Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Aida and Me

My wife and I watched a production of Aida from the Grande Théatre de Genève last week and I have been recalling music from the opera ever since. It is not the worst ear-worm one could have.

I first encountered Aida in a piano-vocal score when I was a student at Althouse College at Western University. I took the score of the opera, which I didn’t know at all, into a room with a piano and discovered that the tenor had an aria within a few pages of the opening of Act I. I banged it out on the piano and sang the opening recitative. Then I tried the aria which wasn’t too hard until it was. I didn’t realize that Radames is a very demanding role even for those who have the specific kind of voice for which Verdi was writing. It was a long time before I fooled around with the aria Celeste Aida again.

I did see two acts of Aida at the Arena di Verona some years later. I remember the tenor broke one of the Bbs in the aria and there were animals in the Triumphal scene. It started to rain mid-way through and, since I was supposed to sing in a competition a few days later, I went back to my hotel and slept.

Indeed it was about a year later that I actually had to sing music from the opera. I was in a production of Il Trovatore at the O’Keefe Centre as a chorister with the Canadian Opera Company. They decided to do a gala concert in which Birgit Nilsson was to be the guest artist. They also decided to do a concert rendition of the Triumphal Scene contracting the principal singers from Trovatore, which was in production at the same time, to sing the solos. I don’t remember how much of it we sang but I think it must only have been the opening which includes the famous march. I do remember being unhappy at having to learn so much music for a single performance especially since we we not paid extra for the concert since we were already under contract. The high point of the concert was Nilsson singing Dich, teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, near the end. It was damned impressive and the only time I ever heard her sing live. 

The Triumphal March in Sarasota Opera’s production of Verdi’s AIDA. (Photo: Rod-Millington)

So I wasn’t looking forward Aida when it was scheduled the next year. There is a lot of chorus singing in Aida. indeed, there’s a lot of everything in Aida: Melodrama, big voices, an orchestra with extra brass and plenty of incidental music for ballet.  Much to my surprise I enjoyed the production enormously. There were extra choristers to sing the prisoners and a bang-up cast including soprano Leona Mitchell and the marvellous mezzo Livia Budai as Amneris. 

I thought that would be the end of Aida and me but I encountered the opera again in a most unlikely way. 

I was, for 13 years, the conductor-chorus master of an elementary school music program of which, incidentally, I was not the music teacher. I had agreed, in my first year, to conduct an adaptation of the opera. I was very busy learning a new job, in a new school and all the musical preparation was undertaken by the music teacher. When my baton and I arrived at the podium almost none of the participants had ever worked with a conductor before and I spent much of the dress rehearsal and the subsequent performances being ignored by almost all the performers, the eldest of whom we eleven years old. 

During the instrumental music which begins the Triumphal Scene the entire student body, about 200 kids aged six to eleven years old, trooped in surrounding the audience, all in vaguely Egyptian themed costumes including one girl dressed as a pyramid. Three trumpets supplemented the piano accompaniment.  I was sitting on a stool so the public could see over me. As all those children all prepared to sing, one of my own Grade Three eight boys was standing close and directly behind me. There is a long ascending scale that precedes the chorus’ first notes and as I gave the downbeat for the singing to begin he came in singing forte, right in my ear, with the correct rhythm and words but with notes which were a good fifths lower than those Verdi had written and so had nothing to do with the harmony. It was a little unnerving. The kid, incidentally, is now a commercial pilot. His job description doesn't include singing in tune. The Aida and Amneris went on to be leading lights in the Hamilton Children's Choir. The Radames eventually went to seminary and is now a Presbyterian Minister and stand-up. 

When the King of Egypt asked Radames what he wanted as a reward for leading the winning army against the Ethiopians, the boy turned to the audience and announced, "I'd like to hear the Toreador Song from Carmen sung by John Fanning!" Met Opera Singer John Fanning, our special guest,  stepped from the wings and sang it. He was dressed as an elephant with a rubber mask trunk which made him look more like a giant mouse. 

Needless to say, the production was a hit. To be fair, most elementary school shows, regardless of their artistic merits, are considered to be entrancing by audiences made up mostly of the performers’ families.

The Grande Théatre de Genève TV production (Mezzo.TV) with which I began was pretty unconventional. It’s an important opera house, but a small one with fewer that 1000 seats. There were no animals. The chorus and orchestra were relatively small. Acrobats replaced all the dancing. 

All the Egyptians were made up with a blue stripe across their eyes. The King of Egypt’s bald head was painted gold. The costumes were all over the place, stylistically.  Some might have been strangely dressed ancient Egyptians but others wore glitzy quasi-nineteenth century uniforms. In the Nile Scene, Radames, in a leather jacket and dark trousers, might have walked in off the street in Geneva. Some of the female choristers wore headpieces so big they block out the view of performers standing behind them. 

For all that, the staging was pretty conventional. As you would imagine in such a venue, the solo singers were all very good. The Amneris, Anna Smirnova, was sensational with huge, beautiful voice. The Amonasro, Alexey Markov also sang and acted masterfully. I'd spend big money to hear either of them sing live. The normal sized chorus did a fine job.

If you get a chance to see this production on the flat screen, take it. You can spread if out over a couple of nights as we did. 

However it's produced, the Verdi's opera transcends. Nothing diminishes the power of what many regard as Verdi’s greatest opera and is my favourite of all his works. 

Copyright © 2020 David S. Fawcett


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