One of the many attractions of the Parma Verdi Festival, held every autumn, is the opportunity to see a fully staged production of a Verdi opera in the three-hundred-seat Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, located in the town of Busseto, near the composer’s birthplace in the Parma region. Each year, a staging in the tiny theater of one of the festival’s four main productions offers spectators a unique opportunity to experience a Verdi opera in intimate surroundings.
It hardly matters today that Verdi himself was opposed to building the venue. He thought the money could be better spent and that the theater would be essentially useless. It didn’t help that officials nagged Verdi about a promise he had supposedly made years before, which he denied, to lend his help to the project and even to line up star singers for its inaugural event. When the theater opened in August 1868, Verdi, who had built his villa nearby, arranged to be in Genoa.
One can sympathize with Verdi’s position and at the same time be grateful that the Teatro Verdi exists. In 2001, for the centennial of Verdi’s death, Franco Zeffirelli was invited to stage a Verdi opera of his choice in the theater. Expectations were that he would choose a work like La Traviata or Falstaff, each of which Toscanini had conducted in the Teatro Verdi. Instead, the director, who died in June, somewhat mischievously chose Aida—the opera that, above all others, is famous for its spectacular scenes and that, in these circumstances, was sure to arouse special curiosity.
This year the Parma Verdi Festival revived Zeffirelli’s production, reprinting in the program book a passage about his experience staging Aida at the Teatro Verdi from his recent autobiography. In the excerpt Zeffirelli argues that, notwithstanding all the pomp, Aida is a “very private and very intimate” work. Interestingly, Riccardo Muti, who conducted the opera at the Salzburg Festival two years ago and in concert with the Chicago Symphony last season, has expressed similar views about the opera. As an example, Zeffirelli cites the delicacy of the string writing at the very start of the opera, which is poles apart from the rousing music for brass in the scenes of spectacle. (A film of the original Zeffirelli production can be seen on YouTube.)
Seeing the revival (on October 10) was a fascinating experience. The aesthetic was pure Zeffirelli, which is to say that this Aida is as lavish as any version he staged in a larger theater, just on a smaller scale. Another director might have tailored his production to the special intimacy of the Teatro Verdi. For Zeffirelli, the size of the theater served simply to impose physical limitations on what he could do scenically to realize the opera’s grandeur. (He did, however, make cuts in the Triumphal Scene, including its entire dance sequence. These cuts were observed in the revival—an exception to the festival’s exemplary “no-cuts” policy.)
Every scene was filled with Egyptian iconography (Zeffirelli also designed the sets), all deployed in a variety of ways. Especially impressive were two immense statues of seated human forms with animal heads. Some moments clearly dazzled the audience, although operagoers admirably refrained from the disruptive practice of clapping for sets. A favorite moment for me came with the second scene of Act I. The first scene was stunning enough, but, in a coup de théâtre, the second revealed an unexpected depth to the stage, the extra space dominated by a golden statue of an Egyptian ruler positioned in the rear.
Zeffirelli’s direction of the singers could also have worked in a standard-size theater, which is not to say it lacked distinctive details. In one case, Radames’s enthusiasm about commanding the Egyptian armies led him to give Amneris a big kiss, even though he doesn’t return her love. Zeffirelli recognized that intimacy happens in the Teatro Verdi as a matter of course, simply because of the audience’s proximity to the singers. Inevitably, you felt as if you were witnessing the drama from within.
More important, the small quarters meant that the singers didn’t need to force their voices, but, rather, could sing in a comparatively relaxed, conversational manner, while still giving big moments their due. Back in 2001, Zeffirelli worked with a handpicked cast of young singers. The Parma Verdi Festival continues the practice of casting productions in the Teatro Verdi with emerging talent. All the singers I saw (the opera was double cast) sang creditably and were dramatically convincing. (Stefano Trespidi was the revival director.)
The one who impressed as best poised for a successful career was the Korean tenor Bumjoo Lee, who brought a ringing voice and dramatic fervor to Radames. The Armenian–Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan sang Aida with a warm, full voice. Aroyan performed wearing skin-darkening makeup, a matter that, according to a spokesman for the festival, was not mentioned in any press accounts. The Ukrainian Daria Chernii, an alluring stage presence as Amneris, revealed a smooth, attractive mezzo. Andrea Borghini sang Amonasro with a resonant but rather pointed baritone. Dongho Kim was a fine Ramfis, and Renzo Ran did well as the King. Conducting an orchestra of forty-five players, Michelangelo Mazza did his part to ensure the musical quality of this unique take on one of the most popular of operas.