“The Most Italian Place in the World,” announces a slogan in both English and Italian on a giant digital screen above Verona’s well-preserved first-century Roman arena. An annual summer music festival has been held in the ancient structure since 1913. The festival is only observing its centennial this year, however, to account for ten years of stoppages during the World Wars and the COVID pandemic. When this summer’s season opened in June, the audience included Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, and the legendary actress Sophia Loren, who received a standing ovation. The superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who was ousted from North American and some European engagements last year, was in the lead role. A flyover by the Italian Air Force sprayed the colors of the Italian flag above the arena. Some twenty thousand people attended, though performances are typically limited to fifteen thousand.
What better way to open such an occasion than with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, itself the first work presented here in 1913 as a celebration of the composer’s own centennial? The opera chronicles an agonizing love triangle complicated by brutal warfare, bitter nationalism, and malevolent clergy. In Verdi’s mind, all these forces were interwoven: as a fervent Italian nationalist, he sympathized with the plight of defeated peoples and despised cruel foreign rule; as a man whose greatest love was for a woman with whom he lived unmarried for many years, he had an acute sensitivity to forbidden romances; and as an agnostic, he resented the political and social power of the Roman Catholic Church. Aida’s challenge—and in some opinions a source of its dramatic weakness—is to set these very human desires and dilemmas against a backdrop of massive pageantry and Egyptomania.
For many years, Verona’s capacious arena hosted a vast production by the late director Franco Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli also designed two consecutive Aida productions that reigned at Milan’s La Scala for more than half a century before Peter Stein’s sleek, minimalist effort arrived there in 2015. Both of Zeffirelli’s efforts were massive in scope. Zeffirelli was also contracted to produce the work for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but the sheer size of his planned sets made the project untenable, and a reduced but still sizable production went forward under the British director Sonja Frisell in 1988 and endured until last season.
Stefano Poda’s new production for Verona embraces Aida’s monumental tradition but drops almost all the Egyptian artifice. The result is a dazzlingly illuminated tableau with a massive cast largely clad in simple black and white. The sets rest upon a slanted, translucent stage with high-power beams shooting high into the sky to create the effect of a steepled temple. More tightly focused blue, red, and green laser beams project just above eye level as the action proceeds. The stage is dominated by a large stylized human hand, the fingers of which move to enforce the fates of the characters. Much of the chorus carries tall staffs adorned by smaller hand sculptures. At times, the chorus and supernumeraries themselves begin to move in ways that mirror the high-tech set—the choreography becomes robotic, and they interact with characters in a cyborg-like style. The effect was often arresting. The only visibly “Egyptian” element comes in the final act, when Radamès—the Egyptian general who unwittingly betrays his country out of love for the enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida—is punished with live burial in a tomb, where Aida joins him. Here the tomb is a small glass pyramid not unlike the structures I. M. Pei designed for the courtyard of the Louvre.
Netrebko’s Aida is a legend of its own, but, alas, she only sang the role in four of the festival’s thirteen performances this year. Her replacement, the Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi, has a similar vocal type, but one cannot quite shake the impression that she is the singer of choice for heavier lirico-spinto roles only when Netrebko is unavailable. Pirozzi’s instrument is far from unpleasing, but it lacks the bloom that a true Verdian soprano needs to communicate expansive feeling. What should have been the best moments passed unmemorably.
The sturdy American tenor Gregory Kunde dropped in for two performances and brought a contrastingly strong voice to Radamès. A common dramatic critique of Aida holds that the Egyptian general is weak and hapless, but Kunde brought him alive with soaring notes and colorful feeling.
Clémentine Margaine, the French mezzo-soprano most often remembered for her Carmen, here explored the lower range as a wounded and vindictive Amneris, Radamès’ undesired betrothed and Aida’s lethal enemy. Youngjun Park’s booming baritone served well in the role of Aida’s father, Amonasro, the proud Ethiopian king. In the respective roles of the high priest Ramfis and the unnamed King of Egypt, the basses Rafał Siwek and Vittorio De Campo were present, but made little impression.
Daniel Oren led a competent effort from Verona’s orchestra, but for a production of such frenetic energy, his tempos were often too slow to sweep the audience up in the moment.