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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, January 2011

At Bregenz one can expect spectacular productions—or at least conspicuous ones. I am talking about Opera on Lake Bodensee which takes place in July and August each year. It’s part of the Bregenz festival which provides a lavish offer of opera, theatre and concerts. The outdoor stage surrounded by water invites gigantic sets and the long distance to the grandstand on the shore requires amplifying equipment. I have seen some productions on DVD and also some stills. They are generally provocative, putting the characters in settings as far away from the original as can be imagined. Il trovatore a few years ago took place in an industrial landscape, possibly on an oil platform. This Aida goes even further. The water here isn’t ocean deep but allows the actors to wade, to swim, to fall in or splash, even to be drowned. During the prelude two lifeless bodies hanging on a wire attached to an enormous building crane, are slowly transported before the eyes of horrified onlookers until they are lowered down into a barge off the stage. In Trovatore fire was central to the proceedings; in Aida water has the same importance, the Nile being the life-blood of the Egyptians. There is a water ballet in the triumphal scene. The tomb episode takes place on a ship drifting among the waves. During the final duet the ship rises from the water and sails into the sky, leaving Amneris alone at the waters’ edge. A real amphibious opera.

Dominating the stage picture are two monstrously big, blue feet. Why are they there? Whatever the reason they appear to function as the firm foundation around which the action rotates, whether it be Aida, the slave girl, scrubbing the floor, Amneris in black dotted evening gown airing her human ‘dogs’ or high priests and soldiers invading the stage. There are activities aplenty with numerous extras just being there, costumes are a mix of modern and ancient. All this business tends to suffocate the central conflicts and it is typical of the performance that it is in the Nile scene—act III—that the action grabs the viewer by the throat; this is the first scene with no external distractions. In a way this is dramaturgically sensitive, since the first two acts primarily deal with festivities, while the core of the drama is the triangle Aida—Amonasro—Radames. This is an oversimplification of the plot. There are many strands in the libretto and Amneris—though basically an evil character but one who loves—is the hub around which everything rotates. In this performance it also becomes obvious why Verdi initially contemplated naming the opera Amneris.

Iano Tamar, the Georgian soprano who was also a great Leonora in Il Trovatore, is the star; her somewhat darkish timbre contrasting well with Tatiana Serjan’s girlish Aida. Tamar has authority and a thrilling lirico-spinto voice. In the first scene in act IV she is truly great. Serjan at first seems too lyrical for Aida, having a fluttery soubrette voice but it sits well with her youthful looks. Her Ritorna vincitor is however sung with intensity and in the third and fourth acts she grows in stature, no doubt inspired by Scottish baritone Iain Paterson’s powerful Amonasro. He is an unusually dangerous Ethiopian king. Rubens Pelizzari is a rather pale Radamès in the first two acts but like his Aida he grows and in the Nile duet he finds a glow that has eluded him before. O terra addio, though sung in a strange setting, is delivered with lyrical beauty and warmth by both artists. Tigran Martirossian is an acceptable Ramfis but Kevin Short’s King is terribly wobbly.

As so often with these Bregenz productions one ends up in two minds. They’re innovative for sure, and this Aida is no exception. One can marvel at ideas that suddenly illuminate the proceedings but just as often one thinks: ‘What’s the point of this?’ Carlo Rizzi keeps things together and draws splendid playing from the Wiener Symphoniker. The choral forces have no easy task to walk all those stairs and balance on wet slippery stones while keeping an eye on the conductor but they manage it well. Sound and pictures are good. Readers have to decide from my descriptions whether this is a DVD worth spending money on, but Iano Tamar’s glorious Amneris should definitely be seen and heard.

Ira Siff
Opera News, October 2010

VERDI, G.: Aida (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 702308
VERDI, G.: Aida (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 702404

Much thought, work and impressive technical engineering went into this Aida, which played on the spectacular floating stage of the Bregenz Festival in 2009. Director Graham Vick’s concept creates a parallel between ancient Egypt and the contemporary U.S. Set and costume designer Paul Brown uses large cranes to lift enormous objects that are resonant symbols of both eras, representing a powerful society enslaving faceless captives.

Despite the obvious effort—and cost—that went into this enterprise, and a few striking visual images, the overall effect is one of an opera enslaved to an idea. While the huge set is not lost in the vast outdoor setting of the Bodensee, Verdi’s opera drowns in heavy-handed visual imagery. To make matters worse, the score has been cut to fit into the time constraints of the festival. Among the unfortunate excisions are half of “O patria mia” and sections of duets for Aida and Amneris with one another and Radamès.

Perhaps most successful in the array of visuals is the powerful opening image of the lovers, Aida and Radamès, entwined in an embrace, being fished out of the water; what follows is then treated as a flashback. Vick’s subsequent ideas are loaded politically and sociologically, but their ties to the drama are questionable. Amneris enters with two slaves on a leash being walked on all fours. All the captives wear black sacks over their heads (faceless, get it?). A bevy of blond-wigged Barbies is in attendance in Amneris’s boudoir, abusing hunky slaves who look like Calvin Klein underwear models. Egyptian priests are costumed more like Catholic bishops. (Here Verdi’s lack of regard for the church gets a nod.) The defeated Ethiopian forces are clothed in orange P.O.W. outfits. A gigantic, fragmented Statue of Liberty rises out of the sea. This last touch—although theatrically impressive and thought-provoking—feels less powerful than it should, because it has followed so many representations of American kitsch, greed and conquest.

Vick is far more successful when the drama turns from public to private. In the Act III confrontation of Aida and Amonasro, arguably the centerpiece of the opera, Vick directs his father–daughter team with dramatic assurance and searing power, going directly to the heart—both personal and political—of Verdi’s drama. This is basically the only time the characters do not seem dwarfed by what surrounds them, and the effect is thrilling.

Another impressive aspect of this performance is the willingness of the cast to give everything and try anything in the service of the production—including frequent immersion in water. The singing is not quite up to the level of the dramatic conviction, but it is, notwithstanding a few spotty moments, not bad. Tatiana Serjan is an Aida somewhat light of voice, but she attacks the role fearlessly, and the lyric quality of her instrument supplies the difficult piano moments often lost with heavier voices. She looks every bit the contemporary refugee woman and acts believably. Verging more on caricature, Iano Tamar’s Amneris is the image of the spoiled rich-girl. Her error is in “playing evil” in almost every line reading, even when sweet-talking Aida. Tamar fares better in the judgment scene, where she cuts loose, and has an easy time with the high B-flats. She is a soprano Amneris, not a mezzo—although she still manages to blow the high A at the end of the scene, in the great tradition of many mezzos! Lyric tenor Rubens Pelizzari finds Radamès too heavy a role, his basically attractive instrument stretched beyond its limits. One might understand this casting choice were his acting in any way acceptable. Baritone Iain Paterson offers solid vocalism and a powerful portrayal as Amonasro; his contribution to the Nile scene is key in making it the highlight of the show. Basses Tigran Martirossian and Kevin Short do well by Ramfis and the King, respectively, while Elisabetta Martorana’s richly vocalized High Priestess suffers a bit from droopy intonation.

Carlo Rizzi leads an energetic performance, at times sounding rushed, as if he were playing beat-the-clock against Bregenz’s midnight closure of public transportation (probably not far from the truth). The Wiener Symphoniker plays well, and the various choruses sound impressive; the lack of coordination between stage and pit is so frequent, one can only chalk it up to a liability of the venue.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, September 2010

VERDI, G.: Aida (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 702308
VERDI, G.: Aida (Bregenz Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 702404

I have to admit that the set is spectacular: I’m sure that being there was an unforgettable experience, with ships on the lake gradually fading out of view as darkness descends. If you relish great spectacle in Aïda, the set will probably appeal to you...Seeing the dead lovers hauled dripping from the water at the opening is a spectacular plus, though it also alerts us to one of the many unconventional aspects of the production, in that they are not buried alive. To quote the booklet, “in the present production [Radamès] is…seen on an Egyptian funeral barge on his way to the afterlife.”...The prime point of any opera recording must surely be the quality of the singing: I certainly have no major complaints on this score... Iain Paterson gives a strong account of Aïda’s father...Kevin Short as the King also makes a good impression, as does Tigran Martirossian as Ramphis the High Priest.

The three choruses acquit themselves well: the Camerata Silesia under their Chorus Master Anna Szostak, the Polish Radio Choir Kraków under Wlodzimierz Siedlik, and the Bregenzer Festspielchor under Benjamin Lack...The dancers and stunt performers also deserve an honourable mention—too numerous to list here, but they are all credited in the booklet. Full marks to them for disporting in the water—it can’t have been fun, though we’re told that they enjoyed cooling down after a hot day...The Vienna Symphony Orchestra may be no match for their more distinguished rivals, the Vienna Philharmonic, but they too acquit themselves well enough here for there to be no real complaint...The new recording is abridged...I understand that productions at Bregenz are limited to two hours, so there was no option but to omit much of the ballet music and the Triumphal Scene in particular...The main action takes place on a series of monumental steps, topped at first by a pair of blue feet with star-spangling. Later these will be seen to be the wreck of the Statue of Liberty, with other segments of the statue joining them, as shown on the cover. If there is a message here, perhaps, it is that is that the USA now possesses the hegemony that Egypt once did but that its days are numbered in the manner of Shelley’s comment on the faded glories of Egypt in Ozymandias...The costumes are spectacular...The Unitel recording is amazingly good, given all the problems that the venue must have presented...

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