Once more, the Salzburg Festival is presenting Aida, the Verdi masterpiece (or one of them—one of many). Once more, the stage director is Shirin Neshat. About the production, more in due course.
In the pit on Monday night was Alain Altinoglu, the French conductor born of an Armenian family from Istanbul. He was ever competent. I would have liked more: more crispness, more intensity, more dynamism. But Maestro Altinoglu was never less than competent.
Neither was the Vienna Philharmonic (to put it mildly). Neither was its associated chorus—although pitch wavered as the priests deliberated over the fate of Radamès.
In this opera, there are three starring roles, you could say: the title role, of course, Aida; and Radamès; and Amneris. All three singers in these roles on Monday night were excellent. None of them was especially Italianate—which is not a “dealbreaker,” but which is something to note.
Our Aida was Elena Stikhina, a Russian soprano, who made an impression at the Salzburg Festival three years ago. She was Médée, in the Cherubini opera. She made an impression as Aida, too. Beautiful singing. Lyrical singing. This was one of the most lyrical Aidas you will ever hear. She had ample power, too.
Also, when Stikhina sang a high C, you felt she could go higher—several notes above.
Speaking of higher: Stikhina sharped, just a little, in one or two instances. That is something relatively common in Russian singers: sharping in Italian and other languages.
Was anything wrong with Ms. Stikhina (other than this utterly trivial sharping)? No. And yet, this Aida did not sound especially Italian, and an Aida traditionally sounds Italian—Ethiopian princess though the character may be.
A question: Would I trade Elena Stikhina for a lesser soprano who was nonetheless perfectly Italianate? I would say no.
In the part of Radamès was Piotr Beczała, the Polish tenor. Like his soprano, he sang beautifully. How can he not? But he is maybe a size too small for Radamès—maybe a size and a half.
But I should qualify my remark: a size, or size and a half, too small in this house—i.e., the Great Festival Hall, in Salzburg (with the mighty Viennese in the pit).
“Celeste Aida,” the aria that opens the opera, was a beautiful song. And Beczała gave us a genuine piano on the final B flat. I can’t remember ever hearing that, live and in the flesh (as distinct from recordings).
Amneris? She was portrayed by Ève-Maud Hubeaux, a mezzo-soprano from Geneva. Formidable singer. Formidable singing actress, too. She sized up Aida, her enslaved rival, in a compelling way. The voice is beautiful—rich—with plenty of power. Italianate? I should not harp . . .
I would like to say something else—and say it as delicately as I can. Seldom is an Amneris believable from a visual point of view. Seldom does an Amneris look like a beautiful princess. “So what?” you say—and you are absolutely right. I agree with you. Nonetheless, Ms. Hubeaux looked the part.
If you wanted Italian, or Italianate, you got it in spades from Luca Salsi, the baritone portraying Amonasro. (He sang the title role of Simon Boccanegra—another Verdi masterpiece—at the Salzburg Festival in 2019.) When he opened his mouth and sang “Non mi tradir,” it was as though Italy had entered the room.
Erwin Schrott, the starry bass-baritone from Uruguay, sang Ramfis. That voice is still beautiful—glowing—and loud. Wonderfully loud. When Schrott opened his mouth, you might have thought he was mic’d.
In 2017, reviewing Aida from the Salzburg Festival, I wrote,
The production was in the care of Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born visual artist who has lived her adult life in the United States. This was not a traditional Aida: it did not have elephants and grandeur. It was clean and spare, chiefly in black and white. And it employed video. I believe the production was trying to make points about political oppression and refugees. Whatever the case, the production was effective, letting Aida be Aida, with twists or not.
I would not say the same about what I saw on Monday night. The production is much altered, from 2017, as far as I could tell. I do not think that Aida was really Aida. I think that the stage director, to a degree, stole the show.
What I mean is, the production repeatedly intruded on the opera (in my judgment). I was distracted by the production. At times, I wanted to close my eyes and treat the evening as a concert performance.
When Radamès sang “Celeste Aida,” a movie played in the background. When Aida sang “O patria mia,” a movie played in the background. It was like these arias were mere soundtracks to the movies. Old-fashioned, I think that music ought to have pride of place.
What about the story itself? If I understood correctly, the Egyptians killed the Ethiopian prisoners at the end of Act II. In a final blow, an Egyptian killed King Amonasro himself. When the curtain fell, an audience member let out a loud boo. I sympathized.
How in the world was Amonasro, dead, supposed to sing in Act III? Well, Aida opened the body bag and Amonasro got up off the gurney and sang.
Maybe I am interpreting incorrectly. And Shirin Neshat is no doubt a very, very talented artist. But I suppose I think that people ought to write new operas, on any subject they like, rather than rewrite other people’s operas.
The Met has a production of Rigoletto—yet another Verdi masterpiece—set in the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, et al.). I think an opera about the Rat Pack in Las Vegas is a splendid idea. Someone ought to write one. Rigoletto belongs to the Mantua of long ago.
Thus endeth my dinosaur song.