Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second viewing of the new San Francisco Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida staged by Director Francesca Zambello. On this occasion I had an excellent view of the conducting by Music Director Nicola Luisotti and most of the orchestra pit. Having already expended enthusiastic prose over what was happening on stage, I feel it is necessary to call out just how impressive the score for this particular opera is.
The thing that tends to register most strongly about Aida is the sheer magnitude of it all, particularly in the celebration of Egypt’s military victory in the second scene of the second act. However, the entire narrative of the opera involves a complex web of individual relationships that goes far beyond mere spectacle, and Verdi’s music is always there to highlight the subtleties of those complexities. Thus, while one is easily overwhelmed by the “full blast” of a military triumph, Verdi’s dynamic range is just as expressive at the softer extreme, if not more so. After all, the opera both begins and ends in an atmosphere of hushed sonorities that are right on the threshold of audibility. At the conclusion this amounts to a “last gasp;” but at the beginning those diminished dynamics suggest that this will be a story in which nothing should be taken at face value.
Such a setting provides an opportunity for instrumental solos to enhance the dramatic qualities of the vocal soloists. Principal Cello David Kadarauch had at least one particularly compelling solo moment; but just as effective was Verdi’s decision to accompany one vocal episode with little more than a solo bass clarinet (Anthony Striplen). It is also worth noting what Verdi could do with three or four flutes all playing in close harmony. (There is also some parallel motion between piccolo and bassoon that sounds as if it was later appropriated in the Tennessee Ernie Ford recording of “Sixteen Tons.”) In other words it would not be excessive to suggest that Verdi made meticulous instrumental decisions for every stage of the narrative unfolding on stage. All this was just as attentively managed by Luisotti’s conducting, which also showed excellent judgment in managing the audibility of solo voices even when the entire chorus was singing.
Such scrupulous consideration of so many different layers of detail demonstrated just how much thought could go into an opera traditionally taken as a warhorse, all in the interest of endowing the result with a sense of immediacy that acknowledges both intimacy and spectacle in equal measure.