During my convalescence this past August, the closest I could come to keeping up with performance was to watch the video recordings I had made of PBS broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions. They turned out to be a mixed bag, some of which still enjoy fond memories while others were far more disappointing than I could have imagined. My recording system is still set up to record Met videos, whether they are new or reruns; and, as a result, I have to allow myself to vent over a recent rerun of a Met telecast of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.
I was curious about this one, since the conductor was Nicola Luisotti, formerly Music Director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Luisotti’s performances here in San Francisco taught me a lot about listening to Verdi, but none of those lessons mattered very much on this broadcast. That was because the staging by Sonja Frisell reduced just about every other factor, even the “star power” of the vocalists, to insignificance.
Frisell decided that she was going to use the enormity of the area afforded by the Met stage for all it was worth. That meant defining areas on a variety of different vertical levels, sometimes even allowing those levels to move. Occasionally there was a logic in her maneuvers. In the final scene adding the vertical dimension allowed the audience to see not only the tomb but also those on the outside, but Frisell never really put that affordance to any use that would enhance the drama of the concluding situation. If anything, she distracted from the poignancy of what was happening in the tomb itself.
As might be guessed, she took things to extreme for the major crowd scenes. The triumphal return from the battle with the Ethiopians turned out to be as massive as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (and a bit sillier for those not willing to suspend disbelief). Admittedly, that scene has a history of going over the top, particularly by bringing in live animals; but I have to say that the horses made it clear that they really wanted to be somewhere else.
The silliness of the procession gave way to an even sillier ballet scene. The best one could say was that it was equally athletic for both female and male dancers. At this point, however, it was clear that the video work was going to be Frisell’s partner in crime. As a result, there were no end of shots taken by an overhead camera. Those of my generation quickly recognized that these were not ballet dancers; they were members of the June Taylor Dancers opening for Jackie Gleason!
I have long felt that Aida was far from Verdi’s finest hour in his efforts as a composer. Fortunately, recent SFO productions have changed that opinion. I suppose that is one reason why the best part of the Met broadcast took place before the curtain rose, when, once again, Luisotti reminded me of how sometimes Verdi could be inspired by the late quartets composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. If anyone can make a string section sound like a string quartet with a bit more amplitude, it’s Luisotti.
Nevertheless, after those opening measures, everything went downhill, all the way until we were all stuck in the depths of the tomb in the final scene. I would like to say that New Yorkers deserve better than this. However, given the enthusiastic reception the burst forth once the lights had dimmed on the tomb, I would say that this was an audience that got exactly what it wanted. I’m glad that my only contact with it was through the distance provided by the camera crew!