With no less of a commission than the opening of Egypt's Suez Canal in December of 1871, Verdi composed Aïda, one of his most beloved and dramatic works. It is renowned not just because of its spectacle and patriotic themes, but because it contains subtly observed and truthfully drawn human characters. Still, Verdi was a bit abashed by the publicity the opera's opening garnered. "All I want for Aïda is good and, above all, intelligent singing, playing, and stage production."
His spectre would be most happy with this 1985 production, filmed at La Scala. It may very well be the definitive stage version. As Radames, 50-year old Luciano Pavarotti shines at the absolute peak of his career. Not since Caruso has any singer so resolutely claimed this role as his own. His penultimate duet with Aïda shows he is capable of great tenderness as well as his trademark spectacular high C's. He sings the notable "Celeste Aïda" convincingly and without the treacly melodrama that other artists have infused in that aria. (He received a two-minute ovation.) When he discovers that Aïda has entombed herself with him, his cry of frustration is both palpable and passionate. As Aïda, Maria Chiara is a consummate professional. She sung the famous and lyrical "O Patria Mia" with a sincerity that paints visions of the "green hills and perfumed shores" of her native Ethiopa. Her varied modulation between stanzas is well-executed. (I've heard it sung more dramatically and more resonantly only by one other singer: the redoubtable Leontyne Price.) In scenes with her rival Amneris (Ghena Dimitrova), she presents a well-tuned balance between passivity and resentment. Aïda is perhaps one of the most conflicted characters in opera. (Another, of course, is Radames.) Chiara's face is wondrously expressive, registering far more than mere longing or sorrow. During the Act I aria in which she reveals her inner struggle between her love for Radames and her loyalty to her father the king, she plunges deeply into her heart's desolation. Chiara's soprano voice never over-modulates or grandstands. Even at 46, she moves like the young slave girl Aïda, full of seductive girlish charms.
It has been said that King Amonasro is the best baritone part that Verdi ever created. Juan Pons (no relation to Lily) makes the part shine, particularly in the Act III finale in which Radames discovers him for the first time, when it is too late. Without upstaging the other two singers, Pons makes Amonasro burn with patriotic zeal while trying to reassure Radames at the same time.
The choral ensembles were impressive. During the song to the great Ftha, there is an effective combination of onstage and offstage singing. Of course the well-known Triumphal March, with its stirring martial rhythms and jubilant exultation, does not disappoint. (Would it dare?)
Stage director Luca Ronconi did an excellent job of evoking the spirit of ancient Egypt. I was particularly impressed with the massive scuptures that fill the set after the Egyptian's victorious battle over the Ethiopians.
I appreciated the way the priests judge Radames for his transgression offstage, spotlighting the anguish of Amneris. In this scene and in the subsequent one in which she rages at the priests, Ghena Dimitrova reveals fine acting and her idiosyncratic voice. Staging her above the tomb in the final scene was also a brilliant stroke, implying that it was as much her tragedy as that of Aïda and Radames. However, I would have liked for the camera to zoom in on her face just once.
Copyright © 2000, Peter Bates