The events surrounding tenor Roberto Alagna's departure from La Scala's new production of Verdi's Aida in December 2006 caused such a furore that all discussion of the merits and flaws of both the staging and the singing seemed to go out of the window. This DVD release of the first performance of the run - the one before Alagna walked off after being booed for his rendition of 'Celeste Aida' - allows us to redress the balance.
In fact, it turns out to be rather predictable, ordinary, and even a little boring. Franco Zeffirelli's designs are typical of the lavish, golden fare he's been presenting for decades. But for all their beauty and grandeur in the large-scale numbers, the sets are overblown and don't allow for much intimacy in the duets, arias and trios. I like the fact that the incarceration scene is staged with respect for Ghislanzoni's instructions in the libretto, but otherwise Zeffirelli doesn't seem to have directed the singers beyond telling them vaguely where to stand. There's little attempt to explore their motivations, and such dramatic moments as Amneris' manipulation of Aida in Act II, Scene 1, pass by without any psychological fireworks. When will a director realise that this isn't a boring opera and have the courage to stage it accordingly? Choreography which could have come out of Cats and a very strange hairstyle for Amonasro compound the issue.
It doesn't help that the director of the filming of the DVD decided to cover the screen with a close-up of a piece of one of the singers' costumes wafting about approximately every two minutes. I think the idea is to mark the entrance or exit of each character with visual punctuation, but it's highly irritating and distracting: for instance, when Aida goes searching for her father amongst the Ethiopian prisoners in the Act II finale, a shot of fabric is superimposed on top of the action so that we can't see what's happening.
Although she doesn't quite have the easy legato at the upper end of the soprano register (having previously sung mainly mezzo roles), Violeta Urmana's performance as Aida is the best thing about this DVD as far as I'm concerned. She easily stands out from the rest of the cast as the only singer with a feel for the drama in Verdi's vocal line. There's considerable excitement whenever Urmana is on the stage, and her thrilling delivery makes her a substantial opponent to Amneris (indeed one can't help but feel that had Urmana been in the same situation as Aida, she'd have triumphed not died). The DVD is worth having for her performance, if nothing else. (Read our recent interview with Violeta Urmana here.)
I've long admired Roberto Alagna's voice, which seems to me to be richer and more distinctive than most other tenors of his generation can boast. Nevertheless, I wish he'd stick to the lyrical roles - the ardent lovers - which show off his talents at their finest. He sings freshly here as Radamès and is at his most effective in Act III, but I think the role best suits someone with more heft. It has to be said, though, that the strange make-up and costume he's given don't help him to portray the noble warrior as expressively as Alagna is probably capable of doing.
For me, Carlo Guelfi is inadequate as Amonasro, not coming close to playing the Ethiopian king with any conviction (look how he bungles the physical brawl with Radamès in Act III) and lacking the golden baritone needed to carry off 'Ma tu, o re' satisfactorily. While Ildiko Komlosi throws a lot of energy into the role of Amneris, she has a lack of accuracy and refinement and isn't enough of a match for Urmana's brilliantly portrayed Aida to convince as the vengeful and scheming princess. Giorgio Giuseppini's Ramfis actually comes closer to true Verdian style, and both Marco Spotti's King and Antonello Ceron's King are above average.
Riccardo Chailly, one of my favourite Verdians, summons up all kinds of fiery sounds from the La Scala orchestra. Just occasionally I disagree with tempo choices, for instance the rather slow delivery of Amonasro's scena material just before he launches into 'Ma tu, o re', but these fade into insignificance when one hears the blazing orchestral interjections in the third and fourth acts. It's a shame that Chailly and Urmana (and to an extent Alagna) aren't blessed with better colleagues, because their contributions are special; on the whole, though, this is a rather ordinary, old-fashioned Aida.