Friday, March 30, 2018

AIDAN LANG INTRODUCES AIDA

Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang introducing Seattle Opera's upcoming production of Aida. Lang debunks some of the myths attached to Verdi’s masterpiece, explores the complicated genesis and nationality of the opera, and explains how Verdi’s musical representation of patriotism evolved over the course of his lifelong experience of Italian unification. Aida plays at Seattle Opera for nine performances, May 5-19.

Hello, everyone, it’s Aidan Lang here, this time of course I’m talking about our next production, which is Verdi’s Aida.

It is an immensely popular piece. Why is that? I think the scale is number one. The fact that it is a grand opera, in many ways the grandest of grand operas, is very attractive. It’s not often we get to see operas of that scale. That’s a key to the popularity.

I’m often asked, “Are there elephants onstage?” Well, there are no elephants in the score. Having one of the world’s most dangerous animals on our stage would not be a wise idea. But this piece isn’t about elephants. I never quite understood productions where vast hordes of treasure are brought in, because they haven’t sacked Ethiopia; they’ve cut off an attack on Egypt. It’s one of those instances where those arena productions tend to completely distort the reality of the situation. What Verdi wrote was that some handmaidens bring in some trinkets, not whopping great big gold icons.

The narrative of Aida is fairly clean and clear-cut. It also has a lot of very memorable musical moments: it has big choruses, ballet sequences in it; it’s the piece which most of all feeds the conventional stereotype of what a big opera should be. And that’s not a bad thing, either.

Having said that, we must be careful. The danger is, Aida gets blown out of all proportion. The Cairo Opera House, where it was first presented, was a relatively small building. It wasn’t Verona. If you have these vast arena stages, are great for the spectacle of the Triumphal Scene; but when you have a duet with just two people onstage, you lose all that intimacy. And most of the opera really is this intimate, intense series of encounters between Aida, Radames, and Amneris.

The real strength of Aida is that embedded within this grand opera framework is a very intimate tale. What always surprises me when I hear Aida done well is how much soft singing there is. We always think of the loud moments of Aida; but a lot of the writing (for that character herself) requires delicate pianos and sensitivity. There’s a very, very human love triangle, essentially, at the core of a much wider political framework, which is what gives rise to the grandeur of the opera.

Aida is a challenge for any opera company to put on, purely in terms of numbers. It always boils down to numbers. And this production, directed by Francesca Zambello, is in fact a co-production; it originated in San Francisco Opera, and then Washington National Opera did it in September. And we’re now doing it in May. So it took three opera companies and their resources to get a production of this scale on. That’s the bald mathematics of opera economies today. It has large choruses, onstage musicians, a relatively large orchestra, dancers; this all tops up and these all need rehearsing, they all need costuming, and so it becomes a challenge, purely at a resource level, to provide operas of this scale on a regular basis. And certainly collaborating with our partners in San Francisco and D.C. makes it manageable for all three companies.

Spectacle for spectacle’s sake, that’s certainly not what Verdi intended. But at the same time, he was writing for a special occasion. He was writing for commission, and part of that decision to present what’s fundamentally a French grand opera was due to the circumstances of the expectations of that commission.

There are an awful lot of myths and legends about Aida, so I guess we should put some of them straight. No, it wasn’t commissioned to open the Suez Canal; actually, what happened was, Verdi was approached to write an anthem for that ceremony, which he turned down. But it was the intention that Verdi should write an opera for the opening of the opera house in Cairo.

Egypt was at the time, in the 1860s and 1870s, an offshoot of the Ottoman Empire. It was ruled by—I guess we’d call it the equivalent of a Viceroy, the Khedive. In order to celebrate the opening of the opera house, the Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, was a great fan of Verdi, and desperately wanted Verdi to write a new opera to celebrate that theater. Verdi was reticent; he was very, very fussy about what projects he took on, in his later years. And it took persuasion, especially from the director of the Opéra-Comique, Camille Du Locle, who had worked with him on Don Carlos, to win him round to find a suitable subject. It’s not totally clear where the subject came from. It’s generally ascribed to the Egyptologist and Director of the relatively new Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, a Frenchman called August Mariette, who concocted a scenario. August’s scenario was then fleshed out and turned into a libretto by the librettist of Verdi’s choice, Antonio Ghislanzoni, who also was the librettist for revisions made to The Force of Destiny.

Verdi was, first of all, really interested in the Egyptian aspects. He wanted to know details of the ceremonies. One amusing thing: he was very concerned that the singers not have beards! You know, Italian opera singers of the nineteenth century tended to sport exceedingly lavish beards, and he was told that Egyptian men at the time did not have beards. This was a very sticking-point for him: a no-beard opera! As he went on, once he got into the meat of the subject, and once he warmed to the human story, it’s clear, as we see from some of his letters, how his heart went into the human narrative, rather than the Egyptian detail.

We need to understand and remember that the study of antiquities was a pretty new thing in those days. We take it for granted: with our Tutankhamun exhibitions which go around the world! And there’s no self-respecting museum which doesn’t have a Department of Antiquities. But this was new, in the middle of the nineteeth century. Verdi wanted to be as current with the thinking as possible. It’s very easy for us to think that it’s about being Egyptian. And really this piece is not about being Egyptian; it’s a piece about the notion of patriotism, and especially the pull between duty to your country and duty to your feelings and the struggle which both Radames and Aida feel, torn between those two conflicting emotions. And that’s really for Verdi the reason why he wrote the piece. When you’re in the theater, you’re grabbed first and foremost by the human tales.

What one looks for in casting Aida to make it interesting is people who are stage animals and who are alert to the textual nuances and can make characters who can—certainly, Aida and Radames can on the surface, can seem a little bit less than three-dimensional—can really inhabit these characters and bring out the inner struggles and the battle between duty and personal feeling which is also inherent in the plot. And the third character in the mix is of course Amneris, the most interesting character, the one who lives on, lives on in agony about the death which she has brought onto the man she loves, Radames.

One of the most remarkable things about this score is it actually demands something which would have been very unusual in the nineteenth century, and that is a split-level set, which was not within the painted dropcloths of standard nineteenth-century theatrical form. Opera is full of love triangles and this is a fascinating instance where we see it visually. We see the three people, in a triangle, vertically, rather than just three people on the same horizontal plane on a stage. That Verdi himself came up with the concept of the split level shows that subsconsciously he was seeing this relationship graphically between the three characters. Visually we have the two dying lovers in a tomb below, and Amneris is written to be above, and we see her agony as she has entombed the man she loves so dearly. And she lives on, and she lives on with her pain. We feel her pain at the end. More so, in a sense, than the peace which Aida and Radames have found in death. It’s a very open ending, which I think is also why it’s intriguing and debatable, as to what the piece is about and what it means. And therefore, part of its enduring fascination.

What’s interesting to ask is: To what nation does this opera belong? On the one hand, it’s actually modeled on a French grand opera. Its inspiration came from Paris; he had written Don Carlos, he had written The Sicilian Vespers. One aspect he didn’t like about French grand opera was that the composer was constricted by the demands of the genre itself. Verdi was much more free-thinking than that. So in a sense what he’s written is a French grand opera but filtered through the aesthetic and musical language of an Italian. It’s an Italian opera, it’s not a French opera.

And is it Egyptian? Well, yes, he puts a little tinta of something which is an invented ‘Egyptian’ musical style. How could anyone know what Egyptian music sounded like in the years B.C.? It’s entirely fabricated. Yet it’s interesting how that aspect of what one might term ‘local color’ simply doesn’t exist in Nabucco, which is clearly an Italian opera.

I think one of the really fascinating things about Aida is the question of what’s it about. At the end of the day this is an opera about what it is to be patriotic. But what is fascinating is the way at the time of composition, for Verdi, that had changed.

There are a lot of similarities between Aida and the much earlier work, Nabucco. We performed Nabucco two or three years ago, and I think we explained very clearly how, with the rise of Italian nationalism, the nationalists found a flag-carrier, if you like, for their cause within Nabucco and, specifically, the feelings and cause of the Israelite people.

What is happening in the nationalist movement in Italy, between Nabucco and Aida? What happened, in 1861, was the unification of Italy. There’s something of an irony that in Nabucco, the big number is “Va, pensiero,” where our sympathies go to the Israelite people. Whereas the big tune in Aida is the Triumphal March, which is very militaristic and written in the style of a conquering imperialist force; opposed to where one thinks Verdi’s natural sympathies lay.

Within the monumentalism of the Triumphal Scene, it’s hard not to feel that Verdi is in some way showing the darker side to imperialism. When patriotism takes its next stage and moves towards institutionalized national fervor, as opposed to a national fervor borne of an oppressed people.

Exactly where the audience’s sympathy lies, of course lies with you, the audience. Verdi’s sympathies really lie with the character of Aida. In Verdi, already ten years after the unification of Italy, what we see is what always follows in the aftermath of a great struggle, and eventual release and formation of a republic, is that the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of government kick in. Whereas twenty years before Italy is formed, we see in Nabucco the patriotism and the side Verdi is taking in that opera, here I think he’s much more ambivalent. I think his sympathies go to the natural underdog, which is Aida and the Ethiopians. Although he’s writing a commission for Egypt, built into the work is a criticism of the imperialist tendencies of Egypt. This production by Francesca Zambello makes that very clear. The Egyptians are costumed with a hint of the later nineteenth-century pomp of imperialism, whereas the Ethiopians are costumed more in the light of insurgents. The production makes that every evident, for the audience. So this is why I think the piece is quite complex to put your finger on really what it’s about.

From a cast perspective, it is a challenge, because you need four really good Verdian singers. In Aida, you need fundamentally a dramatic soprano but one who is capable of moments of great subtlety and fragility. Amneris is one of the great mezzo roles. I think it’s the role which probably the singers most enjoy doing. Radames is an interesting character; it needs a tenor who is at the one strong and heroic, but is also capable of flexibility and nuanced emotion as well. In Amonasro, the father to Aida, again we need a baritone really of the Rigoletto-mold; you need a top Verdian baritone with a high tessitura, with a dramatic intensity which we expect of Verdi baritone roles. So although the singers are obviously out there, because the piece is performed so often, nonetheless you do need to get the casting right, so that the piece is served vocally.

As Aida, it’s my great pleasure to give a debut to Leah Crocetto, who actually sang this production in San Francisco, and in fact helped out in D.C. as well, where one of her colleagues fell sick. And of course she’s coming back to us for Il trovatore as well. So it’s great to give her a debut. And she is partnered up front by Alexandra LoBianco, who of course was with us as Donna Anna in 2014, and has really made great strides. She’s made a triumphant debut at the Vienna State Opera as Leonore in Fidelio, has sung this role before, and it’s great, really, to feature a young dramatic soprano who is really now taking off and seeing her career propelled. We’ve got two really good young singers who are age-appropriate to the character, and it’s very exciting to feature them both on our stage.

Our two tenors, both also making their debuts: Brian Jagde actually also sang the role in San Francisco, as it turned out. He is really now beginning to take off on a world stage, so we were really lucky to catch him and book him now at this stage. Brian is partnered by a Canadian tenor making his Seattle Opera debut, David Pomeroy. This is a role debut for David. He’s been singing in Europe, making his debut as Florestan and Tannhäuser, and again we feel it’s just the right point in his career to take on this role.

Our two Amonasros are Gordon Hawkins—it’s great to have Gordon back, and of course he actually made his Seattle Opera debut as Amonasro, back in 1992. And we saw him quite recently as Nabucco. Alfred Walker also comes back; he was with us for Flying Dutchman, as well as playing the villains in The Tales of Hoffmann back in 2014. So it’s great to have two faces who we know.

But we have two debut-makers for Amneris as well. Milijana Nikolic is Serbian-Australian; I’ve seen her do this role, fantastically, in Sydney. She was over, singing at the Met, and just flew back to Australia via Seattle, thought she’d come audition for us. She’s something else, I tell you. She was delighted to come and be with us. And a debut also for Elena Gabouri, who’s no stranger to this role; she’s sung it many times, including at Verona and throughout Europe. She’s likewise quite a stage animal. So we know we’re in very good hands.

And the final, very important role, is Ramfis the High Priest. We once more have Daniel Sumegi on our stage; another Australian, in fact! And again, this is a role that suits Dan’s presence onstage so well, it’s going to be fantastic with him in it.

Our conductor, John Fiore, well! For those of you with long memories know that John started out, when he was 14, playing as répétiteur on Seattle’s Ring cycle, and did so for many years! He’s an extraordinary musician. He has conducted everything in his career. He’s been in Europe for a long time; conducted Deutsche Oper am Rhein, in Düsseldorf, and then more recently as the music director in Oslo, in Norway, which I think he left last year. And is coming to conduct more back in the States, so it’s like a “Welcome Home” for John. John’s father, of course, was George Fiore, who was the chorusmaster here at Seattle Opera for many, many years. So John would, I think, admit that he has a spiritual home here in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s also great to have on our stage another Francesca Zambello production, and of course Porgy and Bess, which begins next season, is hers as well. Francesca over the years has done many things for us; one remembers her Billy Budd and Florencia en el Amazonas. War and Peace is the production about which so many people have asked, “When are you bringing back War and Peace?” I’m afraid the sets were destroyed many, many years ago, but the piece lives long in people’s memory. Francesca is brilliant at large-scale productions; in her work always finds that balance between the detail of the work with the individual characters but is especially impressive at putting that work within the context of big scenes, big issues embedded in those scenes. It’s great to have this production by Francesca on our stage.

One feature of it is the choreography by the highly-acclaimed contemporary choreographer Jessica Lang (no relation). Jessica’s work is brilliant in this. It brings to it a sort of lyricism. The dances are celebratory. It’s not just in the written ballet sequences, we see the dances at one or two other moments as well. It gives a curiously poetic quality to an action which can feel rather military and strong. I think it’s a beautiful balance, the use of music and dance, is a beautiful balance against some of the way we perceive this work. It also features a fabulous routine for nine boy-dancers, we don’t often have those on our stage. They’re part of the entertainment for the ladies in Amneris’ circle. The lads have to be somewhere between classical and hip-hop, really! The dance moves, almost from bar to bar, change style. It’s very, very physical, I’ve spoken to one or two of them, I said, “You’re in for a lot of rehearsal.” It adds an interesting gloss: while the men are away at the battle, these boys are dressed up in uniforms; they’re being groomed also, in this highly military society, they’re being groomed to be the soldiers of tomorrow.

And of course we can’t finish without talking about the design. Interesting concept here, because we actually have two set designers. The scenic framework is by the highly distinguished American designer Michael Yeargan. But Michael’s works are filled in with panels designed by what I think one might term a graffitti artist, who goes by the name of Retna, a Los Angeles-based artist. These images are really inspired by the hieroglyphics of Egyptian art, but are in no way are copies of that, they have their own language. The visual motif, if you like, is captured brilliantly, and there’s a vibrant use of color. It’s a modern take on the ancient source of the story. And some of the costumes, especially those of the ladies by Anita Yavich, are very beautiful. Amneris and her court especially capture the exquisite luxury which you feel, especially in a nineteenth-century context, and at the same time she captures very well the imperialist force behind the Egyptians and the insurgent quality of the Ethiopian forces. So the military battle if you like is very clearly defined by the costumes as well.

So that’s Aida. It’s a fascinating work. It’s a work which, when you really probe into it, deeper than its surface, raises all sorts of questions about where Verdi’s allegiances were. What are we meant to feel at the end, with this open ending of a suffering character. It’s a work which has been performed consistently since it’s premiere, and we’re thrilled to have it on our stage. I hope you enjoy it.

1 comment:

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