Giuseppe Verdi - Aida
Salzburg Festival, 2017
Riccardo Muti, Shirin Neshat, Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Luca Salsi, Roberto Tagliavini, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Bror Magnus Tødenes, Benedetta Torre
ARTE Concert - 12 August 2017
It's hard to imagine that a production of Aida can miss its mark, or even worse, be boring, but it does seem to happen with increasing regularity. I'm sure it's a lot to do with the nature of the work itself, which much be fairly intimidating to approach, where there are exceptional demands placed on the singers and on the need to meet audience expectations for an opera spectacle of the highest order. There's merit in Riccardo Muti's belief that you don't have to go either the route of the full Zeffirelli or modern abstract but that you can find an in-between alternative, and the resulting 2017 Salzburg production certainly returns the focus on the musical qualities of the performance, but it has to be said that Shirin Neshat's incredibly static production misses the mark by a mile.
Although the director might have been an unknown quantity, expectations were nonetheless high for this Salzburg Festival Aida. The principal reason for that was of course for the opportunity to hear Anna Netrebko take on the famous role for the first time and as the consummate professional, it can't be denied she doesn't disappoint in the slightest. She might look and act more like an Egyptian Princess than an Ethiopian slave girl, but she's going to carry that aura in every role, no matter how good her acting performance. If you paid a fortune to see this production in Salzburg in person, you will certainly have got your money's worth. This is as good an Aida as you'll hear sung in your lifetime.
Netrebko's voice has matured into a fully rounded voice, secure in every register and impressive at the high end. Her assumption of the role - as always - is full of conviction. You can get lost in the presence of Netrebko singing a role, she just commands attention and is compelling to watch. That's to the benefit of at least giving the kind of strong focus the opera needs that is not provided by the decor or the direction, but it's no reflection on the rest of the cast assembled here. Francesco Meli, like many tenors before him, is faced with the intimidating challenge of 'Celeste Aida' with scarcely any time to warm up, but by the time we get to Act IV, he's firing on all cylinders, along with the rest of the cast.
Much of the musical strengths of Aida lie in the fact that it is a tour de force and a great ensemble work, that provides unparalleled opportunities for individual singers and chorus, but it's also a work that can really spark into life when all the individual characters work together and push each other to the heights required. Ekaterina Semenchuk on her own is just terrific, utterly compelling in Amneris's fury in that final act, but throughout she also works well off and alongside Netrebko and Meli. In any other production, Semenchuk would prove to be a formidable rival for Aida - and acceptably so - but well, it's hard to imagining anyone outshining Netrebko. Luca Salsi too provides a luxurious timbre for an Amonasro that complements Netrebko beautifully. With Muti conducting the impressive Vienna Philharmonic through a glorious account of the score, the work builds and coalesces through to a quite phenomenal final Act.
Musically at least, this is as good as it gets. Unfortunately it's held back and very nearly destroyed by an unimaginative and static stage production. Prior to this performance, the production stills held out some promise for a stylish spectacle that didn't rely on hokey middle-Eastern props, but its limitations become evident very quickly indeed. The set consists largely - very largely - of two huge blocks which revolve to alternately provide a wall on one side for background (and a screen for occasional projections) and a hollowed-out interior that essentially provides nothing more than a platform to arrange the cast and chorus for the big choral scenes to project oratorio-like towards the audience.
It really is as static as that. I don't think I've ever seen a Marche Triomphale quite as uneventful and underwhelming as this one. Everyone stands around looking outward and awkward, a few extras pretend to play trumpets and a group of dancers wearing animal skulls make some half-hearted moves. It's as if the opera has suddenly just stopped for a rest, breaking the momentum that has been built so far. The opera almost dies a death, and that is not the impression that this famous scene should make.
If the set-pieces were incompetently handled, there was no sign of any ideas or direction anywhere else. Netrebko, Meli, Semenchuk, Salsi and Tagliavini seemed to have been left to stand and sing, or if they were feeling particularly moved, to pace from one spot to another and project out to the audience. Netrebko, who has some ability as an actress or can at least inhabit a role well, makes a little more effort to actually engage with her lover, her rival and her father, and in the process brings more out of them. A few Syrian refugees are randomly projected onto the walls in a throwaway concession to contemporary relevance, but otherwise the director trusts in Verdi and Muti to do the bulk of the work, and fortunately that's managed very well. If you were listening to this on the radio it would undoubtedly have sounded very impressive, but as an opera performance it was sorely lacking.
Links: Salzburger Festspiele, ARTE Concert