Tag: the Met

Whither Aida?

Two vastly different, but related experiences of grandeur, have got me thinking about the value of big productions, culturally and otherwise. The Canadian Opera Company opened its latest season October 2nd with a startling, strangely unmoving production of Verdi’s Aida. The company, headed by the brilliant Alexander Neef, has seen an upswing in its popularity among younger culture vultures of the city (so much so that local fave Broken Social Scene will be headling their annual fundraising ball) while keeping their vital older subscriber base happy -until now, anyway. The production of Aida on now manages to confuse, infuriate, and perhaps worst of all… bore.

Like any good opera-goer, I’ve seen my share of staged Aidas -mainly at the Met, it should be noted, with live animals & a chorus numbering in the hundreds. Budget?!, you want to shriek when the gold-leaf-everythings are wheeled in alongside blinding elephants and bored-looking horses, what budget? Aida isn’t staged too often precisely because it’s so expensive, and often, the baggage that travels with it isn’t just the kind you can see. And the magic of the romance inherent within the tale gets lost amidst the grandeur. The tale of the Ethiopian slave-princess and her doomed love affair with the Egyptian captain Radames is Big Operatic Melodrama -which is fine -though coupled with Verdi’s stirring, awesome score, means you have the makings of an audience full of expectations: the set should be big, the emoting should be grand, the orchestra should be really, really loud. Right? Wrong, or so says director Tim Albery and COC music director Johannes Debus. Albery has purposely shied away from the Big Everything approach, eschewing grandeur in favour of story, subtext, and even meta-theatrical musings on the nature of performer-audience relations.

So there’s no Egyptophilia here, which would be a refreshing change if Albery’s production wasn’t so intent on going in the contrary direction for the sake of it. It’s a noble instinct to try to re-define an old operatic chestnut, but the idea kills the emotion. Set in some 1980s Trump-like super-state, where the Egyptian politicos are in tailored suits (a la Mad Men) and the ladies are trussed up like gaudy pseudo-Ivana cyborgs, the delicacy and beauty of both the story and the music are nearly lost. Nearly. Thank heavens (make that Isis) for Debus’ stunningly keen musical direction. Never have I heard such a beautiful, stirring, poetic rendering of Verdi’s score as here. It greatly helps that the cast, lead by the utterly awesome Sondra Radvanovsky (making her COC debut) are fantastic. Radvanovsky’s delicate, heartfelt approach to the material is gorgeous.

If only the same could be said of Albery’s direction, which positively reeks of over-stylization and heavy-handedness. While I enjoyed his underlining of the horrors of colonialism during the triumphal march, the gold-lame-come-stripper priestesses and humping skeletons did little to add to one’s understanding or appreciation of Ghislanzoni‘s libretto; the whole concept felt forced, insipid, and arrogant -and playing right into the kind of grandeur it was supposedly turning its back on.

In my next blog, I’ll be detailing the big event that did move me deeply -one that openly embraced largeness, and used it to incredible effect to create a sense of intimacy and wonder. Stay tuned…

Aida Photo Credits: © 2010 Michael Cooper

Saturday with Pav

My childhood was full of music. As well as taking lessons myself, I was surrounded by the holy trinity of Elvis, Abba and opera (with a good measure of Johnny Cash thrown in too). Classical music, and opera, was, and remains a huge passion of my mother’s; she was a childhood singer who, through circumstance, was forced to move away from singing. That “thwarted soprano” ethos informed and drove her passion for opera throughout her life, and deeply influenced not only her choice of husband (a musician, natch) but the way she chose to raise her only child.

My Saturday afternoon were filled with the sounds of the Metropolitan Opera blasting out of every radio in the house. When portable radio players became the rage, I remember walking around the supermarket, thoroughly embarrassed over her swooning along, past aisles of tinned beans and dried pasta, headphones wrapped around her head, the melifluous sounds of opera tinnily emanating from the tiny speakers. There were also innumerable nights spent watching the “Live From The Met” specials, and trying to figure out how to work the then-new VCRs in order to ensure repeated-viewing rhapsody. Every month or so we’d also go to the O’Keefe Centre to watch the latest German/Italian/English spectacle; I barely knew what was going on sometimes (these were the days before surtitles) but I knew the music, having heard it already all those Saturday afternoons.

One of my mother’s operatic dreams was realized when, in the 90s, we traveled to New York City and saw Luciano Pavarotti onstage. He was in L’elisir D’Amore, the opera that happens to be on my radio this afternoon. My memories around this opera are deeply tied to seeing the Pav perform it live many years ago. Though it’s a silly little piece of pseudo-buffa, it has some gorgeous music, and it takes a real presence to bring any kind of levity to the material. Pavarotti brought it (duh); there was a noticeable, and rather incredible hush that descended over the sold-out crowd the minute he stepped onstage. He wasn’t singing at the introduction – just standing there -but he was fully present, in every sense. And his smile lit up the room. I remember turning to my mother, and she had that same huge smile. Then he opened his mouth, and this… sound came out. I’ve never been able to quite describe it, but seeing him live (more than once) remains a treasured, beautiful memory on many levels.

This clip, with Pavarotti singing the gorgeous (and famous) aria from L’elisir with just a piano is incredible for the way he utterly inhabits the music -not just the words, but the music itself, encapsulating all of its passion and wisdom, making a merely silly little love song into a transcendent meditation for the ages. Grazie, Pav.

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