari/Takada/Mori Butterfly, but none is provided. Fans of Maazel, or mid-1980s La Scala productions, will enjoy the Aida, while the Butterfly can stand on its own, if without any claims to vocal splendors.