Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Celeste Aida

Celeste Aida, forma divina.

Mistico serto di luce e fior.

Del mio pensiero tu sei regina,

tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.

Il tuo bel cielo vorrei ridarti,

le dolci brezze del patrio suol;

un regal serto sul crin posarti,

ergerti un trono vicino al sol.
(Heavenly Aida, divine form, mystical wreath of flowers and light, you are the queen of my thoughts, you are the splendor of my life. I wish I could give you back the beautiful sky and sweet breezes of your homeland; I would place a royal wreath upon your hair, I would build you a throne by the sun.)

I am an opera fanatic. I am nearly as passionate about opera as I am about food, even if my singing doesn’t quite stack up to my cooking. But I’m also a bit of an odd bird in the opera-fan world. My preferences skew early (Purcell, Handel, Mozart) and late (Weill, Menotti, Bernstein), sort of skirting around what comes in between. I’m really not much on nineteenth century “grand opera”; I enjoy it and appreciate it, but I don’t go out of my way to see it. With some exceptions, of course—I totally love La Traviata (“La Triviata,” as my voice teacher called it with a good-natured snicker), because even though the plot is a little cliché, it’s immensely entertaining. I always find myself holding my breath through the last fifteen minutes of the first act, from “È strano!” to the last ringing, spinning cries of the giddy aria “Sempre libera.” It’s impossible not to be tantalized by this romantic view of the demimonde. The score is luscious—even the overbearing patriarch has an aria that tends more to tenderness than to tyranny, “Di Provenza il mar.” And on a personal level, La Triv has brought me great comfort. Every time a romantic relationship has come to a spectacularly bad end—it’s happened a couple too many times—I find myself singing:
Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti.
Le rose del volto già sono pallenti;
l’amore d’Alfredo pur esso mi manca,
conforto, sostegno dell’ anima stanca.
Ah, della traviata sorridi al desio;
a lei, deh, perdona; tu accoglila, o Dio,
or tutto finì.
(Farewell, joyful dreams of the past. The roses in my cheeks are faded; even Alfredo’s love, comfort and sustenance for my tired soul, even that is missing. Look kindly upon the desires of a woman led astray, O God; pardon her, welcome her; it’s all over.)

And then I have to laugh at myself, because after all I am not dying of consumption, destitute in some freezing Parisian garret, and therefore I probably don’t really have that much to complain about. It’s awfully restorative. Thanks, Verdi.

But on the whole, my favorite operas are plot- and character-driven. (It’s why I love musical theater so much, too, even when the music itself is not all that exciting.) The Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, par excellence; Candide is my top twentieth-century pick (it contains, of course, the spectacular coloratura showpiece “Glitter and be gay,” a witty riff on “Sempre libera”). But the annual opera festival in Verona is not quite suited to character-driven pieces. Could you stage Le Nozze di Figaro on the behemoth boards of the Arena? Probably, and I expect it’s been done. But that piece deals with domestic drama; it’s much more at home within a cozy proscenium, face-to-face with its audience in an enclosed space. Even in a large opera house, there is a sense of intimacy that comes from being all together under one roof.

But that doesn’t happen in the Arena. The Arena is made for spectacle. Let me rephrase: the Arena is made for SPECTACLE. I am fortunate to have seen many live opera performances, on stages large and small, and of course I’ve seen plenty in video recordings. But I have never seen anything even approaching this scale. A vast orchestra pit, a stadium that holds up to [number] spectators, and something like 200 performers on stage at once, dwarfed by colossal set pieces as tall as my apartment building. The point of the Arena di Verona opera festival is to show off the grandest and most splendid productions—I now have a much better understanding of why “grand opera” is so called. One could even call it “grandiose opera.” Grand voices, grand passions, grand choruses, grand exotic locations: this season’s offerings included Turandot (China), Mme Butterfly (Japan), Carmen (Spain), and Aida (Egypt), which I saw on the closing night of the festival. (I was very sorry to miss the others, but that’s what I get for scheduling my trip for the very end of summer. Next time!)

Aida is not an opera I know well. I have owned a recording of it for over a decade but rarely listen to it; I’ve skimmed through the libretto a couple times but the story never really stuck with me. Unfortunately, unlike most opera houses I’ve been to, the Arena does not provide supertitles. Audience members either know the story, or they don’t. Or they buy a copy of the libretto at the show and spend the evening squinting over it by the light of a cell phone, trying to match the text to whatever is happening on stage. I had meant to read a plot summary before going, but with the long and fabulous excursion to Mantova the day before, there hadn’t been time. So instead, I just tried to follow along. Even as a student of Italian language, and as a singer who understands the weird things that operatic vocal production does to vowels and consonants, I could only catch a word or phrase here and there. Lower voice ranges were easier to understand, naturally; so were the recitatives, although there weren’t many of them, and Verdi’s recits. barely resemble the eighteenth-century style that’s familiar to me. Fortunately, Aida is emphatically not a plot-driven opera. I had been trying to sum it up for Darlingtonia before we went, at least as much as I remembered. “Radamès is in love with this slave girl named Aida but he is supposed to marry this princess instead,” I had said, then was a little perplexed when I saw that the marriage to Amneris is not proposed until the close of the second act. But at any rate, the narrative is not difficult to follow, even for those unfamiliar with it.

The scale of the production, as I’ve mentioned, was nothing short of astonishing. I took some photos, but they’re on Darlingtonia’s camera (mine is useless for nighttime photography), so it will be a while before I’m able to post them here.

The costumes were pure glitter, the staging and design classic Zeffirelli. I thought Aida, Amneris, and Amonasro (Aida’s father) were the most outstanding performers, though of course all the principals were excellent. Radamès did a credible job, but alas, no tenor has yet come on the scene who can live up to Pavarotti’s “Celeste Aida”; no one else can linger so lovingly on that high B-flat as he once could. I know there are those who will disagree, but I find Pavarotti’s rendition of that aria to be the definitive one. (Sorry, Placido.)

One thing I found a little surprising and amusing: after an aria, when the audience applauded, the singer would stand and take a bow. Or three. At the end of each act, the principal singers would take a curtain call together. At the end of the second act, the corps de ballet took its bow and did not return at the end of the show. The bowing within the show, between arias, I found particularly odd, coming from an American tradition of viewing and performing opera: that is, that an opera is essentially like any other play, and the performers must stay in character throughout the entire performance. When the audience applauds after an aria, the singer merely pauses while the applause lasts, then continues his or her action, without acknowledging that applause directly, at least not until the curtain call. Breaking character mid-performance simply does not happen. (Footnote: During an opera production in college, I made the mistake during a rehearsal of speaking to a friend in the audience as I was making my exit. The director gave me a royal chewing-out for that.)

Americans are very polite opera-goers. We might applaud at the end of an aria, but we do not leap out of our seats, shouting, “BRAVI! BRAVI!” We do not whoop and pump our fists at the end of each act. The stentorian baritone playing Aida’s father does not egg us on to cheer louder, and we do not respond with cries that we love him, too. And we most definitely do not sing along with the tenor’s opening aria or with the famous trumpet fanfare. It’s rather a shame. Social niceties are nice, but at the same time, a little more rambunctiousness might do us good, and would certainly make the opera a more exciting place—perhaps even more welcoming to the novice spectator. We all could use a little more opera in our lives.

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