When Verdi composed Aida he was well past the point where he had discovered, as Benjamin Britten remarked, the secret of perfection. If this opera does not plumb the emotional and psychological depths of its immediate predecessor, Don Carlo, it is a work of both grandeur and intimacy that comes from an operatic world inhabited only by Verdi. Unlike Don Carlo, it exists in only one version and is so theatrically deft that it has alway been near the top of the operatic popularity chart ever since its premiere in Cairo in 1871.
This recording dates back to 2012 when it was made at Parma’s Teatro Regio. This theater has a relatively small stage that requires a lot of ingenuity to fit all of Aida’s extensive business on it without some of the supers falling into the orchestra pit. Director Joseph Franconi Lee managed to avoid falls and traffic jams, but if your standard is Franco Zeffirelli’s beige monster at the Met, this production looks provincial though still serviceable.
There was only one singer whose name was familiar to me – Walter Fraccaro. The Italian tenor with the English first name has sung all over the world including 16 performances at the Met. He has a pleasant lirico-spinto voice that was effective as Verdi’s lovesick Egyptian general. He has an unfortunate tendency to add an extra note on his way up to high B flat.
The Italian soprano Susanna Branchini sang the title role. She has a rich voice well suited for Verdi and Puccini, the two composers whose work makes up the bulk of her repertoire. She’s an attractive woman with an attractive voice. She handled the daunting part with ease. He high notes are focused and she maintains a steady vocal line. Still, not a voice you’ll make a special trip to hear, though good enough to keep the show at a highly professional level. You can form your own opinion about her voice from O patria mia the great aria at the beginning of the Nile Scene.
The same could be said about veteran Bulgarian mezzo Mariana Pentcheva. She has a sturdy Verdi voice that slightly wobbles at her highest notes. Still, a fine reading of one of the composer’s signature mezzo roles.
Alberto Gazale has been singing the standard Verdi roles all over Europe for the past 30 years. He has a light baritone which was fine for most of his roles. The more dramatic moments should have had a little more force, but again good.
The only weak casting in this performance was that of George Andguladze as Ramfis – another of Verdi’s nasty priests. The Georgian bass doesn’t have the vocal size or low notes need for his part.
I had previously heard maestro Antonino Fogliani conduct Mascagni’s Amica in Rome in 2008. He got as much as was possible from that weak score. With Verdi’s magnificent music he got powerful and sensitive playing from the fine Parma orchestra. Born in 1976, Fogliani’s sole North American appearance, as far as I can tell, has been a run of Lucia Di Lammermoor in Houston in 2011.
The action of Aida takes place over several months. Radamès meets and defeats the Ethiopian army and then returns to Memphis all between acts 1 and 2. Yet he doesn’t get to change his clothes. The same parsimonious costuming was thrown at Aida who wore the same outfit throughout the evening, but she was a slave not a national hero. Most of the Egyptians had their skin tinged blue making them look like they had wandered in from Braveheart. But these quibbles aside, the staging was as effective as the Parma theater’s dimensions would allow.
Who is this disc for? There are many better DVDs of Aida available. This opera is one of the most well documented in the entire repertory. So the only reason I can think to buy it is as part of the Parma company’s survey of all of Verdi’s operas.
Il re d’Egitto – Carlo Malinverno
Amneris – Mariana Pentcheva
Aida – Susanna Branchini
Radamès – Walter Fraccaro
Ramfis – George Andguladze
Amonasro – Alberto Gazale
Una sacerdotessa – Yu Guanqun
Un messagero – Cosimo Vassallo
Antonino Fogliani, conductor
Parma Teatro Regio Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Martino Faggiani)
Joseph Franconi Lee, stage director
Mauro Carosi, set and costume designer
Guido Levi, lighting designer
Marta Ferri, choreographer
Recorded live at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 1 and 5 February 2012
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
Running time: 154 mins