Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Symphony Preview: Walk (and sing) like an Egyptian with "Aida" at Powell Hall, May 7 and 9, 2015

Share on Google+

The on-line version of the Oxford Dictionary defines a "potboiler" as a "book, painting, or recording produced merely to make the writer or artist a living by catering to popular taste." Verdi's 1871 opera "Aida," a concert version of which closes the St. Louis Symphony season this weekend, probably meets that definition to some extent since it started out as a purely commercial endeavor. But Verdi quickly became enthusiastic about the project, and "Aida" transcended its origins.

Verdi conducting "Aida" in Paris, 1881
Commissioned by Isma'il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt from 1863 to 1879, "Aida" had its premiere on Christmas Eve 1871 at the Khedive's new 850-seat grand opera house in Cairo. As befitted the occasion, it was a massive, eye-popping spectacle—a "grand opera" in the tradition of Meyerbeer with elaborate (and historically accurate) sets and costumes by French Egyptologist Auguste Ferdinand Mariette who had written the story that was the basis for Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto. Verdi was reportedly annoyed that the Cairo audience was strictly limited to critics and dignitaries, though, and is said to have regarded the opera's first non-Egyptian performance—in Milan at La Scala in 1872—as the work's "real" premiere.

"Aida" is more than just spectacle, of course. The story, as Julian Budden writes in the 1989 edition of Stanley Sadie's "History of Opera," "is unusually simple, presenting the time-honored conflict of love versus duty in time of war...set forth in a score in which the various elements—grandeur, exotic pictorialism, and intimate poetry—are held in perfect equilibrium and from which not a single note can be cut."

Not surprisingly, then, popular and critical acclaim followed hard upon the Milan opening. As Paul Schiavo writes in his SLSO program notes, "subsequent productions...quickly placed Aida in the forefront of the operatic repertory. It has never relinquished its position there, and seems unlikely ever to do so."

Much of this is due to the fact that Verdi was a thoroughgoing man of the theatre with a keen sense of what would and would not work in performance. "At all stages of the formation of the libretto," wrote Gordon Stewart in his notes for the classic 1962 recording of "Aida" with Leontyne Price, "Verdi altered, suggested, removed. He was always a bully where librettists were concerned, but he had never indulged himself as much as he did in 'Aida'. Not only was the general shape of the opera, the interplay of the human relationships, his concern, but the details of the words—the rhythms of the verse and even whole lines—owe something to him."

Album cover of the 1962 "Aida"
You can see that in the detailed 92-page production book (disposizione scenica) for "Aida" which, as Roger Savage and Will Crutchfield observe (in Sadie, op. cit.) "is virtually a moment-by-moment dramatic analysis" that is "essentially the work of Verdi himself." The book includes "the most detailed directions for the exact composition of processions and scenes of pageantry...with stage movement and interpretive directions running right through the solo arias (even including the number of steps to be taken)." You can see a sample page at the web site of Verdi's publisher, Ricordi. Verdi never went as far as Wagner, with his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (roughly, "total work of art") in which the composer was responsible for every aspect of the work, but he certainly came close.

You don't get all that in a concert performance, of course, but the SLSO isn't going to ask you to rely entirely on your mind's eye. According to the SLSO web site, the concerts will be "enhanced by innovative lighting projection by designer S. Katy Tucker...a renowned artist known for her design work at Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Opera, Sydney Symphony and more." In a promotional video, SLSO music director David Robertson says that as a result "Powell Hall will be transformed into this incredible sort of temple of music and evocation of the magic landscape that Verdi created."

Given that none of our local opera companies have the stage facilities for something as grandiose as "Aida," this is probably the closest we're likely to get to a full production in St. Louis without hopping into Dr. Who's TARDIS and traveling back to 1917, when the opera was presented at the Municipal Theatre (now The Muny) in Forest Park.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soprano Lucrecia Garcia, and an international roster of soloists in a complete concert performance of Verdi's "Aida" Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., May 7 and 9. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center and the Saturday performance will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio. For more information:

No comments: