This opera from the late period which includes other masterpieces like Don Carlo and the Requiem Mass represents Verdi at his finest. This has become traditionally music as political propaganda for fascist forces both Italian and German in the early twentieth century. It represents a beacon of fascist racial policy against “inferior” Africans referred to in the libretto as “barbaric Ethiopians”. The Egyptians stood for the victorious Italians. Contrary to popular opinion this opera was not written for the Cairo opera house with the opening of the Suez Canal. The waterway however was essential for transporting colonists and occupying forces to Ethiopia with a gala performance of Rigoletto in Cairo in 1869.
It was after this opera that Verdi went into retirement only to be encouraged to write two more masterpieces by librettist composer Arrigo Boito. Verdi admired Shakespeare all his life and indeed wrote an early masterpiece called Macbeth. His final two operas in which he collaborated with Boito were Otello and Falstaff both on Shakespeare’s masterpieces one tragic, one comic. Indeed Verdi started his career with a comedy Oberto and ended his life’s work with another comedy Falstaff at the ripe age of eighty one.
The Iranian artist Shirin Neshat was the director for this festival production of Aida. She is constantly changing from being a photographer to a video artist and a movie director. She now directs her first operatic venture with this stark and minimalistic production of Aida. “When I started with video installations and the moving picture, I turned toward music as a way of capturing human emotions, as a way to neutralise some of the religious, socio-political information that had the tendency to dominate my concepts and narratives”.
Verdi and his librettist, Ghislanzoni, sought to recreate ancient Egypt in this timeless love triangle set in a society of authoritarian theocracy ruled by its intolerance priesthood seeking to conquer its African neighbour. Hence it appears as yet another orientalist opera for exoticising Egypt and creating a stereotype of their cultures.
Was Verdi a racist? Was he criticising his own European culture? Was he an orientalist?
In this interpretation of Aida, Egyptians are represented as a hybrid of Western and Eastern cultures, and the identities of Ethiopians are loosely based on people who are displaced, such as today’s refugees, while the religious figures are a mix of Muslims, Jewish and Christian orthodox.
And now what about the performance itself, Riccardo Muti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic with great beauty of tone and strength of purpose launching directly into high drama rapidly after the plaintive dulcet string tones of the prelude. The cast in order of appearance were unanimously resonant and sweet toned. The Egyptian king was sung with voluminous tone Roberto Tagliavini. He made his Salzburg festival debut in 2007 and has had popular successes all over Italy including at the Arena Di Verona, the Verdi festival in Parma and in Venice. During this festival he will also appear in Verdi’s I due Foscari.
Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk took a little time to warm up but was in sumptuous voice by the time she reached the act one duet with Aida, her voice was ringing freely. Her act two scene with the chorus with repeating downward turning phrases in G major were lyrically satisfying. Her scene with the priests in the temple condemning Radamès’ treason was spine-chilling. Her quiet murmuring of Pace ended the opera effectively.
South Korean soprano Vittoria Yeo, a native of Seoul, completed her studies in Parma. She has sung all over Italy and Western Europe and is a favourite with Riccado Muti. By the strength of this interpretation I would rank her as one of the outstanding Aidas of her generation. Her every appearance was gripping and expression was always paramount while never sacrificing beauty of tone. Her Numi pieta and O patria mia with its phrase rising to top C was equal to any other interpreters past or present.
The weakest link was Algerian tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who had a tight upper register making his Celeste Aida less than beautiful. He has however attempted to reign his voice in to control the diminuendo top B flat at the end of the aria. Elsewhere his singing was variable with much forced tone and too little light and shade. He came in to his own in the act four duets with Aida where he sang beautifully, specially in O terra addio.
Ramfis was sung by Dmitry Belosselskiy a young bass popular at the Met and Luca Salsi sang Amonasro, Aida’s father the Ethiopian king taken prisoner of war by Radamès and the Egyptian army. His duet with Aida reflected great beauty of tone with a sumptuous singing line with exquisite legato and long breath of line with rising palpitating strings. A truly breath-taking moment.
One does not always associate Italian opera with the Salzburg festival. However this performance was truly outstanding and although I missed the first cast of Anna Netrebko and Francesco Meli, this night will not be forgotten easily by me, privileged to be attending my third day as a visitor to the 2017 festival. More to come in the next few days so do stay tuned.